Blog 113. Information, misinformation and survival

Scientific news magazines now feature articles that reach out, not only to scientists, but to the educated public.  The journal Physics Today, once of interest only to physicists, now has a section entitled People and History.  How come?

Through an interview in Physics Today, astronomer David Helfand explains this public outreach from science. He adopted a personal mission to combat misinformation—the fake information, denial of facts, and pandering to ignorant emotions by political demagogues.  Misinformation is part of a general movement known as the war on science.

Helfand notes that throughout history information has been limited and difficult to access.  However, today the supply of information is almost unlimited, but often of low reliability.  Helfand observes that the internet provides anyone with the opportunity to spread disinformation and misinformation, while the users of the internet focus their attention on information sources that confirm their group identity.  In other words, each person chooses the particular information that supports his politics and affirms (or even to generates?) his sense of belonging to a group!

Approval by a group provides warmth and security.  We’re social animals.  That’s good for a small herd, but is it best for a society of hundreds of millions?

Helfand offers advice for those of us who are (or were) scientists.  When we scientists convey scientific conclusions to nonscientists, he says, we should separate facts (the measurements) from the values of science (reliance on evidence, logical reasoning).  People don’t like preaching about their values.  Perhaps we go to church more for confirmation than for education, although the church can teach values (rules for living) while science can teach only what works.

Does Helfand’s advice mean I’m supposed to broadcast scientific results but remain mum about how and why we got those results?  That’s hard advice to follow.  I happen to think that evidence, measurement, and logic are reliable methods for making societal decisions, much better than crowd-seeking or group-approval or being right by making others wrong (negative advertising).  Obeying Helfand, I’ll try to avoid preaching about the scientific method and just stick to the facts established by science.  (I reserve the privilege of preaching in this blog series, however.)

Helfand’s book, entitled A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind, is intended to help citizens distinguish between good and bad information.  We live in an age of inaccuracies, he says, but science might hold the key to our survival.

How’s that?  Survival?  By science?

Yes.  It’s politically popular to deny scientific facts, but an unintended launch of a nuclear missile could ignite a global holocaust.  Alternatively, continued use of fossil fuels will induce a slow cooking of the ecology.  A little scientific logic might therefore be useful.  Not because it’s morally right, but because it is survival.

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