Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Thinking about the decay of information quality in public fora

UNESCO was founded in recognition that wars begin in the minds of men. It was chartered to work to build the defenses of peace in the minds of men. It seems to me that:
  • In war leaders often make hugely erroneous forecasts of what will happen. Think of Napoleon's France and Hitler's Germany deciding to attack Russia, or Georgia deciding to secede from the Union in 1860.
  • Wars sometimes are justified by false beliefs. Think of the U.S. invasion of Iraq based on the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and refused to decommission them.
UNESCO was founded in 1945 in the aftermath of World War II. It is not surprising that looking back at tens of millions of deaths in world wars and at the beginning of the atomic age, people were concerned with the prevention of wars.

Today we know more about the impact of mankind on the environment We can see (using satellite remote sensing) the warming of the atmosphere and oceans, the rise of the ocean surface, massive deforestation and desertification. Today we realize that the defenses of the environment must also be built in the minds of men.

I would guess that one step would be to improve information literacy -- the ability to judge the credibility of information.
  • Some information is very credible. We know that Obama is president of the USA, and that Bush preceded him in that office. That is common knowledge, and we have seen the inauguration ceremonies. However, we will never know exactly how many votes Bush and Gore received respectively in Florida presidential election of 2000, since the Supreme Court halted the recount of those votes; we do know fairly accurately what those 2000 Florida vote counts were because the votes were counted initially by institutions we trust, but with an accepted error rate.
  • Similarly, we are sure of the population of the United States to a fair degree of accuracy because a census was conducted in 2010 by a trusted institution, the Bureau of the Census. The field of demographics is well developed and we can trust the projection of the census data. On the other hand, we also know that the census data could have been improved using known techniques, but the Congress chose to instruct the Census Bureau not to do so.
  • Some information is much less credible. "Talking heads" on television explain what the Russians are planning in Ukraine and what various factions are planning in Iraq. We know that decision making in Russia and Iraq is complicated, and that the parties are taking great care to keep their plans confidential. We know that those in intelligence services of other countries, that are likely to have some knowledge and understanding of those plans, are also not likely to share their knowledge. The television pundits are chosen for their general knowledge but are often wrong.
  • Some data is simply not credible. The source may be distrusted as having misled us in the past, as providing data out of self interest, or simply as uninformed.
One problem today is that people seem to let their ideology get in the way of making reasonable decisions on the credibility of information. Thus:
  • Liberals tend to trust the scientific consensus that human action is causing global warming and that unless the emissions of greenhouse gases are controlled there will be massive environmental damage by the end of the century; conservatives tend to distrust the scientific community's credibility with regard to those claims.
  • Many conservatives tend to trust corporate claims for the safety of agricultural chemicals and genetically modified crops; many liberals believe that organic farming is to be preferred to the use of more modern/commercial inputs; some conservatives and some liberals tend to trust the scientific consensus on the safety of modern farming and the government regulatory process that seeks to assure its safety.
  • Many Christians in the USA believe that the bible, as they and their churches interpret it, to be the most credible source of information, including on such subjects as the origin of species and the age of the earth; many others in the USA (of various faiths) give more credence to the interpretation by scientists of a massive amount of evidence that has accumulated over the last several centuries.
  • Increasingly many conservatives believe the data provided by Fox News to be the most credible available, while many progressives find that provided by MSNBC to be the most credible available, and still others find network news or public broadcasting news most credible.
Of course, history shows us that very active debates may be settled deciding that one side is completely wrong. The Church finally admitted that the sun does not revolve on a celestial sphere around the earth. The debate on slavery was not settled in the United States until after it resulted in the Civil War, in spite of the fact that it was really exploitation of slaves kept in servitude by force by social institutions run by and for an economic (exploiting) elite. When I was a young man, the debate over U.S. involvement in Vietnam was active and even violent; now we know that American political leaders were deliberately misleading the public, and that the "Communist" insurgents in Vietnam would rather quickly install a capitalistic economy.

Today, as I mentioned in a recent post, people seem to be more divided ideologically and politicians less willing to compromise than in recent decades. I suspect that that is partly the result of the dramatic change in the media. There are more television channels than ever before. The Internet has made it possible to read news published all over the world, and social networking to network with a wide variety of people. The result seems to be, at the moment, that people are increasingly seeking out sources of information that share their ideological position, and ignoring other sources. Some of course are doing just the opposite, using the improved access to information to find the most credible. Apparently most are ignoring the most credible sources of information to find those that most loudly proclaim that which the recipient already believes, or at least that which causes least cognitive dissonance with those beliefs.

So What Do We Do?

How do we deal with this perverse trend. One thing is to have "fact checkers" that identify false information in the media. Another is to have good online sources that grade the credibility of sources. Of course, as this article suggests, the technology should also be used to increase the accuracy and precision of information.

I began this post noting the creation of UNESCO. It emphasized at its creation -- and does still today -- education. One of its first projects was to scrub European texts of fascist propaganda. Institutionalizing systems to improve schools and educational materials should continue to be a priority. I think the efforts of special interest groups to dominate school boards and textbook selection committees, where their intent is to promote propaganda for their beliefs rather than to improve the educational quality, should be fought. Schools should increasingly teach information literacy, preparing students to make good choices of sources of information to utilize and data to believe.

Schools should also do a better job teaching decision making. Graduates should understand some of the techniques employed by intelligence agencies to validate information and the credibility of sources. They should understand some of the approaches used by historians in drawing lessons from history relevant to current decision making.  They should understand forecasting, and understand risk analysis. Of course, the level of expertise achieved by a high school graduate will be less than that of a university graduate, which will in turn be less than that of the recipient of a graduate degree. Still, people should be prepared for their future roles as citizens, executives and leaders.

UNESCO has had a long term focus on science, in part because science has institutionalized relatively effective systems for the validation of assertions - fit with theory, deniability, experimental evidence, replicated, and peer review. Again, efforts to assure scientific integrity and to improve the credibility of scientific publications are important. Still, I believe that we should continue to promote science as a source of credible information.

The "C" in UNESCO stands for culture, and it implied originally an emphasis on museums, literature, and other high cultural institutions. These too have an aspect of use of expertise and peer review to assure the credibility of the information that they make available to the public.

I think we must also, as citizens, insist on civil discourse in which people debate ideas and knowledge. The shouting matches that seem so common on the media and in politics sacrifice the production of knowledge for the production of cheap entertainment.

Perhaps too, we should shame those who demean the public discourse. The comedians making fun of the fake news services and "Foghorn Leghorn" style politicians are providing a valuable public service. Debasing the knowledge of the electorate and the market should be seen as a breach of the public trust and fought with the tools available to us.

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