Staying Rational in a World of Tweets, Fake News, Alternative Facts and Sound Bites

by William P. Hall 

( based on a presentation at Vic Skeptics Café, 19 June 2017 at the Clyde Hotel, Carlton, Vic)

Today we are living in a world of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and blogs where anyone (even President Trump) can instantly post their ideas to the world for essentially no cost. We are also living in dangerous times where exploding human populations and technologies are affecting the planet’s climate and natural resources where extreme concentrations of wealth and power, warfare, epidemics, climate extremes, ecological collapses and famine threaten humanity’s survival. Unsurprisingly there are often conflicts between vested interests seeking wealth, power and control versus those concerned with the futures of our descendents and of humanity in general. Both are heavy users of the new media.

Because the new media makes it so easy, anyone can bombard the rest of us with ideas that they want us to believe. Many of us now accept this flood of unedited personal claims from these self-publishers as “news”. The recent US election has provided us with new words to describe extreme aspects of the phenomenon: “fake news” and “alternative facts”, together with older terms such as spin, truthiness that can lead to “post truth politics”. How do we stay rational in the face of this blizzard of information and misinformation?

The presentation could apply to many different issues facing 21st Century society, e.g., religious fundamentalism vs evolution and science, public health benefits/harms of vaccination, almost any political or economic issue of real importance. However, global warming which pits science against some easily identifiable vested interests is the most topical.

The great majority of qualified scientists accept that global warming is a real phenomenon (“warmists”) and focus on understanding the consequences of various physical drivers on climate. A few scientists and many less qualified people (“deniers”) argue against warmist science and work to repudiate and deny that global warming occurs, or that humans have anything to do with it.

If the warmists are correct, humanity faces a climatic crisis that is at least as dangerous to our future as global nuclear war. I argue that attempts to deny the warming crisis are driven by the vast current value of proven fossil fuel reserves (~20 – 100 TRILLION dollars) that will become essentially worthless of concerns about greenhouse gas emissions prohibit burning carbon for energy production. Owners of production facilities and reserves will be prepared to spend large fractions of this to preserve as much of the net value as possible.

Methods developed initially by tobacco industry and adopted by other industries to obfuscate science include:

• Manufacture uncertainty about scientific evidence.
• Launder (and even fake) information to make the industry’s own case and confuse the public.
• Promote scientific spokespeople and invest in “scientific” research to lend legitimacy to their public relations efforts.
• Recast the debate to claim that concerns are not based on “sound” science.
• Influence government members and officials to block support for and/or censor work that is unfavorable to the industry’s interests.

An example of how this works is provided by Malcolm Roberts (Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party Senator from Queensland). For years Roberts has attacked the science of global warming. He quickly used his new position in the Senate to directly attack CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology  From another point of view, Roberts’ words also expose deniers’ motives and methods they use to attack the science.

How we can navigate our way through the morass of claim and counter-claim to construct a rational understanding of the world to guide our decisions?

We need to consider what are belief, knowledge, and truth. For me, evolutionary epistemology as developed by Karl Popper (1972, Objective Knowledge) provides guidance. Popper accepts the biological evidence that it is impossible to know whether any claim about the world is “true” or not. “Knowledge” is mental models of the world constructed through a cyclical process of prediction, trial of the predictions against reality, and the elimination of those predictions that fail to match the observed results. The closest we can get to truth is that our constructed models correspond to reality. In other words, accept all claims to know are potentially fallible, test all claims against the external (real) world, discard beliefs that do not conform to reality.

If what climate science tells us about global warming accurately predicts reality, humanity faces an existential crisis that demands urgent action from all levels of society from multi-national global down to our own individual levels. Yet the deniers claim this is all lies and fake news. We risk possible extinction or bankruptcy if we make the wrong choices.

Who are we to believe? To rationally evaluate claims and counterclaims understand the differences between scientifically supported claims and those merely asserted or supported only by personal belief or faith.

The formal construction of scientific knowledge that is considered to be “safe to use” involves at least three cycles of trial and error research and criticism against the real world – theory development at the individual level, cross-checking and testing at the group level, and formal review at the discipline level before formal publication. Published claims continue to be tested every time someone attempts to apply the claim in practice.
To guard against fake news, alternative facts, fraud and the like, criticize the claims:

• Would it affect your decision?
• Is it physically plausible?
• Is it logically connected with reality?
• Has it been intersubjectively validated by a consensus of peers, applied in practice?
• Is the source qualified? With a track record of reliability?
• Is the source likely to be biased by particular vested interests?

2 Responses to Staying Rational in a World of Tweets, Fake News, Alternative Facts and Sound Bites

  1. mandtmarsh says:

    Really? Someone using the false dichotomy and the term “deniers” claiming to be on the side of reason, rationality, skepticism and science?
    Give me a break.

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