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Fact over Fiction

By John Langford

April 24, 2017

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Politics is a distracting affair which I generally believe it's best to stay out of if you want to be able to concentrate on research. Nevertheless, the U.S. presidential election looks like something that directly politicizes the idea and process of research by damaging the association of scientists and students, funding for basic research, and creating political censorship.

A core question here is: What to do? April 22's March for Science is a good step, but I'm not sure it will change many minds. Unlike most scientists, I grew up in a a county (Linn, OR) which voted overwhelmingly for Trump. As a consequence, I feel like I must translate the mindset a bit. For the median household left behind over my lifetime, a march by relatively affluent people protesting the government cutting expenses will not elicit much sympathy. Discussion about the overwhelming value of science may also fall on deaf ears simply because they have not seen the economic value personally. On the contrary, they have seen their economic situation flat or worsening for four decades with little prospect for things getting better. Similarly, I don't expect history lessons on anti-intellectualism to make much of a dent. Fundamentally, scientists and science fans are a small fraction of the population.

What's needed is a campaign that achieves broad agreement across the population and which will help. One of the roots of the March for Science is a belief in facts over fiction, which may have the requisite scope. In particular, there seems to be a good case that the right to engage in mass disinformation has been enormously costly to the U.S. and is now a significant threat to civil stability. Internally, disinformation is a preferred tool for starting wars or for wealthy companies to push a deadly business model. Externally, disinformation is now being actively used to sway elections and is self-funding.

The election outcome is actually less important than the endemic disagreement that disinformation creates. When people simply believe in different facts about the world how can you expect them to agree? There probably are some good uses of mass disinformation somewhere, but I'm extremely skeptical the value exceeds the cost.

Is opposition to mass disinformation broad enough that it makes a good organizing principle? If mass disinformation was eliminated or greatly reduced, it would be an enormous value to society, particularly to the disinformed. It would not address the fundamental economic stagnation of the median household in the United States, but it would remove a significant threat to civil society which may be necessary for such progress. Given a choice between the right to mass-disinform and democracy, I choose democracy.

A real question is "how"? We are discussing an abridgment of freedom of speech, so from a legal perspective, the basis must rest on the balance between freedom of speech and other constitutional rights. Many abridgements exist, like censuring a yell of "fire" in a crowded theater unnecessarily.

Voluntary efforts (as Facebook and Twitter have undertaken) are a start, but it seems unlikely to go far enough, as many other "news" organizations have made no such commitments. A system where companies commit to informing over disinforming, and in return become both more trusted and simultaneously liable for disinformation damages (due to the disinformed) as assessed by civil law, may make sense. Right now, organizations are mostly free to engage in disinformation, as long as it is not directed at an individual where libel laws apply. Penalizing an organization for individual mistakes seems absurd, but a pattern of errors backed by scientific surveys verifying an anomalously misinformed status of viewers/readers/listeners is cause for action. Getting this right is obviously a tricky thing—we want a solution that a real news organization with an existing mimetic immune system prefers to the status quo because it curbs competitors that disinform. At the same time, there must be enough teeth to make disinformation uneconomical or the problem only grows.

Should disinformation have criminal penalties? One existing approach here uses RICO laws to counter disinformation from tobacco companies. Reading the history, this took an amazing amount of time—enough that it was ineffective for a generation. It seems plausible that an act directly addressing disinformation may be helpful.

What about technical solutions? Technical solutions seem necessary for success, perhaps with changes to law incentivizing this. It's important to understand that something going before the courts is inherently slow, particularly because courts tend to be deeply overloaded. A significant increase in the number of cases going before courts makes an approach nonviable in practice.

Would we regret this? There is a long history of governments abusing laws to censor inconvenient news sources so caution is warranted. Structuring new laws in a manner such that they cannot be abused is an important consideration. It is obviously important to leave satire fully intact which seems entirely possibly by making the fact that it is satire unmistakable. This entire discussion is also not relevant to individuals speaking to other individuals—that is not what creates a problem.

Is this possible? It might seem obvious that mass disinformation should be curbed, but there should be no doubt that powerful forces will work to preserve mass disinformation by subtle and unethical means.

Overall, I fundamentally believe that people in a position to inform or disinform have a responsibility to inform. If they don't want that responsibility, then they should abdicate the position to someone who does, similar in effect to the proposed fiduciary rule for investments. I'm open to any approach towards achieving this.

1 Comments

Cassidy Alan

The author could get a better perspective if he would read. Why Most Published Research is False:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1182327/?tool=pubmed

One implicit premise to the article is that reductions in funding for science is tantamount to censorship. It is not. Censorship is a ban by the biggest institution of coercion in a given territory: the government that claims jurisdiction over it.

Science research funded by involuntary confiscation of resources (aka "taxes"), and by inflationary government debt, is by definition "politicized science", it is not pure. Sure, anybody can apply, but who pays? And who decides?

Politically directed funding is the biggest distortion today.

Now there is also empirical evidence about the very bad consequence of trusting government-funded decision makers:
http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/are-most-medical-studies-wrong/

Hunh. Fake news in medical studies. Who would have thought it? (It's worse than I even thought)

Disinformation is endemic now in academia. Even set aside for a minute the issue of political motivations in funding, and the indisputable fact that funding decisions are political decisions by nature made by people who have their own perspectives and preferences. Big Pharma pays for studies used by FDA for approval or denial. The skepticism shown to corporate studies should also apply to the deciders of grants in governments.

Climate-gate, non-repeatable medical studies, falsification of data, source code hidden from peer review, peer reviewers who enforce conformity, these are problems that are built into current traditional institutions for science.

The wild wild Web is now proving to be a solution to misinformation. Let us call it "fake information". The P versus not P solution offered recently in a Web post was refuted in about 24 hours. Best peer review ever.

The same principle applies to the wider Internet. Misinformation? Look at the long list of historical misinformation below in the traditional news media and press. Note that the most trusted newspapers and media networks propagated these false stories, mostly from government sources..

** Battleship Maine: Culpability still not resolved, a war was fought based on it.
** Gulf of Tonkin: Another war justified based on a later proven false story.
** WMDs in Iraq: Another war justified based on a false intelligence report.
** Wikileaks: NOT ONE of their leaks --begun during the Bush administration-- has been refuted, yet the reports are quashed and their implications denied in traditionally trusted media. It is non-traditional Internet web sites and blogs that have pushed it out into the public conscience. -- Yet the "intellectual class" is pushing back against it.
** FBI Funding myth, that Comey requested more money for the Russia investigation.

With so many false stories coming from places like NYT, Washington Post, CNN, allegations repeated as if they were credible with no evidence at all and stories with evidence ignored, why in the world would anybody think there is a problem with alternative news sources? We should celebrate, for example, that climate scientists have a forum to speak if they disagree with the politically approved dogmas?

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