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The Answer



In the classic “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hitchhiker%27s_Guide_to_the_Galaxy), a super-computer called Deep Thought (after which the IBM computer was named https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep_Thought_%28chess_computer%29) spends about 7 and a half million is looking for the “answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything”. Deep Thought then designed an even more sophisticated computer, which then spent 10 million years trying to figure out the question. For more details, listen to the radio series (excellent!), watch the movie (fair), and read the books (excellent!).


For the moment, the riot at the Capitol in Washington D.C. is on everyone’s minds, and a lot of attention is being paid to what was done, why, and by whom. This will play out over the coming weeks and months, and we will hopefully see those responsible for this terrorist act brought to account, along with those spreading the lies that made the riot sadly predictable.


A broader societal question is around how the lies spread, why some people believe them, and what we can do about it. These are all hard questions which touch on questions of free speech, the responsibility of social media companies for the content posted on their platforms, and the roles played by government, business, the media, and individuals.


At the moment, though, I’m thinking most about how we, as individuals, can protect ourselves from falling for the lies and misinformation which are floating around like a cloud of pollution (or COVID?). Is there a vaccine? A mask? A tool we can use to protect ourselves?


Turns out, there is.


Critical thinking.


Simple, right?


No. Not simple at all, but very important, and something that’s becoming more and more important every day.

Before the Web, our access to information was quite limited, but assessing the quality of that information was relatively easy. We were always told not to use the encyclopedia - I think this was mostly to discourage laziness and encourage active research as a vital skill. Overall, for most things, the encyclopedia was a relatively reliable source of information – at least as a starting-point. Still, we usually had to go looking for books. At the time, it was relatively hard to get published by a reputable publisher, so there was usually at least a minimal level of vetting involved before you could get published. So, we had a relatively limited amount of access to information, but it was relatively easy to assess the quality of that information.


This is not to say that there was not a lot of bullshit out there, or information that was simply wrong – I’m speaking in general terms relative to today.

Now, the problem is inverted. We have near-instant access to incalculable quantities of “information”, but it can be extraordinarily difficult to judge the quality, and it can be very dangerous to accept something at face value. (Even things we think we “know”, as I have mentioned in comments sprinkled through prior posts)


And yet, many people uncritically accept whatever they see, so long as it agrees with their world-view. People now use the word “research”, when they mean that they clicked on a random link and read an opinion – bad enough when someone is honestly incorrect, but far worse when there is so much that is intentionally misleading.


For myself, I often use Wikipedia (https://www.wikipedia.org/) as a first-pass means for vetting information, and a jumping-off point for actual research. It is variable in quality, depending on the topic, but can be a very good reference. For many non-controversial topics, such as established science and history, the articles are excellently-written by experts, and are well-sourced.

Some articles, however, are little more than advertisements, while others are pure propaganda or deliberately misleading. The Wikipedia Foundation does as much as they can to police the platform and ensure the best possible quality, but it’s not hard to find problems. (Can we help with this? Yes. Donate to the Wikimedia foundation! Links are on the main page, or https://donate.wikimedia.org/, or reach out to donate@wikimedia.org)


One of the amazing things about Wikipedia, though, is that sources are provided, so you can validate the article, and the sources as well. This transparency is important, as it allows you to assess the credibility of the source, and whether or not the source is actually supporting the position the article claims. You cannot assume that a citation actually supports the point being made, but the citation at least provides an opportunity to look into it.

It’s also important to learn about logical biases and faulty reasoning. The Skeptics Guide to the Universe (https://www.theskepticsguide.org/podcasts) is an excellent source for learning how to develop critical thinking skills, and to apply them in the real world.

One key to critical thinking is understanding the limits of your own knowledge, and recognizing that a given “expert” may understand an issue better than you do. But how do you decide which expert to trust? And to what degree?

Do you trust experts because they are famous? Because they sound convincing? Because they are promoted by a famous person? Because they are not “mainstream”? Because they claim that they are being attacked for challenging the status quo? That they are not accepted now, but then, neither was Galileo? This last is referred to as the “Galileo gambit” or “Galileo fallacy” (https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Galileo_gambit).


As an example, let’s briefly look at Andrew Wakefield (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Wakefield), famous for his “study” which cast doubt on the effectiveness of the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine in the Lancet (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lancet_MMR_autism_fraud). People (still) see him as a leader in the anti-vax (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaccine_hesitancy) movement, and quote that “study” as evidence that “vaccines cause autism”.


Just skimming Wikipedia, you quickly learn (with dozens of links to additional information from many sources – giving the opportunity to vet those sources) that the original “study” has a few, er, problems. It was originally published in 1998, and supported with a press conference.

Wait, what? A press conference? Was this a huge study with definitive evidence of major issues with current vaccines? Or maybe a breakthough in understanding how vaccines work? No. There were twelve children in the study, and it suggested “evidence of a possible novel syndrome” and recommended further study into the “possible link” to the MMR vaccine.

And no one was able to credibly replicate the study. Hm...

Then, in 2004, the paper was partially retracted, after an article surfaced on multiple conflicts of interest involving Wakefield, and 10 of the 12 coauthors of the paper retracted their interpretation of the results.


That doesn’t sound good.

But wait! There’s more! In 2009, another report came about Wakefield altering results and data in the study, leading to the paper being fully retracted by the Lancet in 2010, and his being struck from the UK medical register – essentially, stripping him of his medical license.


There’s more here (https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/antivaccine-hero-andrew-wakefield-scientific-fraud/), in a post by Dr. David Gorski, who, interestingly, has been vilified by quacks for years (https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/editorial-staff/david-h-gorski-md-phd-managing-editor/). It is interesting (though not surprising) to note that credible sources tend to be meticulous about providing extensive evidence to support their positions, and are happy to engage with anyone trying to get to the truth, while others often respond to questions with attacks.


I’m not a doctor, but I can see the hand-waving, attacks, and appeals to emotion that are part of the vast majority of anti-vax stories. And, aside from the vast array of red flags which would make it tough for me to accept anything Wakefield says at face value, should I be listening to Jenny McCarthy (https://www.salon.com/2014/04/14/no_you_havent_been_wrongly_branded_jenny_mccarthy/) and others with no qualifications and less credibility? What is the value of her total lack of expertise in epidemiology, or her support previous support of Wakefield?

What about other experts, though? Should we be surprised that the vast majority of scientific consensus is that the MMR vaccine is safe and effective? No, not really.

As a side-note, it is interesting to compare the credibility of two figures who have been involved with COVID-19. Dr Scott Atlas (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Atlas) has been spreading misinformation which was in direct conflict with guidance from credible sources – but he’s a doctor, right? Well, yes. He’s a radiologist. (facepalm). Compare this with Dr. Anthony Fauci (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Fauci) – is he more credible? Well, for one thing, he’s an immunologist, which seems a bit more relevant. Also, he’s been working in public health for decades, dealing with AIDSs, Ebola, and others before COVID came along. He’s also very open about the fact that we are learning and adapting as quickly as we can. (Read his Wikipedia article – this man is truly amazing. But I digress.)

Where does that all lead us?

Back to critical thinking.

Going back to the current situation in the US, if you follow what Donald Trump has been saying about the election, it all boiled down to: “It’s ok if I win, and fraud if I don’t.”


Really? Where’s your evidence?


Lots of words, lots of noise, lots of legal cases, but that’s where it gets interesting. Law courts generally require proof – where’s the proof? More than 50 cases were lost, and even the “wins” had no impact on the results. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alisondurkee/2020/12/08/trump-and-the-gop-have-now-lost-50-post-election-lawsuits/?sh=8a92fbd29606

The states run the elections, and even Republican-controlled states certified the Biden win.

Now, using just a bit of critical thinking, which is more likely? Is there a massive, still-hidden conspiracy which includes Democrats and Republicans at the county, state, and federal levels, along with current and former members of multiple government agencies, along with numerous judges appointed by Trump himself? Or did he just lie, as he has done countless times before?

Even the most superficial investigation will get you there, but only if you apply critical thinking. If you go in and start searching for “evidence” of election fraud, you will find endless posts and opinions. Among these, you will find individual cases where something went wrong. If they support your preferred position, you accept this as evidence of the big lie and move on. This is called Confirmation Bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias), and is almost universal – one of the reasons why it is so important to think critically and not simply accept things at face-value.

And that’s the answer, at least as I see it.

Cheers!

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