Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Scientists Beware: Fox News and Politicians Poison Minds with Junk Science

In answer to a Sisyphean societal problem called we can't fix stupid, I recently proposed that we all take some responsibility for chipping away at the roots of stupidity instead of simply having a good laugh and sharing anecdotes with our friends. Digging deeper though, it seems so much of the stupidity we witness in society is a direct result of misinformation, fake facts, and junk science proliferated by the media.  I asked myself, how do we go about attacking junk science?  Then I thought about Don.

Harness brainpower to eliminate junk science

Perspective view of CERN Particle Accelerator with superimposed math equations
In the late 80s I met my neighbor Don for the first time. Don was a mathematician working for then Bell Labs and one of the first truly genius-level people I ever met. He created programming algorithms for something affectionately known among phone company employees as "the switch".  While I can't pretend to really know what he did at his job, allow me to digress for a moment to give you a sense of the complexity of the problems he solved.

Long before today's computing power, before the world wide web, before cell phones and laptops, Don was part of a very, very elite group of mathematicians and engineers working on the switch. What the switch did was in simple terms was traffic phone communications between caller and receiver. Say if you dialed 123-4567 your call was slowly directed by telephone circuits, in rooms literally filled with electromechanical relays, to a friend or business in your local area.  It could take up to ten seconds to dial a 10-digit phone number. Society's desire for speed and new features meant switching a call was becoming many orders of magnitude more complex.

During this time touch-tone dialing was replacing rotary dial phones, so the switch had to discern between a rotary signal and a touch-tone signal. Also, area codes were introduced (but not required) and therefore the system had to discern whether a call was local or to be switched to another largely electromechanical switch room in a different city. Features now taken for granted were being added like forwarding, conferencing, call waiting, and voice mail -- all seemingly  too much for electromechanical switches and simple computing power. Within the switch and its subsystems call functions were increasingly controlled by hard and soft coded instructions. Don created the mathematical algorithms that kept all this complexity and innovation progressing.

His head was always in the clouds, I'd engage him on the possibilities of what could be achieved by pure math power and he lit up. Despite downing more than one cocktail trying to track through his descriptions of how complex math could be employed to solve nearly any problem, I walked away having no doubt he was right.

Scientists, mathematicians, engineers, economists, and researchers -- Speak up!

What if Don were to apply just a fraction of his brainpower toward eliminating junk science? Wow. And there are a lot of really smart people just like him working on remarkable innovations all throughout the U.S. According to National Science Foundation statistics, some 3.5 million work in science & engineering research. So with all this brain power around, why are our lives dominated by an abundance of political, cultural, and economic junk science?

Proliferation of junk science has become an industry unto its own --overwhelming real science, truth, and fact at every turn. And the sad result is junk science is literally killing us humans in the form of pollution and exploitation of natural resources; it also poisons our society through misguided legislation, and suppression of the truth.

A 2010 study on the impact of misinformation in the U.S. electorate offers a staggering set of conclusions:
1. An overwhelming majority of voters... encountered misleading or false information during the prior election
2. The poll found strong evidence that voters were substantially misinformed on...
 the stimulus legislation, healthcare reform law, TARP, state of the economy, climate change, campaign contributions by the US Chamber of Commerce and President Obama’s birthplace, to name a few. In particular, voters had perceptions about the expert opinion of economists and other scientists that were quite different from actual expert opinion
3. There were significant differences in the level 
of misinformation encountered by those who voted Democratic and Republican
4. Consumers of all sources of media evidenced substantial misinformation, suggesting that false or 
misleading information is widespread in the general information environment... increasing exposure to news sources decreased misinformation; however, for notable conservative news sources (like Fox), higher levels of exposure increased misinformation.
A notorious marketing axiom has that you can build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. Manufacturers and retailers who have relied on this strategy are long dead.  But scientists, mathematicians, engineers, economists, and other researchers who figuratively invent better mousetraps every day seem to be stuck to this old model, and will likely eventually share the same fate -- unless they change.  Their problem is the world doesn't pay attention to published research papers.

So what to do?  Speak up. Don't let your hard work and that of your colleagues be misrepresented in the media, twisted repetitively by our cultural leaders, and enacted into self-serving policies by politicians. Imagine if some 3.5 million really smart people were to devote just an hour a week of their time to ensure the accurate representation, dissemination, communication, and education of science to the masses.

182 million hours a year to promote common understanding of scientific fact

So what does scientific activism look like? Well to Stephen Hawking, it was publishing a book to help non-scientists understand fundamental questions of physics and our existence called, A Brief History of Time.  To others it is speaking as an expert on NPR, or other main stream media, writing a column, recording a podcast for the masses, starting a website or a blog, becoming more outspoken in your associations, demanding your peer groups take a stand on broader dissemination of the truth.

Our democracy cannot function if we are all making choices based on lies.

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