Fighting popular misconceptions in digital age

Today we live in abundance of fake news, half-baked resources, and cyber manipulators.  Since this blog focuses on knowledge, we cannot simply ignore the abundance of disinformation. We address this subject occasionally, yet this is the first time I am trying to build an organized approach to disinformation. I will be writing from my own knowledgeand understanding. For your reading, I selected a couple of articles here, here, here, here, and here.

Disinformation is the weapon of choice for modern criminals

Disinformation is not new, but it became ubiquitous only recently.  Nobody has a good solution for disinformation. There is usually very little regulation or control, and people who misbehave do not get punished.  Using disinformation is not even considered an unacceptable immoral act. On the other hand, it is highly effective in targeting public opinion and generate a response.  As a result, it is used by everybody: scientists and journalists who need publications, state organizations that need to manipulate public opinion, lobbyists and commercial organizations that need sales.  During the 20th century, we learned quite well to ignore direct propaganda and advertisements, yet we are vulnerable to more covert approaches.

Knowing more does not mean knowing better

We teach our students how to read faster and remember better the materials they read. Unfortunately, the same superskills make our students more vulnerable to disinformation. As we maximize the intake of information, we not only increase the amount of information we see but also decrease the amount of filtering the information undergoes.

Applying common sense and scientific methods, trying to recreate the experiments or retrace the chain of authorized sources cited in each article (if there are any) is a slow process. It will slow down the reading, and introduce conflicting details into information we are trying to encode. So ideally we should speedread only from reputable sources.

The simplicity and convenience of simply remembering the facts and the arguments is much more attractive than understanding and recreating the methodology used to derive the arguments. Trusting blindly is an easy choice even if there is very little reason to trust someone. As we increase the coverage of information, the quality of resources we use will eventually decrease and our knowledge will become less accurate.

Remedy: You do not need to read or know everything. Sometimes it is better simply to ignore the more questionable resources and move on. If you read something and remember nothing, maybe you are lucky.

The bless of ignorance

Knowing something about a subject is much worse than being an expert, or being totally ignorant. Typically we do not understand the limitations of our knowledge, and this is dangerous.

Even something which is known as false will likely make us accept it if we are exposed to the information long enough. Propaganda works by repeating the same message over and over, until we feel like we know it to be true, without trying to understand why it is true.

Total ignorance at least makes us open to new facts and ideas. Partial knowledge makes us filter the information that disagrees with what we accept true.

Remedy: If you want to know something, at least have enough curiosity to learn the readily available information about the subject from multiple sources. Otherwise, you might be better off being fully ignorant.

Filtering bubble

Receiving the same information from multiple unrelated sources makes the information more trustworthy. Two eyewitnesses are sufficient at court. We use similar logic when analyzing information. The same fact or data repeated by multiple sources is perceived as trustworthy.

Unfortunately, the search engines and social media is configured in a way that shows us only the information similar to what we see. There could be equivalently trustworthy information contradicting what we accept to be true. That information will likely circle in its own bubble of related people, related articles and related searches. Quite likely we will not see it, or we will see it and filter it out as something not trustworthy.

Remedy: By widening our social circles as well as our interests, we make it harder for algorithms to target the information directly for us. Even more so if we use anonymous options of the search engines and VPN.

Scientific method

If some knowledge is important for us, we should look for it more actively. We should be able to recreate the logical chain of theoretical proofs, and we should be able to repeat the experiments that led to it. If we want to learn about some product or service we need to try it hands-on and form our own opinion.

Even peer-reviewed scientific papers do not undergo sufficient scrutiny. When they do undergo the scrutiny, they are typically outdated. Preprints available online or presented in conferences are never checked. Publications sponsored by big commercial bodies have certain ways of bypassing the evaluation. This means that effectively the scientific method is outdated and cannot be applied to the vast majority of what we read. We can only hope that it was used by people generating this information. Probably in vain. Even people with the best intentions rarely have the resources for a serious study, and substitute intuition and common sense for facts.

Remedy: If the information is not sufficiently old to be tested and retested assume it is not reliable. Like historians tell when asked about recent events “it is too early to tell”.

False facts

When we know that the source of information is interested in certain representation we are right to expect falsification. Even if we do not directly trust the source of the false facts, the benefit of the doubt alone makes us change our confidence in the other things we think that we know. Untrustful information can increase or reduce voting rates, sales figures and other statistics that measure willingness to act.

Some false facts are used as demarcation lines between people with different beliefs. Do you believe in god or in evolution? Maybe in both? Which authority do you trusts: scientists that interpret experimental data, or pastors that interpret the word of the lord? You can probably trust none or both, yet most people firmly select their frame of reference and will not change it.

Politicians use false facts to get approval for controversial acts or to rally their supporters. Quite often politicians do not even need to create their false facts, as someone made these ideas conveniently available for citation. When America started the Iraque war, the president was sure that Iraq has nuclear weapons. Was that an honest mistake, a conspiracy, or false facts planted by some interested parties?

Certain stories simply sound better with false facts. 40% of the Americans think that humans coexisted with dinosaurs, yet few understand that mammoths coexisted with pyramids. This is the effect of popular media, which sells compelling stories.

Remedy: Try to change your false beliefs.

Outdated knowledge

It is easy to assume that the things that we know are constant. Certain individuals do not change their beliefs and eventually, everything they believed in gets outdated. Most of us eventually understand that knowledge is something evolving, growing, almost living.

For example, we used to learn that there are 5 senses. In fact, there are more than 20, including balance, hunger, thirst, pain. We have dedicated sensors in our body for each of these things. Yet we choose to remember 5 senses only.

Once we think we know something, we are unlikely to change our beliefs. We may check it from time to time, but will probably miss a new discovery simply because we reuse the old search lines and are bound by filter bubbles.

Remedy: Find time to talk to different people about different subjects. Read blogs. Value those who are independent and report recent developments. Question the things you think that you know forever.

Common sense

We all know that what goes up must go down. We all know that missiles that travel fast enough can leave the earth’s gravity and even the sun’s gravitational pull. These understandings somehow to not contradict each other in our minds. Ancient people had a very hard time understanding how a piece of metal can be a good ship, yet almost all ships are now made of metal.

Every understanding can be used quite safely under certain assumptions, but then the common sense betrays us. We can try to think “outside the box”, but most of us will fail to do this effectively without long and rigorous training.

We need to use common sense to filter out false facts, yet we cannot really trust the common sense as we do not really understand the assumptions we make. This is a paradox we safely ignore in our daily life. Should we still trust our common sense?

Remedy: Try to check if the reported situation or fact is ordinary or extraordinary. Common sense works well in ordinary situations but fails miserably in extraordinary scenarios.

Information vs emotion

What we accept as knowledge might be some information or several pieces of related facts. Alternatively, it may be an emotional need, searching a justification in the observed patterns.

Our brain is very good at detecting patterns. In fact, faced with noise, it will start to create patterns that correspond to the noise. What is the shape of a cloud? Does a certain cloud remind you of something?

Emotional needs, when in search of a justification, will make us believe in anything. This is how most miracle workers act. Then we misrepresent our beliefs as knowledge.

Remedy: Is the information real? Is it helpful? The placebo effect is real even if the medicine does not work. Maybe it is good to believe in something that cannot exist. Alternatively, we may change our beliefs.

Changing your false beliefs

If you are lucky enough to understand that certain beliefs are wrong and work against you, you can change those beliefs. Changing beliefs is not easy, but also not impossible. There are many methods to change beliefs, and you need to use the one you are comfortable with.

For less radical situations, communication with experts and coaches is sufficient. Our trust in the authority figure can help us change our mind and overcome certain beliefs.

Exposure therapy is a radical way to change certain beliefs. If you are afraid of something but are exposed to it in a safe environment, you might eventually stop fearing it. I used to be afraid of drowning, but now I handle water almost comfortably.

Stereotypes are harder to overcome. Being exposed to wonderful and accomplished people of a certain ethnicity, or learning the history of that ethnicity, will not fully remove ethnical stereotypes. We may need to change our filter bubble, and change the places we visit to change the cultural stereotypes.

Remedy: Do not change your beliefs on your own. Look for friends, experts, and coaches to help you.

Happiness is not for sale

If someone offers success or happiness, you should not trust that person. Happiness is not a pill or a way, but a certain feeling of abundance: both in pleasure and purpose.

When something makes you happy, you should definitely enjoy it. But you should also mistrust it. After all the things that make us happy for a short while include sugar, alcohol, fat, and drugs. In the long run, minimalism is often a better way to achieve happiness than the actual abundance.

I do not know a remedy for happiness, even if it is associated with a dangerous lifestyle. After all, skis resorts are full of people happy to pay for the opportunity to risk their health.

The knowledge we find often brings happiness to our life, as we find a reason for things we see, a sense of purpose, satisfaction for curiosity, joy of achievement and many other positive feelings. So what if we risk some disinformation? The benefits strongly outweigh the risks.

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