Andres at TechnoLlama has written a blog post that explains how the internet is making us stupid, and it’s not just because we spend too much time on it. I’ll put a few quotes from his article here, and then you can follow the link to read the whole thing.
The flat Earth phenomenon is just the tip of the iceberg. We seem to be regressing in almost all aspects of knowledge and public discourse, from political discourse to climate change, easily-accessible and authoritative information is swept away by a torrent of fake news and falsehoods.
… media platforms have been designed to cater to what they think we like …
… social media presence is confused with expertise.
… in the era of Brexit and Trump, all pretence that reporting truth is an achievable goal has disappeared.
In some debates, even a mention of any traditional media source will be met with derision and incredulity.
So, is the internet making us stupid, or is it merely exposing our propensity for stupidity?
I have cited Wikipedia in many of my posts, and I’ve done it with no shame. Not everyone has shared my enthusiasm, though. Many people have used Wikipedia as an example of what is wrong with getting your information from the internet. They have disparaged its reliability, saying that anyone can contribute to it, so it can’t be a trusted authority. School teachers and college professors have even been known to ban and/or penalize its use, threatening to lower grades of offenders.
Teachers in middle school, high school and college drill it in to their students: Wikipedia is not a citable source. Anyone can edit Wikipedia, and articles can change from day to day — sometimes by as little as a comma, other times being completely rewritten overnight. “[Wikipedia] has a reputation for being untrustworthy,” says Thomas Shafee, a biochemist at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.
I remember trying to tell some of those people that they were being too negative about Wikipedia. That its accuracy rivaled that of traditional encyclopedias. Typically, I was rebuffed, sometimes angrily. Not even comparisons to the democratizing effect of the printing press could bring them around. I gave up trying to convince them, but I never gave up using Wikipedia. Now it looks as if those of us who support it will be vindicated.
With hundreds of thousands of scientific entries, Wikipedia offers a quick reference for the molecular formula of Zoloft, who the inventor of the 3-D printer is and the fact that the theory of plate tectonics is only about 100 years old. The website is a gold mine for science fans, science bloggers and scientists alike.
But even though scientists use Wikipedia, they don’t tend to admit it.
… the site’s unreliable reputation may be unwarranted. Wikipedia is not any less consistent than Encyclopedia Britannica, a 2005 Nature study showed (a conclusion that the encyclopedia itself vehemently objected to). Citing it as a source, however, is still a bridge too far.
Academic science may not respect Wikipedia, but Wikipedia certainly loves science. Of the roughly 5.5 million articles, half a million to a million of them touch on scientific topics. And constant additions from hundreds of thousands of editors mean that entries can be very up to date on the latest scientific literature.
The linked article describes studies that explore the influence science has on Wikipedia, and the influence Wikipedia has on science in return. There appear to be very good reasons why scientists and scholars and educators should try to get over their prejudice against the online encyclopedia.
It’s a good reason for scientists get in and edit entries within their expertise, Thompson notes. “This is a big resource for science and I think we need to recognize that,” Thompson says. “There’s value in making sure the science on Wikipedia is as good and complete as possible.” Good scientific entries might not just settle arguments. They might also help science advance. After all, scientists are watching, even if they won’t admit it.
Graduation ceremony – Hendrick van der Burgh – Public Domain
There is a growing distrust of higher education among political conservatives. The linked Chronicle of Higher Education article discusses the phenomenon as it pertains particularly to American politics.
A majority of Republicans and right-leaning independents think higher education has a negative effect on the country, according to a new study released by the Pew Research Center on Monday. The same study has found a consistent increase in distrust of colleges and universities since 2010, when negative perceptions among Republicans was measured at 32 percent. That number now stands at 58 percent.
For years, higher education has been viewed favorably by liberals and less so by conservatives, Mr. Gross said, but political controversies in the past year have drawn attention and increased the negative perception. Protests and incidents of speakers being actively opposed or threatened by students are widely reported, he said, and are often one of the few ways in which the general population encounters college campuses.
A change in the demographics of both parties has also influenced the mistrust of colleges, he said. Whereas 50 years ago, the best predictor of conservative alignment was a high level of education, Mr. Hopkins said, “the popular base of the Republican party is less and less white-collar professionals and is more and more white working-class non-college-educated voters.”
It probably makes sense for conservatives to want their supporters to be less well educated. I wonder what they would consider the optimum level of education. Presumably they would want them to be able to read a little, and be able to do some simple arithmetic, but nothing too sophisticated. Check out the linked article for a deeper look.
Fake news is in the news these days. It’s a problem because of the gullibility and credulousness of so many people. There are those who trust any source that gives the appearance of authority. And there is the ever-present problem of people believing anything that seems to confirm their biases, either supporting what they believe, or criticizing what they dislike. This is pretty bad but normally it wouldn’t be much of a problem. Just another case of liars taking advantage of fools. But this time around it is out there in such volume, and is said to have so much influence, that people are rightfully beginning to worry.
But that’s just the news. At worst, we might have to put up with foreign countries or malevolent corporations affecting democratic elections. Oh, and the disenfranchisement of voting citizens. And I guess the serious erosion of trust in democratic institutions and processes. But that’s just politics, right? There’s always been lying and cheating there. No, the really worrisome fakery is taking place in science. Just as there is an increase in fake news, so there is an increase in fake science.
We’re used to corporations and their loyal politicians invoking false or purchased science to protect their profits and privileges. From tobacco to fossil fuels, we’ve been repeatedly reassured that no one has proven that they’re harmful. So maybe people die, or the environment suffers, but that’s just business as usual. We’re used to it. There’s never been a question about the integrity of the scientific community. Just a few individuals who weren’t seriously troubled by their consciences. But now things have changed. Now people can pay to publish their fake science right in the scientific journals. Those organs which were once the barrier to false and frivolous claims. Which set the bar of credibility for those claims, and whose stringent rules of review ensured that most of what they published was worthy of our attention.
Still, everyone knew who the pay-to-publish journals were. It was easy to keep track of them and to treat their content with greater scepticism. And they were actually a good outlet for honest scientists who couldn’t make the cut at the traditional journals, if only because they don’t have enough space for everything. But lately it’s worse. Lately profits have overtaken the dissemination of knowledge as the motive for publication, and some of these journals have begun to publish everything in the quest for revenue. Now anyone with an axe to grind can publish “scientific” papers as proof. Smoking is good for you? Pollution is good for the environment? Creationism is science? Of course. It says so right in this paper published by this prestigious journal.
Okay, so maybe there are a few crooked publishers out there. Surely the legitimate ones will balance them out. Right? Don’t count on it. In Canada, two publishers of prominent and respected medical journals have recently been bought out by a fake-science-for-cash publisher. Oh, they’ve insisted that they will maintain high standards, but they’ve been caught out by a test paper submitted by the Ottawa Citizen. They presented a paper that made no sense, was highly plagiarized, and, to put it simply, was awful. It passed the fake journal’s supposed peer review and got published. I wonder if that review consisted of sending an invoice.
It’s hard to know if the paper you’re reading is genuine science or not. It’s hard to keep track of which journals are still honest. And this doesn’t just affect the readers of the journals. It’s also a problem for honest scientists who want to submit their work.
Fake news is a problem, my earlier facetiousness aside, but fake science is at least as much of a problem. We need to deal with both of them.
I thought Europe was our bastion of rationality. Our mature cousin who could be counted on to buffer the immature enthusiasms we’re prone to on this side of the Atlantic. Now I’m not so sure. If this article is to be believed, our European cousins are just as susceptible as we are.
An antiscience movement once limited mostly to the U.S. is gaining ground on the eastern side of the Atlantic
It’s following the same path it took over here. Although forewarned, European journalists are apparently not forearmed. They’re falling for the same tricks over there as ours did over here. They frame it as a conflict between science and religion. They fall for the false dichotomy of evolution versus creation, lured by a nice, simple, easily-headlined conflict. And they accept the false premise of a balanced debate.
Some investigative journalists tried to make sense of what was happening and figure out who these creationists were. Most, they found, were just reiterating the old science versus religion theme—evolution against creation, with Darwin in one corner and God in the other, waiting to go the next round at the sound of the bell.
If it follows the path we followed over here, soon they’ll have their schools teaching creationism in science classes, so their students can get a “balanced” picture of the two “belief systems.” I’m sorry Europe. We should have tried harder to warn you. I guess we just didn’t think it could happen there.