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Whom Can We Believe?

Every day, we read things in newspapers and magazines and see things on television that seemingly inform us about the world we live in. Overall, we’re probably better-informed today than we’ve ever been. Scientific knowledge about our health, our lives and our world has increased enormously during our lifetimes. Technological improvements make communication much easier between individuals and between community leaders and the public. We get information about the things that affect us from around the world almost instantly.

The trouble is, much of it is wrong. And often, we have no way to judge which is which. Over the long term, most of the garbage that comes to us as “news” will be discounted by those who have expertise or first-hand knowledge on the various subjects. But because of the very ease in the means of communication, the filtering process that we used to be able to depend upon from our principal media comes too late to help us cope with the onslaught of questionable information. Much of the time, we have to rely upon our gut reactions to sort out what we believe and what we don’t. That’s not a very reliable system. Still, humans have been using it for millennia, and we’ve made it this far, haven’t we?

Harry Collins, a distinguished research professor at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom , has been studying just this process. In an essay in New Scientist magazine, he discusses the usual ways through which we obtain socially relevant information, and tries to point out the weak spots in the process, how we might more readily distinguish reality from erroneous or misleading so-called “facts” that cause us so much confusion.

One example that he cites is the horrendous effect of one powerful politician drawing conclusions from questionable sources about the efficacy of the anti-retroviral drug ATZ, with the result that for years his government withheld needed treatment of people—especially of pregnant women—and allowed the HIV virus to virtually overwhelm the population. President Thabo Mbeki, of South Africa , was convinced that the threat from HIV was bogus, basing his opinion on information he got from the Internet as well as from authentic scientific reports. From his gut reaction, he pronounced the issue “controversial.” This, Collins writes, was a mistake; just because there are disagreements about a scientific issue does not mean that “anybody’s opinion is just as good as anybody else’s opinion.” What he calls “technological populism” disregards the weight of scientific evidence and the real contributions of dedicated and qualified people working in the context of established institutional disciplines. In other words, Mbeki would have served his people better by getting advice from scientific consultants within the field, rather than from sources of questionable competence.

Other sources of bad information are people with an axe to grind. Those whose self-interest (whether it’s political, economic or philosophical) lends them a bias relative to an issue can seldom be relied on to furnish us with useful information. For example, journalists who get support from business or industry may, even if their intentions are good, steer us in directions most compatible with their sponsors.

Scientists are not infallible. The best minds sometimes get it wrong. The best evidence we have at the moment can later prove inadequate. Real science is always open to question. Even if a scientific “truth” is nearly universally accepted by the scientific community, it must remain tentative and subject to later refute as new knowledge is accumulated. Anything that stops this process, even some kind of “ultimate authority,” must be suspect. Still, a preponderance of solid evidence, such as the continuing buildup of facts supporting evolution, must illuminate any discussion of what we know.

The proponents of Creationism and Intelligent Design like to create doubt about the “theory” of evolution. Their motivation, as Collins points out, is religious, and the source of their hypothesis is a book whose authority lies outside science, and thus cannot be proved or disproved. That doesn’t mean that they are wrong, necessarily, only that the discussion is stymied. The incontrovertible advances of knowledge attributable to the scientific method have been built on continuing, open-ended study and discussion among serious and competent professionals in relevant fields.

Such is also the case with Global Warming. An international panel of scientists has finally concluded, “with 98 percent certainty,” that a significant portion of the steady rise in global temperatures is caused by humans, and they recommend immediate steps to try to reverse this trend. Opponents to the recommended programs point to their economic costs and to the general increase of governmental controls that would be necessary to implement them—side issues, at best.

A recent television documentary, "The Great Global Warming Swindle," aired in the UK , voiced many of the concerns and conclusions of those who take issue with the scientific panel’s findings. Steven Milloy, who runs the Web site Junkscience.com [sponsored by Fox News], endorsed the documentary on his site. He concluded by saying he'd like to see a "movie face-off" between Al Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth" and "The Great Global Warming Swindle," implying that he thought Gore's film would lose. "Let the public see both sides of the story,” he wrote, “and then we’ll see who’s believable and who’s not."

According to Harry Collins, this would raise two red flags in the search to find truth: First, neither Milloy nor Fox News offers evidence for his stance, and Fox News has repeatedly demonstrated its conservative political slant. Second, “letting the public decide who’s believable” is not apt to increase insight into what is truly a scientific issue. It’s an example of vested interests clouding an issue, and depending upon the gut reactions of ordinary people.

It’s hard for the typical person to know what to believe about many of the forces rampant in our world. It’s true that most of our beliefs, no matter who we are, come from gut reactions—what we want to be true. That doesn’t mean that they are necessarily false, only that we now have the means to mitigate erroneous beliefs by choosing our sources of information—and by keeping a healthy skepticism on our shoulder when we read or hear the latest “news.”

I regularly receive email messages, all forwarded to me from well-meaning friends and relatives, about startling situations and events. Invariably, contained within the messages are the names of sometimes hundreds of other people who have also been sent the same messages, and it’s apparent that the messages have traversed the globe, advising thousands of people of some so-called “fact” that, if true, could alter their lives. And just as invariably, these “facts” turn out to be false. A quick check of the Web site Snopes.com or another “urban legend” site discounts the revelations, and usually points out that the rumor has been circulating on the Internet for years. The latest example is that Bill Gates wants to share his great wealth, and all I need to do is send him an email requesting to be included in his largess. Futile though I knew it would be, I replied to this forwarded message, pointing out the fallacy and the sources of my “greater knowledge,” as well as reminding the sender of all the email addresses made available to the spammers who continually troll the Internet watching for just this kind of catch.

It’s estimated by the Internet monitors that half of all the traffic on the Internet is email from spammers. That they continue to be successful (and in business) reflects the inclination of ordinary people to believe what they want to believe.

In spite of this, I believe that the world is getting better.

 

Donald Skiff, April 1, 2007

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