Think Inc. https://thinkinc.org.au If you're reading this, you're a thinker. Thu, 20 Sep 2018 07:36:20 +0000 en-AU hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.8 https://thinkinc.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/cropped-thinkinc-favicon-32x32.png Think Inc. https://thinkinc.org.au 32 32 146626681 How to Harness Humans’ Inherent Tendency Towards Irrationality https://thinkinc.org.au/how-to-harness-humans-inherent-tendency-towards-irrationality/ Thu, 05 Jul 2018 18:02:26 +0000 https://thinkinc.org.au/?p=1247 A quick glance at world news these days confirms it: as a species, we’re inherently irrational. We routinely act against our best interests, trading short-term satisfaction for long-term stability. The consequences of irrationality, as we’re seeing today, can be devastating. But they don’t have to be. What if, instead of accepting irrationality as the status […]

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A quick glance at world news these days confirms it: as a species, we’re inherently irrational. We routinely act against our best interests, trading short-term satisfaction for long-term stability.

The consequences of irrationality, as we’re seeing today, can be devastating. But they don’t have to be. What if, instead of accepting irrationality as the status quo, we learned to leverage our innate wiring and harness it to some positive effect?

Let’s explore the biological basis for irrationality in humans, as well as the possibilities that exist to hack our brains for the better.

The Biological Basis for Irrationality

Research into human irrationality goes back to at least the 1970s. In 1975, U.S. scientist Albert Ellis presented a paper appropriately titled “The Biological Basis of Human Irrationality” to the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, which stated:

“If we define irrationality as thought, emotion, or behavior that leads to self-defeating consequences or that significantly interferes with the survival and happiness of the organism, we find that literally hundreds of major irrationalities exist in all societies and in virtually all humans in those societies.”

In particular, Ellis calls out “human fallibility, overgeneralization, wishful thinking, gullibility, prejudice, and short-range hedonism,” which he claims “appear at least in part tied up with physiological, hereditary, and constitutional processes.” Ellis goes on to detail 259 specific “happiness-sabotaging tendencies,” for which he claims a biological basis because they manifest in all humans, across virtually all cultural and social groups studied at the time.

The breadth and scope of Ellis’s tendencies illustrates an important challenge to understanding irrationality: simply defining it isn’t as clear-cut as we’d like to believe. Irrationality isn’t just acting against one’s best interest. Quartz writer Olivia Goldhill gives the example of heavy drug use as a rational behavior, given that the user is, effectively, making a conscious choice to maximise their pleasure.

Instead, she shares a definition from Hugo Mercier, a researcher at the Institut des Sciences Cognitives-Marc Jeannerod in France and the co-author of The Enigma of Reason, which suggests that:

“Rationality has to be defined according to how well you accomplish some goals. You can’t be rational in a vacuum, it doesn’t mean anything. The problem is there’s so much flexibility in defining what you want.”

The Manifestation of Irrationality

Perhaps a better way of understanding these irrationalities is to identify them by the way they manifest in our lives. Though they may be undefinable, they’re certainly enduring. As Ellis notes:

“These irrationalities persist despite people’s conscious determination to change; many of them oppose almost all the teachings of the individuals who follow them; they persist among highly intelligent, educated, and relatively undisturbed individuals; when people give them up, they usually replace them with other, sometimes just as extreme, irrationalities.”

That we are so committed to our irrational thoughts and behaviours should come as no surprise to readers of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. BigThink contributor Sam McNerney notes, drawing from Kahneman’s work that, “it only takes a small amount of information to confidently form new world views that are seemingly objective and accurate but almost entirely subjective and inaccurate. That is, the human brain tends to jump to conclusions based on limited information.”

Do you recognise yourself in any of the following examples of this behaviour?

The Planning Fallacy

As humans, we routinely underestimate how long it’ll take us to complete tasks. This is known as the “planning fallacy,” and it manifests in procrastination, repeatedly postponing tasks over time or regularly arriving late, despite believing you’ve allowed adequate preparation time.

The Overconfidence Fallacy

Francesca Gino, writing for the Harvard Business Review, shares that “We also tend to overestimate the accuracy of our own thoughts and the odds of our success – that is, we tend to be overconfident.” In practice, this means that we routinely fail to account for all variables when making decisions on how to execute tasks while working alone and in teams.

The Incomplete Evidence Fallacy

In 1996, Stanford University researchers Lyle Brenner, Derek Koehler and Amos Tversky conducted an experiment structured around a mock legal dispute. In the study, one group of subjects heard arguments from one side of the dispute; the second group of subjects were presented with evidence from both sides. Participants were then asked to estimate how many jurors would find in favour of the plaintiff.

Although the participants who heard only one side were aware that a separate survey group heard evidence from both sides, researchers found:

  • They were more likely to make predictions biased in favour of the side they heard.
  • They were more confident, but generally less accurate than participants who heard both sides.

Essentially, the researchers concluded, “People do not compensate sufficiently for missing information even when it is painfully obvious that the information available to them is incomplete.”

Compensating for Irrationality

The aspects of Stanford University’s study described above are disheartening in their conclusions. They certainly don’t speak highly of humans’ ability to behave rationally and to correct for potential bias, even when we’re fully aware we aren’t acting off complete information.

But there is a silver lining. The researchers conducted a follow-up experiment in which they implemented a simple exercise which encouraged participants to evaluate the merits of each side’s arguments. Encouragingly, they found that “A simple manipulation that required subjects to evaluate the relative strength of the opponent’s side greatly reduced the tendency to underweight missing evidence.”

The researchers’ work, in combination with research conducted by many others, suggests that combatting irrationality is possible. It just isn’t easy.

One academic fighting to empower humans to do just that is Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the best-selling book, Predictably Irrational. In an interview with Scientific American, Ariely describes the goal of his work around the concept of irrationality:

“My hope for the kind of work I do, and for behavioral economics in general, is that by augmenting standard economics it could help design better policies that actually work with what people can compute and the ways they reason. In particular, I think that this approach in behavioral economics can have a substantial impact on savings, health care and a tendency to engage in risky behaviors.”

As an example of the practical impact of his work, Ariely discusses retirement savings in the U.S., where the median savings for all working-age families in the U.S. is just $5,000 (despite predictions that even $1 million may not be enough to sustain a retirement longer than 12 years in the country).

Not preparing for retirement is inherently an irrational activity; one that sets U.S. retirees up for significant financial challenges in their later years. Knowing this, Ariely suggests taking deliberate action to compensate for our innate tendency to act against our best interests:

“Maybe it is time to take action and force ourselves to behave better. One way to do this is by having money automatically transferred from our checking account into a retirement savings account at the beginning of each month—essentially taking the decision outside of our consideration so that we don’t even give ourselves the opportunity to think about spending money that we know we should save.”

This model – combined with learnings from the Stanford University researchers cited above – can be applied to any situation where irrational behaviour manifests:

  1. Make yourself aware of your potential for irrational behaviour. Reviewing Ellis’s list in full can be informative (if slightly disheartening).
  2. Evaluate the strength of your beliefs. The simple question posed by Stanford University researchers to participants in their follow-up experiment was this: “Would you expect to be more or less confident in your estimate if you had seen the arguments for both sides?” Ask yourself the same thing – modified to suit your particular situation – to reveal blind spots that could drive you towards irrational behaviour.
  3. Proactively compensate. Once you’ve identified irrational tendencies, take deliberate, proactive actions to minimise their potential impact.

This isn’t an easy process to complete, especially considering the scope of instances where it may be required. But the more thoughtful you can be about your own potential towards irrationality, the better you’ll be able to leverage this inherent tendency to produce positive outcomes in your life.

Combatting Irrationality: An Enduring Effort

Even with the process described above, there is no perfect outcome; no end stage where irrationality is eliminated. Even in the presence of perfect data, future situations could arise to which our mental models do not apply.

Paul Bloom, contributor to The Atlantic, cites the example of the 2008 global financial crisis, which all projections at the time suggested was statistically impossible. Yet, it happened, leading Bloom to conclude:

“We live in a world of deep uncertainty, in which neat logic simply isn’t a good guide. It’s well-established that data-based decisions don’t inoculate against irrationality or prejudice. But even if it was possible to create a perfectly rational decision-making system based on all past experience, this wouldn’t be a foolproof guide to the future.”

If we can’t eliminate irrationality, we can at least remain aware of both its presence and the strategies available to us to combat it. It’s an incomplete solution, but it’s the best one we have for achieving positive outcomes in the face of our innate tendencies.

Which irrational thoughts or behaviours can you identify in your life? What steps can you take to combat their impact to produce positive change? Leave us a comment below with your thoughts:

 

Image Source: Pixabay

 

 

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Privacy and Piracy: Managing Our Digital Rights in a Constantly-Evolving Environment https://thinkinc.org.au/privacy-and-piracy-managing-our-digital-rights-in-a-constantly-evolving-environment/ Mon, 02 Jul 2018 18:01:23 +0000 https://thinkinc.org.au/?p=1250 Revelations that Facebook may have allowed the sale of the data of 87 million users to analytics firm Cambridge Analytica – which may have been used to influence both the U.S. 2016 presidential election and the U.K.’s Brexit vote – have reignited the debate over digital privacy rights. It’s a challenging topic. Certainly, concern about […]

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Revelations that Facebook may have allowed the sale of the data of 87 million users to analytics firm Cambridge Analytica – which may have been used to influence both the U.S. 2016 presidential election and the U.K.’s Brexit vote – have reignited the debate over digital privacy rights.

It’s a challenging topic. Certainly, concern about digital privacy and the protection of personal data has never been higher. According to the Australian Community Attitudes to Privacy Survey of 2017:

  • 69% of us are more concerned about our online privacy than they were five years ago.
  • 79% of us are uncomfortable with businesses sharing personal information with other organisations.
  • 93% are concerned about organisations sending personal information overseas.

Yet, despite this, the majority of citizens are not willing to do the work necessary to protect their personal information. The ACAPS 2017 survey found that 65% of us do not read privacy policies. Further research by Syzygy and Attest found that, out of 1,000 survey participants, only 5% intend to leave Facebook, despite knowing of its conflict with Cambridge Analytica.

This cognitive dissonance is a microcosm of the larger question surrounding privacy. We want the benefits and features that come along with sharing our personal information, such as social engagements with friends and relatives, as well as more customised digital experiences or even protection against threats. We just don’t want to confront the potential negative repercussions that come from having done so.

How do we balance our desire to fully embrace the benefits of technology, without giving up too much of our personal lives and data in return? Let’s explore.

Privacy and Piracy, Defined

To understand the risks digital consumers face, we must first examine what is meant by “privacy and piracy.” Unfortunately, the number of risks threatening citizens’ private data has never been higher. So although the following list is far from complete, think of it as a useful starting point for our discussion.

A few of the different data privacy and piracy risks facing Australian consumers today include:

  • Identity theft. Identity theft occurs whenever criminals improperly use a person’s personal information to their benefit; for example, by fraudulently applying for a credit card or loan in their name. More than 770,000 Australians fell victim to identity theft in 2014, with an average financial impact of $4,000 per incident, according to Veda.
  • Phishing attacks. One of the ways criminals access the information needed for identity theft is phishing attacks, in which legitimate data-collecting websites (such as login or transaction pages) are spoofed with malicious versions. At one point, Australians were the biggest phishing targets in the world.
  • Ransomware events. In a ransomware event, a malware program takes over a user’s computer, causing it to effectively be held hostage until a fee is paid. Again, Australia loses out. In 2017, we were one of the 10 hardest hit countries by ransomware worldwide, while one in five Australian small businesses hit by ransomware attacks were forced to close their doors.
  • Cybercrime and hacking. Even if private citizens take steps to secure their identities, they may be put at risk by hacking attempts against companies and organisations that store copies of their personal information. An estimated six million Australians were affected by these attacks in 2017.

The threats described above are serious, but they’re effectively all variations of the same theme: malicious actors harvesting personal data for financial gain. A more nuanced look at data privacy and piracy requires broader thinking and presents threats that go beyond the theft of personal information.

  • The use of personal data for social and political manipulation. As noted above in the example of Cambridge Analytica, personal information – in this case, data that’s freely shared over social networking websites – can be weaponised by those who harvest it to advance movements or influence political processes.
  • Rate limiting and other data-based restrictions. The recent repeal of the United State’s net neutrality policy should concern Australians, who may suffer a flow-on effect from the policy’s potential access limitations. One privacy-related concern is the precedent that could be set if internet service providers (ISPs) are allowed to parcel out access to specific websites. By default, this arrangement requires that users give up data on their viewing habits and preferences, which they may prefer to keep private.
  • The right to disappear. These and other risks underscore one of the questions at the heart of today’s data privacy and piracy debate: what rights do users have to the personal information they’ve shared both intentionally and unintentionally? European Union (EU) court cases have made some strides in defining this ‘right to disappear,’ as evidenced by the passage of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Data Privacy in Australia

The governance of personal data is a wide-reaching challenge, with implications for individual consumers, businesses of all sizes and governmental bodies. Unfortunately, data privacy and piracy risks often emerge and evolve faster than organisations can identify them – let alone respond with either practical or legal guidelines.

That said, several regulations defining personal data management rights and responsibilities exist in Australia.

One of the standards most germane to this discussion is the Australian Privacy Principles (APP). Defined by the Privacy Act 1988, the principles offer guidance to ‘APP entities’ (including most governmental bodies, businesses and nonprofits with turnover greater than $3 million, private health service providers and many small businesses) on how they should “handle, manage and use personal information.”

The Privacy Act 1988 has been amended multiple times, most recently in February 2017. Updates made at that time – which went fully into effect in February 2018 – adds further guidance on the topic of data breaches. KPMG’s Jacinto Munro explains the impact of these revisions on APP entities:

“Entities will be required to take all reasonable steps to ensure an assessment is completed within 30 days. If an eligible data breach is confirmed, as soon as practicable they must provide a statement to each of the individuals whose data was breached or who are at risk, including details of the breach and recommendations of the steps individuals should take.”

Another notable instance is Australia’s data retention law. Formally known as the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015, the act passed by both Houses of Parliament on 26 March 2015 and requires that telecommunications service providers store customer data (including the metadata associated with phone calls, emails and texts; not the content itself) for two years.

One final guideline worth mentioning here is the EU’s GDPR framework, which went into effect on 25 May 2018. Though the GDPR affects EU citizens most directly, Australian companies may have some responsibilities under the new policies, which offer broad guidance on how personal data should be processed, stored, managed and deleted

According to ZDNet contributor Asha McLean:

“The laws do not stop at European boundaries, however, with those in the rest of the world, including Australia, bound by the GDPR requirements if they have an establishment in the EU, if they offer goods and services in the EU, or if they monitor the behaviour of individuals in the EU.”

Failure to comply could result in “administrative fines up to €20 million, or in the case of an undertaking, up to 4 percent of the total worldwide annual turnover of the preceding financial year, whichever is higher.”

What are We Willing to Give Up?

Ostensibly, the rationale behind each of the regulations described above is the protection of citizens, whether with regard to the well-being of individual consumers or to broader societal needs. The data retention law, for instance, is described as being a counterterrorism measure that plays a vital role in investigating terrorism and organised crime.

Australian privacy advocates don’t always agree. Uri Gal, Associate Professor in Business Information Systems, University of Sydney, shares in a contribution to The Conversation that “despite the government’s warnings, the risk of getting hurt in a terrorist attack in Australia has been historically, and is today, extremely low.” Rather than being a protective measure, he sees the data retention law as an invasion of privacy.

“Metadata – data about data – can be highly revealing and provide a comprehensive depiction of our daily activities, communications and movements. As detailed here, metadata is broad in scope and can tell more about us than the actual content of our communications. Therefore, claims that the data retention law does not seriously compromise our privacy should be considered as naïve, ill-informed, or dishonest”

Gal’s assertion epitomises the conflict described earlier, provoking the question, “What are we willing to give up?” Are we willing to:

  • Enjoy the benefits of connecting with friends and relatives, even if doing so puts us at risk of being influenced by external actors?
  • Share our financial data with businesses to access the advantages of e-commerce, even if this adds another point of weakness for potential identity theft and cybercrime?
  • Make our personal data available to the government for the possibility of greater protection, even before we’ve fully defined how much is being revealed and who will have access to this information?

There are no easy answers to these questions, and these risks aren’t going away any time soon. But that doesn’t mean you can abdicate responsibility for them. Stay educated, and practice data safety to the extent you’re able to. Your well-being, financial health, and future rights may depend on it.

How concerned are you about data privacy and piracy? What steps are you taking to protect yourself? Leave us a comment below to join in the discussion:

 

Image Source: Pixabay

 

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Validating New Information in a 24/7 Media-Driven World https://thinkinc.org.au/validating-new-information-in-a-24-7-media-driven-world/ https://thinkinc.org.au/validating-new-information-in-a-24-7-media-driven-world/#comments Sun, 03 Jun 2018 23:37:03 +0000 https://thinkinc.org.au/?p=988 On December 1, 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch walked into the Comet Ping Pong restaurant in northwest Washington D.C. and fired shots using an AR-15 rifle. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the attack, and Welch surrendered to police without further incident. The reason for his brazen attack? Welch had been following online conspiracy theories which […]

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On December 1, 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch walked into the Comet Ping Pong restaurant in northwest Washington D.C. and fired shots using an AR-15 rifle. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the attack, and Welch surrendered to police without further incident.

The reason for his brazen attack? Welch had been following online conspiracy theories which posited that the pizza restaurant had hidden in its basement the headquarters of a child-trafficking ring with ties to presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her then campaign chief John Podesta.

Though Welch later received 48 months in jail for the attack, what could have been taken as a sobering commentary on the impact of misinformation was minimised with the vaguely humorous moniker ‘Pizzagate.’

How Social Media Shapes Our Views

The notion that anyone could buy into conspiracy theories as absurd as Pizzagate is almost understandable when you consider that few of us are exposed to unbiased news sources anymore.

In the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, for example, the Wall Street Journal carried out an experiment based on their belief that social media was shaping social views – and not necessarily in a positive way. According to the Journal:

“Facebook’s role in providing Americans with political news has never been stronger—or more controversial. Scholars worry that the social network can create ‘echo chambers,’ where users see posts only from like-minded friends and media sources. Facebook encourages users to ‘keep an open mind’ by seeking out posts that don’t appear in their feeds.”

To test this theory, the newspaper set up two competing Facebook feeds: one that was made of news sources deemed to be shared frequently by ‘very liberal’ users (determined according to the methodology here) and one comprised of news sources shared often by ‘very conservative’ users.

The experiment, which is still available and updated today, allows viewers to see these views side-by-side on the topics of ‘President Trump,’ ‘Healthcare,’ ‘Guns,’ ‘Abortion,’ ‘ISIS,’ ‘Budget,’ ‘Executive Order’ and ‘Immigration.’ The results below were pulled on the topic of ‘President Trump’:

A simple glance at these examples show the striking difference between what users might see treated as ‘news,’ all because of the way they’ve been classified by social media algorithms. This is even more concerning when you consider that, according to the The University of Canberra’s Digital News Report: Australia 2016, 44.7% of Australian adults surveyed use Facebook to find, read, watch, share or discuss news – the most by far of any social network.

Combine our reliance on non-traditional news sources with a lack of vetting on their part, and events like Pizzagate and the spread of similar conspiracy theories begins to make sense.

How to Validate Information

If the news we’re exposed to online is controlled by who we are and how we think, being able to validate information takes on new importance. There are two components to this process: validating the source and validating the information itself.

Validating news sources

In years past, journalists were held – and held themselves – to strict codes of ethics. Facts were checked and stories were cleared through multiple levels of editors and managers before they ever saw the light of day.

The democratisation of the news through the internet’s ability to turn anyone into a newscasters has led to lower standards – though, in all fairness, journalists aren’t doing themselves many favours. We can just look to the recent coverage surrounding deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce’s liaison with his now-former staffer, Vikki Campion, to see that professional ethics were breached on both sides of the table.

If we can’t rely on news sources to police themselves, validating them becomes our responsibility. One tool in our arsenal for conducting these analyses is the chart below by MediaBiasChart.com:

Though the chart is biased towards U.S. based publications, it’s worth a look. Did any of the placements on the chart surprise you? If so, you could be looking your own biases in the face.

One of the most important takeaways from the chart – besides the ability to compare your favourite news sources to others – is that it presents the different types of media bias that exist. Information isn’t only true or false; often, it’s incomplete, taken out of context or interpreted in an unfair way.

The chart itself divides news sources according to three criteria:

  • Political bias, ranging from liberal, to moderate, to conservative.
  • Overall quality, ranging from sources that use original fact reporting to those that contain inaccurate or fabricated info.
  • Interpretation of the news, ranging from fair reporting to reporting the site considers to be ‘damaging to public discourse.’

Use these factors as a guide to analysing any media sources you frequent that aren’t covered by the chart above. For example, you can ask yourself:

  • Does the source I’m reading appear to have a political bias? If you have strong political viewpoints and the news you’re reading resonates with you strongly or provokes a strong negative reaction, it may be written with a political bias.
  • Where does this publication get its data from? If the news sources makes any claims, it should back them up with appropriate sources. Scientific research papers or direct interviews are stronger sources, for example, than claims made without backup or those that have been taken from a biased source.
  • How fairly is this information presented? Are both sides of an issue considered? Are assumptions made about the audience’s point of view? If so, the source may not be providing a fair interpretation of the news.

It’s important to get in the habit of thinking critically when consuming news – even from a source you believe to be reputable. In this day and age, it doesn’t hurt to be overly cautious.

Validating the information itself

It’s easy to see a news article or meme that resonates with you and to forward it without question. But in doing so, you aren’t just allowing yourself to be taken advantage of – you’re perpetuating misinformation to a larger audience.

In the week following the U.S. presidential election in 2016, pop culture website Buzzfeed made a startling discovery: that ‘fake news’ was shared more frequently than news by mainstream media. In the final three months before the election:

  • The 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.
  • Within the same time period, the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites generated a total of 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.

Buzzfeed’s finding is confirmed by research out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and published in the journal Science by Sinan Aral and his team, which found that:

“Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information.”

Sad as it is to acknowledge, it should come as no surprise that in the Edelman Trust Barometer – an 18-year annual study of attitudes across 28 countries towards four pillars of society – found that Australian’s trust in the media decreased to a record low of 31% in 2018.

Staying safe from the scourge of fake news means taking steps to validate the information you encounter before sharing it. And that doesn’t just go for social media. How many of us have spouted off, ‘I read recently that…’ to our mates without having put in the legwork to fully vet what we’re sharing?

Asking yourself the following questions may help:

  • When was this information published?
  • How much do I trust the person or source sharing this information?
  • Is this information framed in such a way as to provoke strong emotion?
  • What sources are provided for any claims being made?
  • Has the claim being made been debunked elsewhere (for example, on the website Snopes.com)?
  • Could there be information missing that would better clarify the context of the content?

If you can’t confirm the validity of a piece of information, consider not sharing it at all.

Staying Across Our 24/7 Media Culture

Expectations that media should be freely accessed make it unlikely that we’ll ever return to an era of properly vetted journalism (at least, it’s unlikely in the near future). Unfortunately, this means that ‘fake news’ and other manipulative content (whether intentionally or unintentionally misleading) is here to stay.

In this environment, all of us have a responsibility to become more critical consumers of content. Question everything. Trust nothing. It’s the only way to avoid becoming part of the problem.

What are you doing to validate news sources and the information they share? Leave your suggestions in the comments section below:

 

Image Source: PXHere

 

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The Threat of Anti-Scientific Thinking to Modern Society https://thinkinc.org.au/the-threat-of-anti-scientific-thinking-to-modern-society/ Sun, 03 Jun 2018 23:15:04 +0000 https://thinkinc.org.au/?p=996 Never before have we had the kind of immediate access to information our modern society – with all of its new technologies and expanded channels of communication – provides. A single click turns up vast resources from quantity that scholars of eras past would never have believed possible. But for all of its genuinely revolutionary […]

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Never before have we had the kind of immediate access to information our modern society – with all of its new technologies and expanded channels of communication – provides. A single click turns up vast resources from quantity that scholars of eras past would never have believed possible.

But for all of its genuinely revolutionary perks, there is a dark side to this unparallelled access. The spread of information is agnostic; both good and bad ideas circulate freely. Echo chambers develop and tribalism increases as consumers enjoy easy access to information that supports their beliefs – whether they’re right or wrong.

It is these concerning effects that led German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a trained quantum chemist, to warn “that Western societies are faced with a ‘post-fact world in which emotions and ideology threaten to suppress scientific knowledge and evidence.” Her concerns are real, especially with the threat posed by anti-scientific thinking to the environment, to health and well being, and to democracy overall.

The Threat to the Environment

One of the most compelling examples of anti-scientific thinking can be seen in resistance to the idea of climate change. The position of the Australian Academy of Sciences is clear:

“Earth’s climate has changed over the past century. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, sea levels have risen, and glaciers and ice sheets have decreased in size. The best available evidence indicates that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are the main cause. Continuing increases in greenhouse gases will produce further warming and other changes in Earth’s physical environment and ecosystems.”

Despite mountains of scientifically-validated evidence supporting these statements, skepticism persists regarding both whether climate change is truly occurring and which of its impacts can actually be attributed to human actions.

Reticence to accept the work of the scientific community – not just in Australia, but around the world at large – delays pursuing changes that could prevent against irreparable damage.

The Paris Agreement, for example, is attempting to keep global temperature rise this century to below 1.5- 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Some scientists, however, are concerned this doesn’t go far enough.

Research shared by The Independent’s science correspondent, Josh Gabbatiss, suggests global sea rise of 1.2 meters has already occurred, despite the agreement. Quartz’s Megan Darby shares estimates that we’re currently on an emissions track that will result in 3-4 degree Celsius warming, even if the agreement is followed through in full (which looks unlikely, given the departure of the United States).

Every day anti-scientific thinking persists, and time is spent debating whether or not climate change is occurring, we are losing time focusing on what we should be doing to prevent or limit it. That’s a threat worth watching.

The Threat to Health and Wellbeing

A world in which recommendations from social media influencers carry as much weight as those given by board-certified medical doctors is a world in desperate need of greater health literacy.

The Need for Greater Health Literacy

In an article for The Guardian, contributor Melissa Davey cites the recent controversy over the presence of nanoparticles in Australian infant formula products as an example of this need. The situation was driven in part by ‘research’ by Friends of the Earth, which drew on rat studies to suggest that these nanoparticles were ‘potentially dangerous’ and even ‘toxic.’ This created panic on the part of parents whose children had consumed the formula.

As Davey notes, however, “Nanoparticles are simply microscopic particles less than 100 nanometres in size. The nanoparticles being demonised by Friends of the Earth were calcium phosphate crystals, a normal and natural component of human tissue, teeth and bones.”

Further, she explains, “A look at the study Friends of the Earth based its scare campaign on reveals rats were injected with the nanoparticles through their abdominal cavity at extremely high concentrations, far greater than those found in baby formula, which is obviously ingested by babies, not injected into them. There is no way conclusions could be drawn between the rat study and the nanoparticles in the infant formula – which dissolve in digestive acids anyway – on supermarket shelves.”

One of the tolls the insidious increase in anti-scientific thinking has taken on our society is a lack of rigour when interpreting new stories like these. Though the blame can be placed equally on a sensationalised news cycle as it can be on individual consumers unwilling to investigate the veracity of its claims, the need for stronger health literacy is clear.

Davey summarises the issue, stating, “While all parties share the blame and must be held to account and do better, I say we also need to put some of the responsibility back on consumers, and health literacy education is key to this. There’s no reason why this kind of education couldn’t start in health education or science classes in primary schools.”

Combating Anti-Scientific Thinking

Though improving health literacy has the potential to create better informed consumers in the future, it doesn’t address the issue of reaching those who are already firmly entrenched in anti-scientific perspectives.

Dr John Cook and Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, two Australian cognitive psychologists, have some solutions to offer, courtesy of their 2011 Debunking Handbook. New Yorker contributor Atul Gawande summarises the key takeaway from this work, that: “The evidence is that rebutting bad science doesn’t work; in fact, it commonly backfires. Describing facts that contradict an unscientific belief actually spreads familiarity with the belief and strengthens the conviction of believers.”

The answer, according to Dr Cook and Professor Lewandowsky isn’t to rebut. It’s simply to expand. As Gawande describes:

“Rebutting bad science may not be effective, but asserting the true facts of good science is. And including the narrative that explains them is even better. You don’t focus on what’s wrong with the vaccine myths, for instance. Instead, you point out: giving children vaccines has proved far safer than not. How do we know? Because of a massive body of evidence, including the fact that we’ve tried the alternate experiment before.”

Though we’re fortunate the anti-vaccination movement hasn’t taken off in a meaningful way in Australia, the way it has in other countries, the recent formation of the Health Australia Party (HAP) – which some say diminishes the importance of good science in favour of unproven alternative medicine – suggests it’s safe to say that we still have a ways to go in combating anti-scientific thinking.

But as Dr Cook and Professor Lewandowsky make clear in their work on debunking anti-scientific thinking, ignoring or rebutting movements like HAP isn’t enough. Real change requires that logically-thinking voices speak as loudly as those spouting fallacies. It requires constant communication and diligence in the face of frustration. It isn’t easy work, but it’s necessary.

The Threat to Democracy

It isn’t just our climate or our health and well-being that are at risk due to anti-scientific thinking. This overarching lack of rigour puts the very foundations of our democratic societies in danger.

When we fail to practice critical thinking, we fall victim to incorrect information – even outright manipulation. Take the election of Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, which Bloomberg’s Lauren Etter suggests was driven in large part by a coordinated social media messaging campaign.

“The phenomenon, sometimes referred to as ‘patriotic trolling,’ involves the use of targeted harassment and propaganda meant to go viral and to give the impression that there is a groundswell of organic support for the government. Much of the trolling is carried out by true believers, but there is evidence that some governments, including Duterte’s, pay people to execute attacks against opponents.”

Though Duterte’s government is pushing back on claims that it paid for data or worked with beleaguered firm Cambridge Analytica, the abuse of social media to undermine democratic processes isn’t unique to the Philippines. Similar instances of intentional misinformation may have influenced both the U.S. election of Donald Trump and the U.K.’s ‘Brexit’ vote, according to ongoing investigations.

Facing the Threat of Anti-Scientific Thinking

The problem of anti-scientific thinking is obvious; the best approach for addressing it and minimising the threats associated with it are not.

While we’ll continue to fight in our own way – by advancing critical thinking and challenging intellectual comfort – but we recognise that we can only be one part of a larger solution.

That’s why we want to hear from you. What experiences have you had with anti-scientific thinking? Have you had any success pushing back against it? Leave us a comment below sharing your experiences:

 

Image Source: NPS.gov

 

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