Dealing With Fake News - TribPapers

Dealing With Fake News

A sampling of visual representations of data that confound the observer, instead of clarifying the message. Source: Bergstrom and West, Calling Bulls**t. Staff photo.

Asheville – The go-to English translation from Coptic of what is now known as “The Tripartite Tractate,” written before 350 A.D., is understandably very garbled. But in a lucid moment, on what is now cited as page 111, the unknown author describes a person who “did not think or say anything based on an illusion or derived from an imitation or a veiled thought.” It went on to describe how these people were of one mind because they maintained their acquaintance with God and communed with the Holy Ghost (viz., the ultimate source of truth and His messenger).

Calling Bulls**t, by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West, both professors at the University of Washington, continues in the same vein. This is remarkable, since most popular books that claim to teach the reader how to better steel himself against logical fallacy fall terribly short, some going so far as to illogically push the author’s thinly-veiled agenda. While Bergstrom and West include very colorful examples in their book, their message is based on level-headed respect for the truth and an acknowledgement of their own weaknesses. They do not present the book as a know-all and be-all; instead, their stated wish is to better equip the world to deal with the swill of lies political actors, commercial sharks, and outright pranksters have made of people’s preferred channels of communication. They remind us that without an educated populace, democracy remains ruled by the powerful few.

They begin with several aphorisms, some from the blogosphere, explaining why falsehood abounds. These include Alberto Brandolini’s, “The amount of energy needed to refute bulls**t is an order of magnitude bigger than [that needed] to produce it;” Uriel Fanelli’s, “An idiot can create more bulls**t than you could ever hope to refute.” and Cordell Hull’s, “A lie will gallop halfway round the world before the truth has time to pull its breeches on.”

Early pages provide a swift overview of how the algorithms of major search engines obstruct objective research by returning results designed to fit the user’s profile; that is, researchers must now second-guess and control for not only their own but their search engines’ confirmation biases. As is well-known, this shortcoming of the internet was harnessed by Russian actors, ferociously during the 2016 presidential campaign, to amplify polarized viewpoints, drown out moderate voices, and keep people in their information “silos,” a modern form of divide-and-conquer.

Playing no small part then and now is fake news, in all its forms, which includes a veritable arms race to create deeper and deeper deepfakes. When Pope Francis himself was drawn into the fray as the subject of a viral story, he came out with a statement strongly condemning the pervasive “coprophilia” fueling a dysfunctional relationship between media producers and consumers. The authors are among many to invoke a tweet by chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate the truth.”

The authors next follow the lead of Harry Frankfurt, whose book, On Bulls**t, mocks academic rigor, filling pages and going nowhere. Among other illustrations of bulls**t, Bergstrom and West pull from a private letter from Sigmund Freud. “So, I gave my lecture yesterday. Despite a lack of preparation, I spoke quite well and without hesitation, which I ascribe to the cocaine I had taken beforehand. I talked about my discoveries in brain anatomy, all very difficult things that the audience certainly didn’t understand, but all that matters is that they get the impression that I understand them.”

The following pages cover the basics of statistics with colorful prose rather than equations. The authors, actually, are quite adept at mathematics, as their footnotes indicate. They point out that a lot of the crazy math in popular presentations is a result of presenters trying to dumb down the content for an audience they don’t expect to be familiar with, for example, manipulating partial differential equations. This results in sloppy arrays of variables and operators sure to turn off anybody with a mathematical inclination, except for savvy statisticians like the authors. The mass susceptibility to mesmerization by bizarro equations, however, leads the authors to sarcastically assert, “Numbers suggest precision and imply a scientific approach. Numbers appear to have an existence separate from the humans reporting them.”

Illustrations are given of how numbers can be wrong through honest mistakes and misrepresented for either artistic purposes or malicious intent. To their credit, the authors call out how social and political scientists ignore free agency. “When scientists measure the molecular weights of the elements, the elements do not conspire to make themselves heavier and connive to sneak down the periodic table. But when administrators measure the productivity of their employees,… This leads to a corollary of physics’ uncertainty principle where, instead of molecules being buffeted out of their courses by instrumentation, people tend to game any system imposed on them.

One criticism of the book would be that, for all the belaboring of the obvious, albeit with fun illustrations, the authors move rather hand-wavily through more technical sections. The segment on selection bias, for example, leaves the reader guessing why nice but unattractive guys will not want to date her.

After a wild survey of outrageous abuses of statistics, the book closes with ten general pointers on how to “spot bulls**t.” These, of course, are more labor-intensive than simply retweeting something with a headline that resonates with the image an individual wishes to project to his fellow silo inmates. They require digging back to the origins of a story, corroborating claims, and “considering the sources.” Some of the recommendations, like fact-checking with, seem a little naive. The tenth recommendation is to take a break from social media and “revel in ‘missing out.’” The authors draw an analogy between mind pollution and highway litter, adding an eleventh suggestion for users of social media to “think more, share less.”

Throughout, the authors stress the importance of comity. There are many reasons for being wrong, and nobody’s right all the time. One reason the book is so delightful is the many stories the authors share about the way they strengthen each other’s work through kindly criticism and vetting. Pointers include being pertinent, checking carefully before criticizing, valuing truth more than interpersonal impressions, and appreciating how difficult it is to arrive at the truth. After all, the objective is to lift others through knowledge.