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2-2 The Age of Misinformation

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We live in amazing times. I have been around long enough to know the world before there was a global network connecting us all. Before the internet, people got their information from newspapers, radio, television, and books written by experts. If you wanted to dig deeply into a topic, it meant a trip to your local library and searching manually through something called the card catalog. In every library, there was a room full of cabinets with tiny little drawers, each of them packed with 3 x 5 index cards with subjects and locations written on them. You dug through it to find the topic of interest and then walked the stacks of books and periodicals in the library to obtain what you needed. It was a slow, arduous process. At best, you would find maybe a dozen articles of interest after a day of searching. What you could learn was restricted by the labor involved in locating it. It was also limited by who could author such information because publishing anything was expensive. Which voices had the megaphone was under the control of the publishing industry who served as gatekeepers.

The internet has changed our modern world. Here are two of the more significant impacts:

The rise of search engines, presently dominated by Google, made it trivial to find the answer to any question by just using a few search terms. No more heading to the library to locate what you want. In seconds you can have hundreds of articles on any topic. One caveat to this panacea is that the information desired has to be available digitally. There was some initial resistance to this. The previous stakeholders, traditional publishers of information, were fearful of the competition of the internet, and rightly so. Newspaper and magazine subscriptions have dropped precipitously as the internet has expanded. But the demands of the market won out, and all significant traditional publishers now have a web presence. Publishers still struggle today to find business models that allow them to publish high-quality work, yet generate enough revenue.

The second consequential change has a light and dark side. The gatekeepers have lost control. Before the internet, If you wanted to reach a broad audience, you had to convince a publishing company that your work was worth mass-producing. If you were not able to persuade them, you were out of luck. Even gifted authors, who have had great success, have stacks of rejection slips. Theodore Geisel’s (Dr. Seuss) first book, And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected by at least 20 publishers. Alex Haley, most famous as the author of Roots, kept his rejection slips and received over 200 of them. Publishers passed over J. K. Rowlings Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 12 times. I wonder if the editors at those publications who rejected Harry Potter ever think about that mistake?

With the rise of the internet, the barriers to publishing have fallen away, diminishing the power of the gatekeepers. Anyone who has access to the internet can begin writing, and if an audience finds their ideas appealing, they can garner a following. This distribution of publishing power has immense upsides. Different perspectives have bloomed from every corner of the internet.

But along with the many roses that are thriving, there are an awful lot of stinkweeds. Numerous bad, wrong, or dangerous ideas have found a following. In the past, experts could check written works for factual accuracy and prevent unworthy views from seeing the light of day. There are even folks who are pushing the idea that the world is flat and the moon landing never happened. Many dangerous ideologies see the light of day because anyone can publish them.

Another danger of the multitude of information and information sources is that you can wall yourself off in like-minded communities and never expose yourself to opposing views that will challenge your misconceptions. A great example of this is political communities such as DailyKos and Redstate, where folks of similar political viewpoints gather. Many in these communities are intelligent, fair-minded people, but it is far too easy to lull yourself into an alternate reality that doesn’t match the facts. In 2012, many conservatives were confident that Mitt Romney was going to win against Barack Obama. In 2016, many liberals were equally convinced that Hillary Clinton was going to triumph easily over Donald Trump. Both of these communities willfully ignored inconvenient facts that challenged their perceptions.

Add to all of this the rise of "artificial intelligence." Numerous cases of AI making things up have garnered national attention. In a public demonstration of Bard, a Google AI chatbot, it was asked, "What new discoveries from the James Webb Space Telescope can I tell my 9-year-old about?" In a list of bullet points, it incorrectly stated: "JWST took the very first pictures of a planet outside of our own solar system." This caused a 100 billion dollar drop in Google's market capitalization. In my own work, I have caught students using AI to write papers, and the kicker is always that the bot will make up references. In addition, my research has shown that these AIs, when pushed to answer intermediate questions about microbiology, earn a failing grade.

With the rise of simplified, ungoverned production and instantaneous access to information, we now live in an age of misinformation. How can you find fact from fiction? How do you expose yourself to alternative viewpoints? Is there a routine you can use to keep yourself honest? In this chapter, I will lay out a strategy to answer all of these questions. First, we will talk about who in this vast universe of knowledge you can trust. Then we will delve into scientific literature talking about the three levels of information. Next, I will then lay out a useful recipe to follow for truth and understanding. Finally, I will walk through three example topics and demonstrate applying these methods.