Review of A Survival Guide To The Misinformation Age by David J. Helfand
As some may have noticed, I sometimes tend to go off on tangents and insert observations that come to mind and may not have an easy-to-follow reference to the topic at hand. I intend to keep that tradition alive here.
Published in 2016, the book is missing the pandemic age and the loads of misinformation and disinformation that accompanied the events of the last two-plus years. Dr. Helfand was chair of the Astronomy Department at Columbia University and became President of Quest University, Canada's first independent, non-profit, secular university. A quick glance at the back flap reveals a photograph of someone who looks the part. If you saw his picture in a 'name their occupations' gallery, you would quickly guess college professor, slightly grumpy Santa Claus, or wizard. And since you know the last two aren't real, you would be correct.
I stumbled upon this book as the result of an internet search. I believe it was along the lines of 'how to spot bullshit' or 'how to combat misinformation.' Most were of the same old 'there sure is a lot of crap out there' variety, so the action word 'survival' caught my attention. Since Amazon allows one to browse the contents before purchase, I was able to get a glimpse of the approach taken by the author and determine this was something I wanted to read.
First, we should clear up the difference between misinformation and disinformation. Both can be equally damaging, the only difference lies in intent. Misinformation arises from bias, ignorance, and intellectual languor. Disinformation is a deliberate attempt to deceive, aka lying. In a nutshell, misinformation = gullible and disinformation = evil intent.
Dr. Helfand makes it clear that this is not a science text. In fact, the idea for the book seems to have come from a science class he created for non-science majors. The course and book concern ideas such as falsifiability, probability, observations, and testing. Assumptions are perfectly fine, necessary in some situations, and unconscious at times—it is safe to assume that when you step out of bed your foot will come to rest on a solid floor and you will not go hurtling into space without even thinking about it. Other assumptions can lead to serious misinformation.
We shouldn't forget racial bias in history texts or whether the pharaohs were white guys with tans or whether the real Jesus looked like Ryan Seacrest. These are all important in their way but they are only a small part of the problem. We should be teaching critical thinking starting in elementary school. 'How to spot bullshit' may not be a great title for the curriculum, but it is the correct concept. I believe Dr. Helfand's book would be a great start toward building that curriculum. Instead of passing our ignorance and bias, we should be teaching our children how to think for themselves.
So why do you so readily believe nonsense? The author and I agree that it comes from our evolutionary past. Some of our inherent traits have not changed significantly since our ancestors came down from the trees. Why do we have to challenge our urges to keep from becoming obese? Because the same system that used to 'tell' our bodies 'we better store some of this feast as fat because we will not have anything to eat again for a long time,' is giving the same message when we know we will have enough to eat tomorrow. As hunter-gatherers we had three prime drives: 1. To intake sufficient fuel to maintain life (eat). 2. To avoid becoming fuel for a predator (don't be eaten). 3. To reproduce (maintain the species). These drives are still controlling us today. Some have called it the reptilian brain, but since reptiles had no better method of controlling their environment than moving under the rock when it was hot and moving into the sun when it was cold, this understates our innate capacities greatly. We have always been able to find or build shelter, cover our skins, and modify our environment in other ways.
I prefer to call it the 'Primate Brain', which differentiates our potential from reptiles and other mammals alike. The primal brain is still very active today and is the source of much of our errant beliefs and perceptions. When we saw a striped pattern in the tall grass we immediately associated it with a tiger and took action to remove ourselves from the situation. When you look at the risk v reward ratio this was the logical reaction—a case of better safe than sorry. It may have been a trick of sunlight and shadows but there is little satisfaction in being correct over the risk of becoming tiger chow. The part of us that operates on hunger, fear, and horniness—not a scientific term—is still active and we make way too many erroneous decisions on that basis. There is little we can do about the primate brain, it may always be with us. All we can do is be aware of it and try to make decisions with its influence in mind.
From these reflexive reactions, we proceeded to assign sentient causes to natural events. The source of the wind might be malevolent. Thunder could be caused by giants throwing boulders or some other anthropomorphic cause. There was little or no separation between nature and human emotions. I have had recent cause to suspect this kind of thinking exists today.
The author names the next era, anthropogenic or the "Age or Myths'. During this era, humans became prolific at creating deities. The estimate is over 10,000, which makes any insistence that yours is the one true one seem rather arrogant. There was a god for everything. A lot of progress was made during this time, but there was still great reliance on supernatural explanations of natural phenomena. Explanations of this sort are still with us today and are often preferred to explain events that can easily be explained with observation, data, and logical thought. Dr. Helfand has no editorial comment on the subject other than the vast damage some of these beliefs can do and have done.
Not to sound too much like am partaking in mind-alerting substances, but nature is. Nature has its rules and there is nothing we can do to change the rules. The best we can do is seek to better understand nature and its rules. This is where a scientific approach to knowledge centers. 'Proof' is a mathematical term. Scientists don't prove anything. There is always a degree of uncertainty however small it may be. Though science includes terms like theory, law, and probability, even these are not proofs. Depending on which scientist you talk to, there are few or no laws and a theory by its very nature disprovable. Newton's theory (or law) of gravitational forces had to be modified due to small variations in the orbit of Mercury. Einstein's theory of general added gravity's influence on time and accounted for the variation. The variation is minute and would never have been noticed by those of earlier evolutionary eras. General relativity doesn't explain sub-atomic forces and movements, so the physical theorists are back at the board on working on new explanations.
Science strives to gain a more complete understanding of nature, but its methods are als0 great for gaining and vetting other knowledge. When probing conspiracy theories—a misnomer which both Dr. Helfand and I reluctantly accept due to common usage, calculating probabilities—as well as applying data and analysis—are a great way to debunk. Here is where you should get it directly from the source. I took a statistics class in college and learn how to enter numbers into software to calculate probabilities, but Professor Helfand is so much better at it than me that he can do it on the back of a napkin. It turns out that rare occurrences happen all the time, mostly because there are so many opportunities for occurrences. In the past couple of decades, we have had cancer cluster scares. A Long Island woman told the Associated Press that three women dying of cancer on her block " is not a coincidence, it can't be." The doctor's reply," it can be and probably is." His calculations showed that the probability of such an event happening is roughly once per year. The damage done here was the commissions formed, legislative actions, and studies were all consuming resources that could have been applied elsewhere. The probability involved in winning a multi-million dollar lottery, or any lottery, is quite low for an individual but occurs frequently enough to keep people ignoring the odds and continuing to play.
Of course, some misinformation is unintentional and without malice. You will find these frequently in media releases and it is mostly due to unfamiliarity with the material. Even these can be detected with attention to detail and some basic back-of-the-envelope calculations—or you could cheat and get free conversion software as I did. An article about fast elevators stated that the fastest in the world at Taipei 101 ran at a speed of 3350 feet per second. Fast indeed, it converts to 2250 miles per hour and acceleration of 1051 G. Not to worry, you would be a 90-ton puddle on the floor long before the elevator shot through the top of the shaft and plummeted back to earth. Obviously, the writer had the units wrong and meant to write 3350 feet per minute, which converts to a more reasonable 38 mph, probably still fast enough to make me poop my pants, but not fatal. This is a rather harmless error, the elevator would have never reached 4 times the speed of sound and no one would have been injured—except perhaps the aforementioned pantaloons.
I was always a nerd. We had a set of World Book encyclopedias that I actually read without being required to so. There were rumors in the later sixties of being able to read the daily newspaper on your TV and computers that could find anything or do any calculation. I was excited and look to those days with great anticipation. Little was I able to foretell the misinformation nightmare that would accompany my information nirvana. But here we are. The masters of manipulation have destroyed all the rules and can freely spread stories with less credibility than those told by traveling minstrels.
Without going into more depth, I can say that we need to be ever more vigilant in vetting information in all its forms and we must teach our children the same. A Survival Guide To The Misinformation Age is an excellent place to start. Along with my other projects, this is one I intend to study and practice much more. As a final personal note: Dr. Helfand also includes a chapter titled "What Is Not Science." One of the first on the list was acupuncture. There is absolutely no evidence that chi exists or that it travels on pathways throughout the body. A controlled study done by the Mayo Clinic found that it only seems to have any effect on those who already believed it would. This is the classic definition of the placebo effect. It is my opinion that all astrologists, faith healers, homeopathic practitioners, acupuncturists, and to a slightly lesser degree chiropractors, that charge money for these sham practices should be charged with fraud.