Adding rigor to information analysis in the era of Fake News and Alternative Facts

Collecting information about our surroundings, analyzing it to make conclusions, and then performing actions based on those conclusions is the definition of life itself. Organisms generally care most about their food source, dangerous strangers nearby, environmental changes, and family planning. For example, the rabbit pays attention to nearby gardens, the closest rival warren, any nearby foxes, human constructions, and potential lover rabbits*. The human was concerned with roughly the same things for years immeasurable, but since the Bronze Age, as we spread out globally and invented neat technologies, things became a bit more complex.

The cutting edge of public consumption of information has gone through a long series of advances in speed, quantity, and quality from riders on horses to satellite-connected digital multimedia. We no longer need to wait for a letter by sea or wonder if a message was somehow altered during its journey.

But it comes with a cost. We are only capable of rationally analyzing so much information at a time. So, we rely on analysis and filtration by Trusted Others. For various topics, our Trusted Others are our friends and family, some subject matter expert, our role models, our politicians, and our media. Well, trust in those traditional bastions of analysis is low. In the face of Alternative Facts and Fake News, I believe we need to inject a bit more rigor into our analysis. You and I, as public consumers of information should demand some data. When we engage in discussions and arguments, let’s have something of substance to back ourselves up.

I understand that most people are not scientists, but most of the issues of our day require at least 5 minutes of high-school level thought. That is indeed why we went to high school. So the job of the subject matter expert and the media should be to condense information into digestible chains of observation, hypothesis, tests of the hypothesis, rejection of possible alternate hypotheses, conclusions, and possible actions moving forward.

I’ve noticed that often when we see something (observation), we tell ourselves a story about why it happened or what it means (hypothesis) and just jump straight to conclusions and actions. During that jump, we lose half the country and we gridlock on the actions. If we acknowledge the alternate hypotheses and explain systematically why we think they’re wrong, perhaps we can actually progress. We also must accept solid criticism from the opposing view.

Crowd density

Instead of “crowds were estimated at 500k, compared to 1000k last time,” let’s have “as you can see, this aerial photograph, taken at the moment of the swearing in (assumed to correlate with peak crowd size), indicates an average crowd density of 5 people per square meter over an area of 100,000 square meters. Thus, we estimate there were 500,000 people in this crowd. Using the same exact method with this archive photo from a few years back, you can clearly see the density and size are twice as high, leading to an estimate of 1000k. ”

It’s not hard to use data in some of these arguments. We aren’t so unintelligent that we can’t understand that concept.  Trusted Others, teach us how it’s done and show the analysis! Then we can discuss the methods of analysis and maybe get somewhere rather than just attacking the character and intent of the media.

Once you agree on crowd size itself you can start debating various hypotheses about what that means for Donald Trump’s popularity. Was weather also a factor? Why or why not? Does any of this actually matter anyway? In some cases, this matters a lot.

Climate Change

How about climate change? The main argument I hear supporting the idea that humans are warming the earth is that “most scientists believe humans are warming the earth.” It appears though, that we’re in a society where that argument alone does not convince the all of the public and/or decision makers. So let’s try to focus on some public-facing scientific process. I’d like to see more discussions along the lines of:

  1. The following global measurements indicate that the earth is warming rapidly
  2. The following Mauna Loa observatory measurements (and others) shows that CO2 levels are at an all-time high
  3. Human usage of fossil fuels releases x amount of CO2 compared to y from other sources (which we know because…) and is reduced by z sinks (which we know because…). As you can see, the balance clearly indicates that the increase in CO2 is dominated by human fossil fuel activity.
  4. The greenhouse effect is quite real as shown by these studies and measurements. CO2 is not the majority greenhouse gas (water vapor is), but it is significant. We think global warming is happening because of this effect (vs. changes in the sun’s irradiance) because only the lower layers of the atmosphere are heating (see these balloon measurements). Indeed, the warming rate we’re seeing correlates well with atmospheric models with increased CO2.
  5. Other possible explanations for the measurements we’re seeing include the following: (a), (b), (c), and (d). We don’t think those explanations are right because ____.
  6. Rational plans of action appropriate to the understood risks and uncertainty include the following _______. What about carbon-free nuclear reactors? Let’s talk about them in turn.

(BTW NASA has a pretty good page on Climate Change, though, frankly, it’s itself a bit weak in tying warming to human activity. That is so controversial and hotly debated right now in the seemingly complete absence of public-facing measurements that I’m just flabbergasted. Let me know if you’ve seen something solid.)

Net

Don’t rely on platitudes. Organize your data and challenge your stories. There are no alternative facts but there are alternative hypotheses. Try not to attack the character or intent of those you’re arguing with (ad hominem is not convincing). We should be only slightly less lazy in running a society than we’re forced to be in high school. Write to your media company and ask them to present facts first, then stories about the facts. I’d much rather talk about hypotheses than argue about facts themselves.

*Yes, I read Watership Down.

APPENDIX A

These tables will BLOW YOUR MIND! (kidding)

Media used during transmission
Media Precision Info density
Word of mouth Poor Small
Written word Good OK
Printed word Good Large
Morse code Good Small
Video Good Large
Digital Good Huge
Method of transmission
Info Transport Rate Scope
Runner Slow Tiny
Horse Medium Small
Boat Slow Big
Train Fast Medium
Copper wire Fast Big
Radio Fast Galactic
Fiber optic Insane Global

 

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