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Sunday, December 04, 2016

Lying about fake news

The only thing worse than fake news is big media corporations trying to censor it in the guise of protecting us.

Trigger warning T he Internet universe is composed of information. Twitter and Facebook became powerful because they provided an easier way for ordinary people to share information and make their voices heard. Google succeeded because it provided a way to negotiate, find, and select among those voices.

But people crave power, and these companies cannot resist using their economic power to control that universe. Under the banner of a crusade against fake news, they're trying to reinstitute the gatekeeper model. Facebook is adding warnings, like the trigger warnings on college textbooks, to sites they deem non-credible, and Google is no doubt tweaking their algorithms to make them un-findable. If, by some miracle, they manage to do it fairly, they'll still be gatekeepers, which is a polite word for censors. If they can't, they'll lose the confidence of their remaining customers.

Trigger warning

They're trying to create an environment like in that dystopic sci-fi movie where their TV news was plastered with warnings, like we have nowadays about packages of peanuts possibly, and possibly not, containing peanuts.

Maybe, you might say, we should just be grateful. Academics have found a way to re-introduce chastity among college students, and at least now liberals are admitting that, indeed, there is such a thing as truth. What's the world coming to? What next: quoting Aquinas and reciting parts of Aristotle's Metaphysics by heart?

Almost everything that's being said and written these days is designed to deceive us or manipulate our opinion. Eliminating falsehoods from Facebook would certainly free up a lot of disk space, but a lot of information deceives us unintentionally. If we're not careful, the meanings of words slip away from us. And since our ethical standards are always expressed in words, when words slip away they can take our sense of right and wrong along with them.

Take the time Hillary Clinton said that Comey sent a letter “to the Republican members of the House.“ Her opponents called that a distortion because Comey sent it to the relevant chairs, which included Democrats as well as Republicans. But it was more than a distortion: it was a lie. Half a truth is not the truth any more than half a chair is a chair. And yet many would say that technically, it was true.

Those endless “refresher” courses we get at work are full of questions designed to catch this type of reasoning. Example: How long are you required to retain your records:

○  3 months
○  6 months
○  1 year
○  2 years

Logically, you might think 3 months is always the correct answer, since if you have to store something for 6 months you first have to store it for 3. But of course that's not how it works.

Deceptive language is all around us. Corporations say the so-and-so Mr So-And-So “left to pursue better opportunities,” which of course means he was fired. A couple months ago I was on a jury where the guy in the witness stand said, “The gun was there ... then it went off. It was just a terrible, terrible thing.” These are all different ways we use self-protecting language to deceive ourselves and others.

Detectives are trained to notice deceptive language (see The 10 tell-tale signs of deception by Paul M. Clikeman here). But even among people whose livelihood depends on conveying accurate information, the lines are hard to see. No one would ever say in a scientific paper “Cross my heart and hope to die if I'm lying!”, but even there euphemisms are common. If you're treating some disease, you don't need to say the patients died from it; if you didn't say you cured them, it's assumed. If you run a drug trial and never report any results, it doesn't necessarily mean a cover up. The sponsor could have gone under, or key personnel may have died or gotten fired. We take this into account when evaluating the literature.

But if someone wrote in a paper that “no adverse events were noted in most of the 60 patients in the study” you might think the treatment was pretty safe—and you'd be pretty pissed if they “forgot” to mention that they all died.

Or if someone captioned a figure “representative slice from three experiments” but neglected to say the other 25 times they got a totally different result, that too is lying by omission. Likewise if they said "the levels of protein xyz decreased by 75%" and neglected to add that, in fact, all the other proteins decreased by 75% as well, because 3/4 of the cells died.

These are all lies, and I've seen examples of each of them. I'm editing a manuscript now where somebody keeps writing “Taken together, the results show this, that, and the other thing.“ I'm having trouble convincing him that what this expression means is that individually they don't show it. And if the individual results don't show it, unless your logic is 100% exclusive (which never happens in the real world) it means that collectively they don't show it, either.

Then there all those articles in the mainstream press attributing everything bad to global warming. It's a veritable flood of fake news about climate.

I'd be utterly shocked if Google and Facebook started blocking global warming articles. Their motives are clearly political. But even if they weren't, focusing on blatantly fake news would still leave us wide open to all of these other ways of being deceived. They are far more insidious because they make us think we're getting the truth when we're not. Blatantly fake news stories are the antibodies that keep our mental immune system alive. As bad as fake news is, about the only thing worse is censoring it. And about the only thing worse than censoring it is lying about it and calling it something else.

Last edited dec 07 2016, 5:58 am

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