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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Censoring the Internet would be bad for science

Liberals are agitating for Google to censor what they call “fake news.” Doing so would be a catastrophe.

B ig media have long wished they could shut down their Internet competitors. And now they think they've found a way: to get search engines like Google to discriminate against “fake news.” We're suddenly seeing a barrage of articles intended to stampede the public into letting it happen.

Google isn't planning to block them yet—just prevent them from using Google Ad Sense, whatever that is. But blocking is what the liberals want.

I rarely use Google these days because of their computer shenanigans: originally they treated a link as a vote. Now they record my searches and show me what they think I want to see instead of what's really there. That makes Google useless for me. But millions of people use it, and most rarely click past the first page of results.

Barbed wire

Scientists spend their entire lives struggling for each bit of infor­mation: does cholesterol cause heart disease or not? Is beta-amyloid the cause of Alzheimer's disease or isn't it? Billions of dollars have been spent trying to nail down these yes or no questions, yet the answer still eludes us.

Google sees itself as an oracle and the repository of all the world's information. But despite appearances, they are not God. If the judgment of our finest minds on our most uncontroversial topics cannot arrive at the truth, how could Google do it? There is no computer algorithm that can determine whether a fact is true. (If there were, it would be the greatest thing for science ever invented.) No board of “experts” can make that determination. If Google tries, they will turn the Internet into a propaganda machine.

CNET, a computer technology website, blamed Hillary Clinton's defeat on “fake news.” They cited a story about the supposed murder-suicide of an FBI agent investigating Clinton's leaked emails and a story about Pope Francis supposedly endorsing Trump as having influenced voters. They quote Airbnb's director of research as saying “Can you imagine if the New York Times or the Guardian made up one percent of their stories?” CNET writer Connie Guglielmo's response:

No, I can't actually.

Think about that: professional writers at CNET are unable to imagine the existence of people like Pulitzer prize winner Walter Duranty, whose lies in the NYT about the Soviet Union had a profound effect on American foreign policy. The Times's false reporting on the fake Duke Lacrosse rape case, and Jayson Blair's acts of plagiarism are beyond the range of their imagination.

The Guardian is the British website that keeps a running total on their front page of blacks in the USA killed by police, never questioning whether the shootings were justified. As far as the Guardian is concerned, the fact that many of these shootings were done in self-defense is irrelevant.

Even if every statement is factual, an article can still be false by omitting exculpatory facts, using selective reporting, or by using biased language. On topics where I am an expert I often find oversimplified facts, state­ments that fail to show both sides of a controversial fact, incorrect citations, and facts that are flat out wrong, even on widely used encyclopedias. Can Google's computer make these judgments? If Google starts out blocking obviously fake news sites, where do they stop? Any site that purports to state a fact could receive a rap on the wrist from Google's rampaging ruler of rectitude.

Here's another example. The NYT accuses the Russian media of spreading fake news stories. Knowing the history of papers like Pravda, whose name has become synonymous with propaganda, it sounds plausible. But if you read the story, you find the Times actually has no idea what's going on:

As often happens in such cases, Swedish officials were never able to pin down the source of the false reports. But they, numerous analysts and experts in American and European intelligence point to Russia as the prime suspect, noting that preventing NATO expansion is a centerpiece of the foreign policy of President Vladimir V. Putin, who invaded Georgia in 2008 largely to forestall that possibility.

Now, I have zero faith in the Russian news media, but this article should be required reading for anyone wishing to learn about weasel words and innuendo. Get a load of this one:

In Britain, analysts said, the Kremlin's English-language news outlets heavily favored the campaign for the country to leave the European Union, despite their claims of objectivity.

Does the NYT seriously believe that Brexiters read RT and Sputnik news wire? Of course not. They're trying to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt by drumming up fears about the Rooskies, the current villain of the Left. These statements may be deceptive but not technically false. Google's truth engine would melt down trying to solve them.

In fact the traditional media have distorted and misrepresented the news for decades and gotten away with it. Conservatives blame them for turning American opinion against the Vietnam war, resulting in its takeover by Communists and the slaughter and oppression of thousands of South Vietnamese. If Google and other sites set themselves up as arbiters of truth, these and many other inconvenient facts could disappear. And I suspect that would be just fine for editorial writers at CNET.

Entire books have been written about the bias and inaccuracy of the news media. A recent survey showed that only 6% of the public have ‘a lot’ of trust in the mass media. So maybe they're just scared of losing revenue.

But even Mark Zuckerberg recognizes the danger. Take the claim that NASA faked the moon landing. If Google were to block sites making this claim, would the claim disappear? Not a chance. It would be taken as further proof of a conspiracy, and this time they would have a good point. The only solution is to present the evidence and allow people to decide for themselves.

Whenever a powerful organization decides what is true, truth becomes political. In the USSR, the government decided the scientific consensus was that acquired traits were inherited. Thousands of biologists were fired for disagreeing; many were executed. Biology and neuroscience in Russia fell far behind the West and remain so to this day.

How do I know this is true? I use multiple sources. I evaluate it against my experience in life and in my reading of the scientific literature. And I use Internet sources such as online encyclopedias, which are somewhat accurate on some topics and not at all accurate on others.

In case you think I'm overreacting, remember that liberals got within inches of making global warming skepticism a crime. Now in their anger about their favorite candidate losing the election, they're trying to turn the Internet into a tool of propaganda. This must not happen. Google and other big companies must resist the urge to become the world's arbiters of truth.

What is false one day can become dogma the next. Only a few years ago the consensus view was that stress caused stomach ulcers. If Google had censored people saying that bacteria caused ulcers, we might never have known the truth.

Just yesterday I was searching for any reports about hydrogen sulfide exposure leading to Parkinson's disease. I didn't find any, but now I wonder: what if these reports were blocked because some search engine decided they're false? No anecdotal reports, a hypothesis becomes unviable, and maybe a cure is missed.

Two days ago I saw an article claiming that Darwin's theory of evolution was false. (Here's another one that is actually rather witty.) Google would undoubtedly flag these, because they run against the consensus view. But even these articles are valuable: they keep scientists on our toes and they remind us that other opinions exist.

The Internet is an essential resource for science. Don't let politics destroy it.

Update, nov 18 2016 7:17 am

The LA Times reports that a professor of communication at Merrimack College has put together a list of “fake news” sites that she thinks should be blocked. The list includes The Onion, Daily Currant, and political sites the the learned professor dislikes such as LewRockwell.com, Infowars, Redstate, Zerohedge and Breitbart. The list has since been taken down (a copy is here) but it has already been turned into a Chrome plug-in. (h/t Infowars.com).

Last edited nov 18 2016, 7:45 am

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