Events Surviving the Misinformation Age

Date: Wednesday, January 9th 2019, 19:00 – 21:00
Location: CFLD Hall, Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University
Speaker: David Helfand, Professor at the Department of Astronomy, Columbia University

Professor David Helfand delivered a thought-provoking lecture, asking scholars to consider the misinformation they are exposed to on a daily basis and how to tackle the plethora of ‘facts’ now freely available.

Professor Helfand set the scene. For thousands of years, the information humans had access to was not only scarce but also difficult to share. If a tribe’s shaman wanted to pass knowledge regarding rewarding areas to hunt, the best watering-holes, nontoxic berries to eat or animal migration patterns, it would be a lengthy process requiring a member to be removed from the hunting party. Even in the last few hundred years, written information has been relatively expensive to produce and share, and often the preserve of the educated elite. However, the last three decades have witnessed an unprecedented explosion in the volume of information human beings have available to them. Information has gone from being limited, difficult to access and expensive to being ubiquitous, unlimited and (largely) free.

Professor Helfand delved deeper into how the quality of information shared has also changed, leading to the current ‘tsunami of misinformation’. Previously, those sharing information were responsible to ensure that the information they shared was correct for the benefit of their kin, and ‘quality control’ was easy – either the berries were demonstrably toxic or they were not. With the rise of the Internet, faceless individuals can communicate with millions, if not billions, of equally faceless men, women and children worldwide on every imaginable topic with no inherent sense of responsibility or inbuilt quality control. The result is this ‘tsunami’ of information that is often flawed and frequently downright false.

Whilst it is not new that humans are exposed to either accidentally or purposefully false information, the technology we now use to access information has changed the limits of plausibility. These new, expanded limits delivered in a modern medium mean that not only do more people believe ever more extreme fallacies, but also they are able to build a self-reinforcing bubble where they only receive information supporting these ideas. Professor Helfand expanded on this and discussed the way that this cornucopia of information and inherent human nature means that ‘fake news’ and conspiracy theories have been proven to spread faster that real news or proven facts.

There are some examples where the spreading of fake news or facts could be seen as fairly benign. However, Professor Helfand went into more detail into the sinister impacts of rising mass irrationality and increasing number of self-reinforcing bubbles. One example of this is how a factually incorrect article published in British medical journal The Lancet in 1998 linking the MMR vaccine with autism has taken hold in popular thinking. Now, such significant numbers of parents are not having their children vaccinated that it is threatening group immunisation of humans worldwide. Despite the original article having long since been retracted, these ideas propagated by it are still in such virulent circulation that the British Veterinary Association was forced to issue a statement in 2018, confirming that dogs cannot develop autism.

Professor Helfand discussed the global need for a fundamental change in the way that humans gather information and evaluate its plausibility. In its current state, the Internet represents a qualitatively different threat to that posed by books, radio and television when they first appeared as sources of information. Misinformation abounds on subjects from climate change to homeopathy and in the hands of voters, and even those in power, fosters not just benign beliefs on the power of pseudoscientific cures but also threatens to impact public policy globally. Going forward, Professor Helfand advocated the need for a greater understanding of statistics, probability, uncertainty and scientific limitations to be able to assess information more rationally. It is critical that we cultivate a healthy skepticism of everything we see, hear and read in order to ensure the continued safety and progress of humanity.

By Holly Holdsworth