Monday, December 26, 2016

Fake News and the Truth Problem

"Fake News" entered the discourse as a term for propagandistic internet stories that had been entirely made up, a way to single out the worst offenders in a time of media misbehavior. But right-wing voices like Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart have taken it over as a way to refer to the mainstream media, denouncing every anti-Trump story as "Fake News."
Rush Limbaugh has diagnosed a more fundamental problem. “The fake news is the everyday news” in the mainstream media, he said on his radio show recently. “They just make it up.”

Some supporters of President-elect Donald J. Trump have also taken up the call. As reporters were walking out of a Trump rally this month in Orlando, Fla., a man heckled them with shouts of “Fake news!”

Until now, that term had been widely understood to refer to fabricated news accounts that are meant to spread virally online. But conservative cable and radio personalities, top Republicans and even Mr. Trump himself, incredulous about suggestions that that fake stories may have helped swing the election, have appropriated the term and turned it against any news they see as hostile to their agenda.
This problem is not going away, partly because the mainstream press has not exactly covered itself with glory lately. Consider the campus rape stories from Virginia and Duke that made headlines before turning out to be fabricated. If those weren't fake news, why not? Or all the stories on pre-election polls. If a thousand headlines proclaiming Hillary the likely winner turned out to be wrong, were they fake news? Why not? Because they relied on the calculations of professional pollsters, who as card-carrying members of the establishment have the credentials to be taken seriously, whereas ordinary Trump supporters who just felt in their bones that he was going to win do not? What about all the news stories about the findings of so-called "dietary science"? What about all the famous experiments in psychology that have failed replication? And what about all the news stories that treat one failed replication as proof that the original finding was wrong, without making any attempt to compare the details of the two experiments?

I think the scientific community is making a terrible mistake by proclaiming the certainty of climate projections that are nothing but educated guesses. As I have said many times, I worry about the effects of filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and wish we would stop this mad experiment, but I think models of the climate future are no more reliable than election polls. I really wish people would be more careful with their claims, because not even pushing for action to protect the planet is more important than defending the whole notion of truth.

My readers know that I try to be careful in figuring out what is true and what is not. I regularly preface claims about cancer treatments and archaeogenetics with "wonderful if it turns out to be true." I cannot think of anything to do in the face of truth's erosion except to double down: to work even harder to sort the probable from the possible from the false, the slanted from the exaggerated from the lie.  It simply won't do to put stories from the NY Times in one category and tweets from Trump in another, because sometimes the Times is wrong and sometimes Trump is right. The lazy news habit of just citing what spokesmen from both sides say has to be abandoned, because recent experience shows that spokesmen lie, and it is absolutely the business of journalists to figure out who is lying and call them on it.

In a world of ever more brazen lying, it falls to those who care about the truth to defend it as an absolute value, more important than partisan politics. As the elite consensus collapses, it falls on believers in reason to put it back in the center of our discourse.


G. Verloren said...

"I think the scientific community is making a terrible mistake by proclaiming the certainty of climate projections that are nothing but educated guesses. As I have said many times, I worry about the effects of filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and wish we would stop this mad experiment, but I think models of the climate future are no more reliable than election polls."

The terrible mistake is yours, and that of countless other ignorant laypeople who refuse to believe what scientists have been trying to tell them for decades.

These are not mere "educated guesses". We have 5 million years of temperature records from sediment cores. We have staggering amounts of data telling us what global temperatures were like over that time period, and how that affected the planet. This is not guesswork - this is cold, hard, overwhelmingly verified, scientific fact.

Let's put some things in perspective here.

Roughly 20,000 years ago, during the coldest part of the last ice age, much of North America (including where you live in DC) was under a sheet of ice half a mile thick. At this point, the average global temperature was 4.5 degrees celsius lower than the average temperature of modern times.

By the end of this century, without sudden and massive decreases to our global greenhouse emissions which frankly don't look like they're going to happen, we're going to see global temperatures rise another 4.5 degrees celsius compared to the modern average.

In roughly 80 years, the temperature of the planet is going to increase by as much as it did over the course of the previous 20,000 years. Another century after that, it'll happen again, and we're going to see temperatures on par with the cretaceous hothouse, which will literally produce sea level rises of 200+ meters, melt every glacier on the face of the planet, and result in palm trees being able to grow at the poles.

Again, this is not conjecture. This is not guesswork. We know exactly how much energy enters the atmosphere from the heat of the sun, and we know exactly how much energy the atmosphere radiates back out into space, and we know exactly how increasing amounts of greenhouse gases reduces the atmosphere's ability to radiate that heat, and consequently we know exactly how much extra heat the planet is going to retain if we keep dumping these gases into the atmosphere.

Historical temperature change has been slow and linear, and even then, it completely reshaped the face of the planet. We are now approaching exponential rates of change on a scale multiple orders of magnitude more drastic than anything we've ever seen even the slightest evidence for in all of history.

We are racing headlong toward a cliff. We have a few scant decades to stop ourselves plunging over the edge.

John said...

I know a quite a bit about climate science, since it is important for my profession. And I know two real experts who are very much up on the latest science, with whom I talk on a regular basis, and they feel the same way I do: the predictions are guesses. They both think that rising CO2 concentrations should probably lead to rising temperatures, but they don't think our models are good enough to generate the detailed predictions regularly cited in the literature.

No existing model can be run backwards to get us the climate we have know happened in the past.

No existing model can explain why CO2 concentrations began to rise at the end of the last Ice Age. It might be the sun, but then again it might not. (

No existing model can explain why the rise in global temperatures slowed so much from 1945 to 1970, a time when CO2 concentrations were skyrocketing.

Given these uncertainties, it seems like hubris to says things like "global temperatures will rise 2 degrees in this century" or whatever. Nobody is going to get any argument from me about the wisdom of phasing out fossil fuels, since for all we know the temperature rise might actually be much worse than predicted, instead of better.

But I think making detailed predictions is dangerous, because they will open science up to mockery if the details turn out to be wrong.

Shadow said...

Will it be fake news? :-)