Bits of conspiracy theory–my own small discovery–some explanations (TED talk)–information hygiene (Book review)–tips
A lot of the information, ideas and opinions in this article sprung from the Rationality movement. For more details and breath-taking posts please visit Less Wrong at https://www.lesswrong.com/
Or Slate Star Codex: https://slatestarcodex.com/.
A HUGE thanks to teachers and friends at European Summer Program of Rationality, for bringing my attention to information hygiene
Recently, I stumbled upon a curious finding by amateur satellite researchers. This finding has some fame, and it actually isn’t exactly new anymore, but it caught my attention. People claimed that there is a mysterious pyramid at the South Pole which is leading to an entrance to the centre of the earth, which is apparently, hollow, and contains a large civilization. Curious, I immediately opened Google Earth to check out this satellite image. It took little effort to locate it, as it is now labelled “Historical Site” and has a rating of 4.6 stars. Opening 24 hours, it is apparently an ideal place to spend the weekend.
At first glance it is very intriguing. Yes, it does look like a very symmetric object; it is mystical and beautiful under the white sheet of snow, and it does seem like something only an ancient intelligent civilization not yet discovered could create. Conspiracy theorist claims that this is the entrance to the hollow inner earth housing a developed city built by a highly evolved species which is constantly vigilant over human behaviour. NASA has been trying to mask this image but it unfortunately leaked out; A Youtube video shows some images supposedly taken by satellites showing a hole in both poles, and claims that pilot and explorer Admiral Richard Byrd has once been down there and have sighted strange and monstrous animals.
I was intrigued, but at the same time, my inner skeptic was like: “Come on, really?”
Everyone loves a bit of good conspiracy theory, but my frank opinion is that 90 percent, if not more, of the videos on Youtube and pins on Pinterest involving new and strange discoveries are false.
First of all, evidences are easy to fake, just hire some actors, do some photoshop. Secondly, even if the data gathered were real, the human brain has an amazing ability to piece together hazy data and make sense of grainy images to convince itself of coincidences and truths. Martian faces do indeed look like faces, but we just tend to forget that those faces also exist in your garden, on the sidewalk, it just hadn’t been brought to our attention.
Just to prove how easily these theories can be made, I decided to try to find a “historical landmark” on earth on my own. So I sat at my table, randomly selected a piece of earth, zoomed in, and within five minutes I have my own discovery. Look at the photo below of a lake— the lake itself is not that important.
Zoom in closer…
Maybe it’s just me, but don’t it look a bit like a snarling face? I can give you the coordinates on the google earth, you can explore it as much as you like: 30°58’08.3″N 89°36’01.9″E
Of course it’s not really made by demons in some folklore, but the point I’m trying to make is that we are pattern seeking animals, given unfamiliar knowledge territory it is only sensible to try and make sense of the grainy data, and try to mold a model of something we already know over it. However, with all the information flowing around us, we should be mindful of what to believe in, be a little skeptical, and examine everything with a scientific point of view. For more fun involving all the pseudosciences, check out this TED talk: Why people believe in weird things.
At the same time, like any good scientist we should accept each hypothesis with an open heart and do experiments to rule out possibilities. Say for example, let’s accept the hollow earth theory mentioned before as a testable hypothesis. There are many different arguments that is contrary to this, I’ll just list here one of them: the evidence of the seismic wave.
Geologist couldn’t go deep down into the earth’s centre to discover the nature of the earth, so instead they rely on indirect data. Seismic wave is one one them. Like all waves, seismic waves also refract when it enters a different medium, and their velocities change in different types of soil, different pressure, and different temperatures. Also, there are different seismic waves that travel in different fashions, there are longitudinal waves (P-waves) and S-waves (Shear waves). It is by comparing the speed changes in the seismic wave that we got to know the structure of the earth in the first place. If the earth is hollow, the refractive index would be very different from when the earth is solid, so the speed of these waves would be very different from what we actually perceive. Other evidence includes gravitational effect, earth density, and of course, direct observation.
All these conspiracy theories are very interesting to read about, but I was reflecting on this topic and wanted to relate it to something more general. At the age of social media and fake news, we are saturated in noise and it is very hard to make out the truth. That is why it is so crucial to practice Information Hygiene.
We are all very mindful of our own personal hygiene: we all know that we are surrounded by dust and bacteria at all times, and if we get a cut we need to put a bandaid on it. However, too often we let our guard down on vital yet invisible things like our emotional state, our social status or our relationship. Information higiene is another thing that has been largely ignored, and over the summer through exploring Rationalism, I learnt just how important this skill could be. We are surrounded by more information than ever before, but if we do not yet develop the habit of dusting off and cleansing ourselves of the pieces of hearsays and rumours we will have no reliable and concrete ground to build our understanding of the world on.
Information can be contaminated in various ways, one is to fake evidence but far more commonly, people might be looking at real data, made very serious analysations but arrived at the wrong conclusions. Real and serious does not mean correct. A classic example that I really like is that of the stockbroker which appeared in the book How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg:
A stockbroker sends you an email everyday predicting the rise or fall of a certain company’s stock price. And for 10 consecutive days, the predictions are bang on correct. The probability of this happening by chance is minustimal, smaller than 0.05, therefore you can conclude by Fisher’s test of significance that the stockbroker is a genius. The fact, however, is that he sends out mass emails to 100,000 people on a Monday regarding the rise and fall of the price of a certain company. Half of the emails says that it would rise in the next day, the other half predicting its fall. On Tuesday, he abandons the half of the people who received the ‘wrong prediction’ and divide the remaining people by half again, and so on. Given that 2 to the 10th power is 1024, he would have comfortably just under one hundred awe-struck people who would hopefully invest in his company.
In this example, what is improbable becomes a certainty. Statistics are deceptive, and we need to always take what we hear with a pinch of salt. For more information, please read How Not To Be Wrong– the Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg, and I’ll just add one quote from the book I love here: What is improbable is probable. Given enough sample size, anything may happen, no matter how small the probability. So a lot of miracles are not really miracles, it’s just that the universe has flipped too many coins and 100 consecutive heads has to come up.
So, what does Information Hygiene mean?
In short it means keeping a skeptical eye out for the things you read and hear. This way, we can avoid false information as much as possible. Here are a few tips for managing information:
- Choose authentic source of information. Talk with sensitive people, and read the news from reliable sources. Always read the reference of the information, and preferably check if that source is reliable as well. Read multiple articles on the same thing, especially the news on politics: people have so many different takes and opinions it is almost impossible to reach a consensus. And that is providing that they have the same information at hand. Check date as well: a news report from a year ago is close to no good, and a study too recent has not had the time to be repeated and checked yet.
- Red flag the general language. When they say “scientists say” or “study shows”, they are not actually commenting which scientist, what institute and how scientific is the study. When things like this appears in the headlines, it would be wise to ensure that it is not a piece of marketing.
- Beware of sexy titles. Examine the credibility of all the fancy news headlines, how probable is this thing actually happening? How close is this claim with my model of the universe? Try to come up with ways to test the claim, and if there is a conflict between the story and my model of the world, then one of them has to be fictitious, which leads us to the next point…
- Look at your own model of the world. If I’m confused, then either what I perceive is wrong, or something that I believe must be wrong. If the information is credible, then it is very important to ask the question why do I believe what I believe? This is not only central to information hygiene, it is the question for rational thinking. Beware of the inner biases(I believe what I want to believe) or the halo effect (i believe what an authority tells me).
- Prevent the spread of doubtful info. If you find a piece of information even a bit fishy, try to think twice before telling it to people, because information always spread exponentially.
Being skeptical is a valuable skill that needs to be perfected constantly and there is always room for improvement. But I think the effort is certainly worth it, just to ensure that your world is a more peaceful and pristine place.