Fake news or false news?

The prevalence of “fake news” on the internet has been a hot topic recently. We often take for granted what we read in newspapers or hear on radio or TV. Is it really any better?

Fake news or false news?

Ken Piper, June 7, 2017

The prevalence of “fake news” on the internet has been a hot topic recently. We have learned to be wary of so-called news that we read on the internet, as we are with sensationalist tabloid stories. However, we often take for granted what we read in newspapers or magazines, or hear on the radio or television. Is it really any better? “If it’s on TV, it must be true!”

Over the years, I have noticed that the news I read in newspapers or news magazines is full of factual errors. Nearly every article that is about something I know, is wrong in some way. Radio and television news is the same, not just minor details, but major omissions and factual errors. In some cases, it is apparently because the writer and the editor are not subject matter experts. I notice this in scientific or technical articles in subject areas with which I am familiar. In other cases, it is factual errors about an event that has happened, or about a person I know. This may be because of misinformation the writer received and didn’t verify, false assumptions about the who and what of an event, or just plain sloppy reporting. The editors often make this worse by giving the article a title that contradicts the information in the article itself.

Let me emphasize, this is almost every news report that is about something that I know absolutely! So, what does this mean about everything else in the news – the articles on something I don’t already know about? Without having done a public survey of news accuracy, I can only assume that all news is chock-full of falsehoods – why would it be limited to my areas of expertise?

Is this fake news or false news? If it is intentionally wrong, with the purpose of misleading the reader, as is the case in many internet articles or tabloids sold at the grocery store checkout counter, then it is obviously fake news. If it is honest mistakes, even from sloppy reporting, it is false news. What if it is dissemination of information by someone who is seen as an expert, or claims to be an expert, but is not?

Bill Nye the “Science Guy” comes to mind. He seems to know a lot about science (could be his writers), but he is not really a scientist and besides, can’t be an expert in all the areas of science he talks about. He was a mechanical engineer, and Wikipedia (correctly, in my view) labels him a “science communicator.” So, when he says something that is either factually wrong, or presents something as a certainty that is still under debate, is that fake news or false news?

The president regularly tweets about “fake news.” In some cases it may be fake news; more commonly it is probably false news, or just something he doesn’t agree with. When a political party pays people to agitate at an adversary’s campaign rally, is that fake news? The event really happened, but the real news is that it was a fake protest.

Can we even trust peer-reviewed scientific journals? As scientists have become advocates for their personal beliefs, it is becoming obvious that the reviewers and editors are often becoming censors of things they don’t agree with or that don’t fit their social agenda. Because of this, some researchers are advocating self-publishing on the internet as a way around the problem. But without the prestige of a known journal, it is hard to get anyone to even find your work on the internet, let alone bother to read it.

So, how can we know the truth about anything? We can’t trust the news, and maybe not even the scientific literature, so should we just not read or listen to it? Many people only watch news channels that fit their political point of view. So, they are missing out on opposing viewpoints. Maybe it doesn’t matter. If they can’t get really true news, false news is the best they can get and they don’t trust the other stations anyway. After all, they are just “fake news.”

Has society made us less intelligent? Are we now making it worse?

Society and its technology has likely made us less intelligent. Is our educational policy making this worse?

I have long asserted that society has contributed to a reversal of natural selection for humans. I am not saying this is bad, or good, just noticing that it seems to be so. For example, lacking the protections of society, a person with poor eyesight or poor hearing, or a poor runner or climber would be an easy target for large predators. Because of that, natural selection would result in culling out those detrimental characteristics, and those with superior skills and senses would be favored. This, of course applies to intelligence, as well. People in modern societies do not need superior skills or intelligence to survive and procreate.

If you are of the mindset that people with college degrees are smarter than those with fewer years of schooling, you still have to agree that, on average, people are less intelligent now. After all, college-educated people have fewer children. I don’t agree with that proposition; there are plenty of people without access to schools, or who have chosen not to go to college, that are just as smart as those who have a Ph.D. Notice here that I am using schooling to differentiate from education in general; the latter includes learning from parents or others and from life experience.

Many years ago I read about other types of intelligence that are not measured by our standard IQ testing. I remember particularly about the abilities of early Polynesians to navigate over thousands of miles to get to their destination islands. Modern humans, Polynesians included, do not have this ability. Another example that comes to my mind is how African Bushmen track animals. They can tell by the smell of dung how long ago the animal was at a particular location. If they had wounded the animal using poisoned spears, they could tell by the smell which dung was from the poisoned animal. People from so-called advanced societies do not have this ability, although I guess it could be learned.

If you could take identical twins, separated at birth, and have one raised in a privileged environment where he or she went to the best schools, and the other raised in the wild, free to roam and explore the world, which would be smarter? The privileged twin would have a more limited and focused set of experiences. The other twin would have a greater variety of experiences from which to learn, and would have skills in many things. You could liken this to someone who had gotten a graduate degree in some specialty versus someone who learned many trades, perhaps not as deeply, but sufficient for a working proficiency in each. Their innate in-born intelligence should be the same. But, considering their experience, would you say one is smarter?

In my mind, intelligence (or smartness) does not refer to what one knows, but how well they can learn and creatively figure things out. And you can learn from all experiences, not just what is taught in school.

sapiens neanderthal skulls
Comparison of skull sizes of modern human (l.) and Neanderthal (r.).

When I first read that Neanderthals had larger brains than modern humans, I wondered if they were smarter than we are. I believe, as I argue in the first paragraph, that they must have been smarter (on average) in order to survive the harsh environment they lived in, and without technology. I am sure that this was also true of early modern humans who lived during the same time period as Neanderthals, but did not have larger brains than we do. People in modern societies do not need to be smart; society and its technology bring them along whether they are smart or not.

If we are using less than 100 percent of our brains, then that may be the best evidence that we are not as intelligent as our ancestors. Why is our brain so large? There would be no selective advantage in an increasing brain size, were it not being put to use. So maybe we have effectively turned off abilities that we once had but no longer need. And maybe our society is what has allowed this to happen. What brain percentage do apes use (they do have fairly advanced societies)?

How about other mammals? What about birds? With their very small birdbrains they navigate great distances, figure out how to obtain food, build nests and raise and protect their young (and some even use tools). What about reptiles, fish and bugs? It seems they are all pushing the limits of their very small brains. But we are not.

Is there some other purpose to the hidden capabilities of the brain that we could unlock, if we only knew how? What part do we use when we dream? Are there other abilities, such as mental telepathy, that we don’t believe in, and perhaps have unlearned? Twins, even those separated from birth or at a young age seem to have capabilities that some believe border on telepathy. Or is that just because they are genetically wired to think a certain way?

For some reason, as humans we have selectively focused on certain parts of the brain that we need for our modern society. Creative people use different parts of their brain that are less used by people who focus on logical processes. More recently, as a society we have selectively focused on skills that we think we need for our modern society.

Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” As we push early education, are we preventing the development of creativity that typifies young children? And, as we push STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curricula in our schools, what are we losing?

I believe that Americans have excelled in the world, in large part because we have maintained a creativity born from our historical connection with our ancestral cultures, and because of the needs of building and expanding our nation far from traditional sources of materials. In recent decades, other nations, notably the eastern nations, have pushed technological skills at the expense of the arts. Will we, in our present push to maintain our competitive advantage, actually lose the creative edge that we have had over those countries?

Skulls photo from evolution-institute.org via Google Images.