Science and the Internet: A double-edged sword.

This article by Environment North board member Scott Harris was first published in the Chronicle Journal in October 2016.

Science and the Internet: A double-edged sword

“By either stressing or ignoring the information that bombards us, we create our own reality” (author unknown). Such, perhaps, is what it means to be human. Our own opinions are formed by our own unique experiences, cognitive intake and reflection. The advent of universal, electronic transmission tools such as the internet amounts to an information strafing unlike anything we humans have experienced before.

But the internet is a double-edged tool. With the current availability of electronic information, one can find validation for virtually any opinion, no matter how bizarre. On the other hand, there are impeccable, peer-reviewed sources which help us separate truth from fiction. That distinction is becoming increasingly important, as we begin to address global issues triggered by human behaviour.

Carolyn Gregoire, writing for the Huffington Post, writes “While online resources make it easier for people to learn about incredible scientific discoveries, social media also facilitates the proliferation of pseudoscience, scientific skepticism and conspiracy theories.”

So what is good “info”, and what is safely ignored?

Consider the question: Do vaccines cause autism? One can still find countless references linking vaccines to autism in children, even though Dr. Andrew Wakefield, author of this idea, has withdrawn his claim and been stripped of his medical license. His claims were neither peer-reviewed nor reproducible. His claim did, (and still does) great harm, causing a sharp uptick in vaccination refusals, and a sharp rise in such diseases such as measles. A panicked public ignored the benefits of inoculations, such as the eradication of smallpox and diphtheria. As Eula Biss, author of On Immunity: An Inoculation states, “We still need to be reminded of the mortal danger that these so-called childhood illnesses represent.”

What is causing global warming? Prominent Australian geologist Ian Plimer, on the board of directors for numerous mining companies claims that solar cycles and volcanoes dwarf our human contributions to global warming. His views still gain traction with climate change deniers.

The 5th Annual Report from the International Panel on Climate Change,
(IPCC) says otherwise. The IPCC garnered their data from 12,000 peer-reviewed reports from the world’s top scientists across a broad range of disciplines. The report concludes that, “although  fluctuations in the amount of solar energy reaching our atmosphere do influence our climate, the global warming trend of the past six decades cannot be attributed to changes in the sun.” As for volcanoes,  the publicly funded U.S. Department of Energy's Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC)) states that while 200 million tonnes annually of volcanic CO2 is large, the global man-made fossil fuel CO2 emissions for one year tipped the scales at 26.8 billion tonnes. Thus, volcanic CO2 actually comprises less than 1 percent of global warming.

So why do people grasp at unproven conspiracy theories, and ignore often overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary?

Dr. Walter Quattrociocchi, a computer scientist at the  IMT(Institutions, Markets, Technologies) Institute for Advanced Studies in Italy, states “Internet users are driven to content based on the brain’s natural confirmation bias — the tendency to seek information that reinforces pre-existing beliefs — which leads to the formation of  “echo chambers”. Social media, which allows us to carefully curate our news exposure, makes it easier than ever to indulge this bias. This comes at the expense of the quality of the information and leads to proliferation of biased narratives fomented by unsubstantiated rumors, mistrust, and paranoia.”

Eula Biss further explains the insidiousness of the phenomenon this way. “As with the kind of virus that infects humans, this [content on a website] can be viral, and cannot reproduce without hosts. Misinformation that finds a host enjoys a kind of immortality on the internet, where it becomes the undead”.

Confirmation bias is recognized by both scientists and policy-makers as a serious problem, creating the potential for such political extremes as “decision by facebook”. Consumers of social media will need to be increasingly careful in assessing the reliability and bias of sources. Many libraries and universities offer advice on how to “evaluate internet information”.  Responsible users will hone their skills to seek out good information.