Thursday, 2 February 2017

Consider the Source!

Richard Dawkins believes that life on Earth was seeded by aliens.

This was, some years ago, a fairly common trope. It stems from an interview by creationist apologist and one-time Z-list actor Ben Stein, shot for the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

What actually happened, though you have to see the uncut interview to know it, is that Stein asked Dawkins if there were any possible scenario in which he could consider life having been designed. Dawkins, as a bit of a sop to the interviewer, said that it was plausible that life could have been seeded here by aliens, but that this would only push the problem of life's origin back a step. By the time the interview is framed to fit the film-maker's narrative, of course, it looks like Dawkins is giving credence to the idea of directed panspermia.

This is a particularly pernicious practice known in sceptical circles as 'quote-mining', a fairly ubiquitous practice not just in creationist apologetics, but elsewhere as well. That's not the topic of today's rant, not least because I covered it in Irreducible Complexity and Evolution, but it does form a part of it.

As with all sceptics active in the public sphere, a fair bit of my time is taken up in dealing with misinformation. Indeed, the vast majority of this blog is geared toward either debunking misinformation and erroneous conclusions or furnishing others with the tools that will allow them to do this for themselves. The latter of these is the entire motivation for the book that this blog will eventually become the endnotes for.

I want here to look at a few different ways that misinformation manifests, along with some of the dangers in accepting things at face value. This has particular relevance now as we enter the era of 'fake news' and 'alternative facts'.

Let's start with fake news, because this has really been in the spotlight of late. It's well-understood that there are 'newspapers' and websites the world over delivering material that's not supposed to be taken literally. It's generally satirical in nature, or parodies some position widely held. Here in the UK, there's a paper called The Sunday Sport, which famously had absurd headlines on the front page. It's mostly meant to be a bit of fun, designed to titillate people with short attention spans, liberally sprinkled with images of enhanced anatomy and adverts for devices to enhance anatomy, along with other things of the sort that you find - I'm reliably informed - in some of the less tasteful parts of the internet (i.e., the majority of it).

Clearly, when you see a headline reading 'World War 2 Bomber Found On Moon' or 'Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster', you can be reasonably certain that it's meant to be satire, or parody and, if that were the end of it, this would be a short article indeed.

There's a principle familiar to sceptics who inhabit certain portions of the web, known as Poe's Law. I've seen lots of stories about where this law originated, including the idea that Poe is actually an acronym for 'parody of extremism', but it's actually more prosaic. It originates with a post on christianforums.com from 2005 by a user called Nathan Poe.

There are quite a few instances around the internet of parodies by sceptics highlighting this principle quite nicely, notably Youtuber Edward Current and the famous Landover Baptist Church. I have to admit to being taken in briefly by the latter myself, part-writing a scathing debunk of one of their articles, only wising up because of a minor linguistic clue after having spent most of an hour eviscerating it.

Originally dealing only with parodies of creationism, this principle has come into general use to describe any extremist position. In reality, in the 'alternative facts' world, it's fairly clear that it should be extended to any position, because it seems that it's pretty much utterly impossible to say anything without somebody taking it seriously and even adopting it into their worldview.

Let's look at a more immediate example, from only in the last couple of months.

In the recent US election debacle, the rumours were flying thick and fast; so fast, in fact, it was difficult to keep track of them. One particular example has come to be known as 'pizzagate'.

It began with a tweet by an alleged white supremacist at the end of October claiming that, during the course of NYPD's investigation of Anthony Weiner's sexting scandal, they'd uncovered evidence of a paedophilia ring. Later, after the release of John Podesta's emails by Wikileaks, and some particularly creative interpretation thereof, this morphed into a ring trafficking in children, with reference even being given to missing Brit Madeleine McCann.

I won't deliver the whole story here, as it's fairly widely known and comprehensively covered elsewhere, not least on Wikipedia. However, I did want to talk about the outcome, which should give us all pause.

As a result of this scandal, and its being tied to a pizzeria in Washington, the ring supposedly being run from its basement, a man from North Carolina entered the premises with an assault rifle and fired three shots. Nobody was hurt in this incident, more by good luck than good management, one suspects, but this should again serve as a warning against taking things at face value. All this, it should be noted, despite the restaurant in question not actually having a basement!

So, this turns out to be a storm in a teacup, although it's unclear whether this had any impact on the election, not least because it was drowned out by the impact of FBI director James Comey's shenanigans. Worth noting though that, in true conspiracy theory style, the wibble-munchers are painting this shooting episode as a false flag operation designed to pull the teeth of the pizzagate rumours. There's a famous quotation by Thomas Huxley, champion of evolutionary theory, 'The great tragedy of science - the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact'. Unfortunately, for the conspiracy theorist, there's no fact sufficiently ugly to slay their theories, so they rationalise them and keep trundling on.

Some misinformation is comparatively innocent, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't do any harm. The misinformation that tends to make me jump to action is, you won't be surprised to hear, dear reader, misrepresentations or mangling of valid science. Such misrepresentations can be motivated by all sorts of things, not least sensationalising science, as we saw in the example of the 'missing link' nonsense in Mind The Gap! Science rarely needs sensationalising, in my not-so-humble opinion, yet some science journalists (or journalists writing about science, more often) seem wont to hype their stories with misleading clickbait headlines, or pad them out with shoddy extrapolations. Here's one example of the latter from the Tech News section of the Business Insider website.
The discovery of gravitational waves would further confirm the theory of inflation - the idea that in the first few moments the universe existed, it underwent a rapid and mind-bogglingly huge expansion. That kind of rapid expansion would almost certainly leave behind ripples through spacetime.
This is fairly benign, but it's quite simply drivel. This has precisely no bearing on inflationary theory and, in fact, is exactly in line with all cosmologies that are in line with general relativity. The reason for this is that gravitational waves are a prediction of general relativity, stemming from the fact that any distributed process travelling at a finite speed must propagate in waves, and that relativity limits speed through space to c.

It isn't always the fault of the journalists, either. There are cases of scientists shooting their bolt prematurely, as it were, and this raises another example that actually does relate to predictions of inflationary theory. What would be required to support inflationary theory would be primordial gravitational waves with B-mode polarisation, and that said polarisation was not the result of additional interference from other sources. This was the problem with the much-vaunted BICEP-2 results from a couple of years ago, namely that the source of the polarisation couldn't be definitively identified. Once the observations were corrected to account for known sources of this polarising effect, the polarisation fell below the error bars. We looked at this in some detail in Before the Big Bang Part I.

Another example, slightly less benign, is all the kerfuffle concerning the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider. I remember in the days before the switch on which, as you might imagine, I was extremely excited about, there were rumours pinging around all over the net about how this colossal machine could potentially destroy the world. I'm still not entirely sure how this idea found its way into the public domain, but it resulted eventually in a lawsuit against the countries that had collaborated on the project.

The fear stemmed from some of the phrasing used in the press about the LHC, such as that they were trying to create black holes, or that they were trying to recreated conditions last seen in the first seconds after the Planck time. People saw 'black hole' and 'big bang', put two and two together and came up with a squillion.

There area few interesting things to note here. The first is that the energies achievable at the LHC pale in comparison to the interactions of cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere. The LHC at full chat runs at 14 TeV (tera electron-volts), while cosmic ray interactions have been measured at >100 TeV, so the energy involved shouldn't be a concern. The second is that, if the standard model is the final model, then all fundamental particles are black holes, because they have no spatial extent, meaning that all their mass is contained within their Schwarzschild radii, which is the definition of a black hole.

It's bad enough that popular culture has given us, via comic-books, films, etc., the notion of the mad scientist bent on world domination. That this is exacerbated by ramblings and doomsayings based on not understanding the underlying physics makes it extremely difficult to engender confidence in big science, and that's even without the current economic constraints.

Finally, before my summation, there's one more critical example, a group of people for whom I would, were I vindictive and not a sceptic, reserve a very special place in hell; anti-vaxxers. These are testament to the mindset of the conspiracy theorist in the worst possible way, not least because they feel ideologically driven, via wanting to do good, to do the worst harm possible on the most vulnerable members of our society, namely children. Despite decades of robust research showing that all their scare-mongering is unfounded and rooted in the most ignorant and dogmatic adherence to an insubstantial imperative, these idiots are genuinely putting lives in danger. I won't give this any more space here, except to direct you an earlier rant on the topic.

In summary, between Brexit, climate-change denial, anti-vax, anti-science, creationism, flat-Earthers, Komrade Trichindova, and other phenomena all supported by waves of fake news and misinformation, there's only one piece of advice I can give, and it outweighs everything else I have ever said or will say on this blog. Don't take anybody's word for it. Don't take my word for it. Check, double-check, triple-check, follow the information back to where it came from and be certain that the data actually support the conclusions drawn.

In short, consider the source. 

I should add a short note on more sources that show how scepticism should really be done, and I can't give any recommendation higher than that which I'd give to science journalist Peter Hadfield, better know to the world as Youtuber Potholer54. If you aren't a subscriber, rectify that immediately.