APS News | Opinion

Misinformation, Equity, and Science

Published Mar 04, 2022

Around 120 centuries ago a technological innovation, agriculture, triggered the emergence of civilization, which led to science, and thence to such progress in understanding and controlling nature that by the 20th century our species attained the technical ability to sustain a world population of billions. The Enlightenment-inspired Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UHDR), promulgated in 1948 after a decade of technical sophistication accompanied by inequity and cruelty on an unprecedented scale, exemplifies the seemingly still attainable goal of an equitable, peaceful civilization that manages its environment and itself well enough to last millions of centuries.

Love your neighbor, who doesn't think like you.

Unfortunately, due largely to the increased range and speed of communication, misinformation has emerged as a grave meta-threat to both equity and civilization. By luring people into self-isolating bubbles, to be soothed, entertained, and incited by incompatible versions of reality, it empowers autocrats and demagogues, hobbles democracies, and makes cooperation on globally urgent problems like climate change almost impossible.

What can scientists, whose epistemic commitment to a single incompletely known but progressively knowable reality mirrors the UDHR’s claim of ethical universality, do to nudge society into the UDHR’s benign basin of attraction? Fermi’s paradox suggests that advanced civilizations are typically short-lived, but that is all the more reason to try to make ours long-lasting.

Practicing scientists know that to be a good scientist requires a kind of humility, a willingness—even a perverse enjoyment—of having one’s favorite ideas proved wrong, if possible by one’s own efforts, but if necessary by one’s colleagues. Thinking scientifically prepares people to confront big, complex problems less judgmentally and more constructively, as natural phenomena to be understood and mitigated, rather than denied or ineffectually condemned. For example, blaming people in a particular social environment for developing racist or jingoistic attitudes or believing patently false conspiracy theories is neither good science nor effective mitigation if, empirically, many similarly situated people respond similarly.

Even without misinformation, the Enlightenment notion of an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness is an engine of inequity. Most people’s happiness depends considerably on the success of their children or proteges, so unless a society is already so equitable that children’s success is determined mainly by their own natural endowment, their parents or mentors will strive to inequitably advantage them over other children, thereby amplifying existing inequalities at every generation. Like the prisoner’s dilemma, this rational dynamic, unless restrained by laws and customs, leads to less-than-optimal outcomes. Therefore, successful societies as a rule have unconsciously evolved, or consciously adopted, customs and laws that temper inequality and instill community solidarity, so members treat each other’s children nearly as well as their own. The idea of a natural selection favoring fit societies as opposed to fit individuals is finding biological parallels in recently discovered symbioses. Unfortunately, as Woodhouse points out, in human societies such institutions are more fragile and take longer to develop in today’s global village than in local villages.

Misinformation thrives, and efforts to combat it founder, on less rational aspects of human nature. People suffer from confirmation bias, close their minds when threatened or disrespected, fear dramatic or malicious hazards (terrorism, shark attacks) more than mundane ones like overeating, and are uncritically dichotomous, tending to think of other people, institutions, and even substances (Tiger Woods, socialism, capitalism, fructose) as all good or all bad. When things go wrong they look for someone to blame, rather than blaming chance, geometry, or perverse incentives such as those that have driven Facebook to maximize engagement regardless of social harm. While Google and Wikipedia both began with the goal of making the world’s knowledge accessible to everyone, the latter, by refusing ads and fostering editor solidarity, has come much closer.

Scientists need to become more humble about our own blind spots, and the difficulty of thinking scientifically about matters impacting our self-image, such as the role of innate vs. environmental factors in determining individuals’ success. Every age’s conventional wisdom believes and condones things that a few decades later will appear foolish or shameful. Scientists, rightly skeptical of ideas that seem so self-evident that no one has bothered to test them, need to guard against claiming the moral high ground so confidently, and with such little historical perspective, that we appear to others (often but not always less socioeconomically secure, well-traveled, and accustomed to various kinds of diversity than ourselves) as a hypocritical elite that purports to defend marginalized people while marginalizing anyone who dissents from the current version of its cosmopolitan secular worldview.

For example, scientists are often resented for having a condescending attitude toward religion. But even anti-religious scientists have an awe of and submission to nature not unlike a religious person’s submission to God. As Kinsey eloquently expressed in the 1950s, it is precisely this humility before nature that gives scientists the right and duty to question every taboo and investigate every natural phenomenon. Einstein involuntarily exemplified this need for humility by being so offended by quantum weirdness that he couldn’t appreciate its power and beauty, leaving that important task to others. As Bohr is said to have told him, “Stop telling God what to do.” Most scientists are skeptical of supernatural elements of religion such as miracles and divinely revealed scriptures, the very elements Spinoza discarded in his radical redefinition of God. This skepticism reflects the view that supernatural phenomena violate Aristotle’s and Occam’s commandment to prefer simple explanations. But 20th and 21st century science has shown, via algorithmic information theory and puzzles such as the Boltzmann brain problem in thermodynamics and the measure problem in cosmology, that the concept of simplicity is itself anything but simple.

Jargon and nit-picking precision abound in science as in other specialties, but scientific discourse differs in another way from ordinary talk—its attempt to be unemotional and descriptive, like what Wikipedia calls Neutral-Point-of-View. For example, in ordinary speech an invasive species is bad for the environment, but an ecologist would likely describe it as currently proliferating in an environment to which it has not yet equilibrated. For scientists, terminology that is euphemistic or dysphemistic is automatically suspect, suggesting an aspect of conventional wisdom unlikely to stand the test of time. Contrast the taboo- and hypocrisy-ridden criminal conviction of Alan Turing for “gross indecency” with Kinsey’s contemporaneous research evidencing, among other things, a continuum of what we now call sexual orientation. Similarly, terms like “intellectual property” that obscure a subtle distinction are best avoided, or the distinction acknowledged, in careful discourse.

Unfortunately, fine distinctions are easily lost in the political arena. As seen most recently with #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, identity (or difference) politics is uniquely effective for initiating the remediation of long unacknowledged inequities, but it is a blunt instrument, oversimplifying the complex dynamics of power and status, the same complexity that demagogues exploit to sensitize people to their own real or imagined grievances while anesthetizing them to their privileges. Like other politics it tends to push people into ill-fitting categories, as when early gay rights activists bashed bisexuals for being cowardly or self-hating homosexuals, as if they were “passing” for straight, to borrow a pejorative from the similarly fraught history of racial identity.

Politicians and political activists, even when sincerely pursuing the greater good, appeal to their constituents’ baser instincts, hoping to rein them in after the goal has been achieved. While they deserve our admiration for this delicate feat of moral navigation when it succeeds, we scientists should be no part of it. We should neither speak unscientifically about our own research, nor avoid research because it might be weaponized by our opponents, nor remain silent when it is weaponized, even by allies. Our expert advice should not bend under external political pressure or the subtler internal pressure of our own politics and unconscious biases.

Fortunately, the technology that spawned the misinformation crisis can also combat it. Authoritarian governments are busy using advances in data gathering, surveillance, and analysis to stabilize themselves against dissent and hide inconvenient truths. In contrast to such unethical social engineering, the instability of once-stable democracies against runaway polarization and misinformation shows that the time is ripe for natural and social scientists, along with ethicists, jurists, educators, and others, to participate in a public discussion (as is already going on for human genome editing and geo-engineering) of what would constitute ethical, UDHR-friendly social engineering, i.e. policies and laws sufficient to stabilize good governance and encourage behavior people won’t later regret while otherwise maximizing their freedom, creativity, and privacy. Different policies are already being tried in different countries. One hopes our species will choose fact-friendly ones, voting with their feet if necessary.

For example, one of the more intractable kinds of prejudice- and misinformation-driven violence is the fear that a stranger, especially one visibly different from oneself, might be dangerous. Though often used as a fake excuse for hate crimes, this fear is not always irrational, and where sincere it could be allayed by a smartphone-mediated interaction between the two people while still a safe distance apart, to reassure each other of their non-dangerousness by a conversation and/or exchange of authenticated background information they had opted in to providing. Police traffic stops are common situations where fear is often mutual and rational and has led to deaths of drivers and officers that could probably have been prevented by a preliminary safe-distance interaction. Secure 2-party computation, unlike Tinder, allows such negotiations to be conducted without revealing private information to a third party.

On a grander scale, the moral philosopher John Rawls defined an equitable society as (roughly) one whose members would not mind being reborn as a random other member. My colleague John Smolin takes this Gedankenexperiment a step further by proposing that the quickest way to reduce inequity would be to randomly permute each year’s crop of babies, thereby harnessing the full power of a natural phenomenon, spontaneous adoptive-parental love, to counteract one of civilization’s most dangerous dysfunctions.

I gratefully acknowledge these four documents and conversations with three of their authors, with my wife Victorine Mendy, whose childhood in rural Senegal differed from mine in almost every outward way, and with members of an online discussion group of natural and social scientists including Samuel Bader, Baha Balantekin, Emanuela Barzi, Amitava Bhattacharjee, Sylvester Gates, Banafsheh Ghassemi, Matthew Hannah, Daniel Hatcher, and Jess Riedel.

  1. Alfred Kinsey’s eloquent 1953 plea that no subject be considered taboo from scientific study inspired me as an adolescent would-be scientist.
  2. My ex-wife’s 2015 sermon. Born to poor white parents, she was the first in her family to get an undergraduate degree, subsequently doing graduate work at Yale and Columbia School of Journalism before becoming an Episcopal deacon.
  3. My African-American stepson’s 2020 letter, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, to the orthopedic surgery residents he supervises, about what they as privileged people can do personally to combat racism and inequity.
  4. My sister’s 2020 book “The Ecology of Childhood” on the loss of solidarity-reinforcing socialization mechanisms for children in a globalizing world. See also her lecture, beginning at 00:21:35 of go.aps.org/3LU6soy.

Charles H. Bennett

Charles H. Bennett is a researcher at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center.

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