These natural gas ads are full of hot air

Read the full post at Heated.

Gas companies say their clean energy claims are backed by science. They fail to mention the science is fossil fuel funded.

When critical thinking isn’t enough: to beat information overload, we need to learn ‘critical ignoring’

Beset by advertisements and noxious information, our attention is increasingly fractured. Shutterstock

by Ralph Hertwig, Max Planck Institute for Human Development; Anastasia Kozyreva, Max Planck Institute for Human Development; Sam Wineburg, Stanford University, and Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Bristol

The web is an informational paradise and a hellscape at the same time.

A boundless wealth of high-quality information is available at our fingertips right next to a ceaseless torrent of low-quality, distracting, false and manipulative information.

The platforms that control search were conceived in sin. Their business model auctions off our most precious and limited cognitive resource: attention. These platforms work overtime to hijack our attention by purveying information that arouses curiosity, outrage, or anger. The more our eyeballs remain glued to the screen, the more ads they can show us, and the greater profits accrue to their shareholders.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, all this should take a toll on our collective attention. A 2019 analysis of Twitter hashtags, Google queries, or Reddit comments found that across the past decade, the rate at which the popularity of items rises and drops has accelerated. In 2013, for example, a hashtag on Twitter was popular on average for 17.5 hours, while in 2016, its popularity faded away after 11.9 hours. More competition leads to shorter collective attention intervals, which lead to ever fiercer competition for our attention – a vicious circle.

To regain control, we need cognitive strategies that help us reclaim at least some autonomy and shield us from the excesses, traps and information disorders of today’s attention economy.

Critical thinking is not enough

The textbook cognitive strategy is critical thinking, an intellectually disciplined, self-guided and effortful process to help identify valid information. In school, students are taught to closely and carefully read and evaluate information. Thus equipped, they can evaluate the claims and arguments they see, hear, or read. No objection. The ability to think critically is immensely important.

But is it enough in a world of information overabundance and gushing sources of disinformation? The answer is “No” for at least two reasons.

First, the digital world contains more information than the world’s libraries combined. Much of it comes from unvetted sources and lacks reliable indicators of trustworthiness. Critically thinking through all information and sources we come across would utterly paralyse us because we would never have time to actually read the valuable information we painstakingly identify.

Second, investing critical thinking in sources that should have been ignored in the first place means that attention merchants and malicious actors have been gifted what they wanted, our attention.

Critical ignoring to make information management feasible

So, what tools do we have at our disposal beyond critical thinking? In our recent article, we – a philosopher, two cognitive scientists and an education scientist – argue that as much as we need critical thinking we also need critical ignoring.

Critical ignoring is the ability to choose what to ignore and where to invest one’s limited attentional capacities. Critical ignoring is more than just not paying attention – it’s about practising mindful and healthy habits in the face of information overabundance.

We understand it as a core competence for all citizens in the digital word.

Without it, we will drown in a sea of information that is, at best, distracting and, at worst, misleading and harmful.

There are concrete ways in which we can protect ourselves from information overload. Shutterstock

Tools for critical ignoring

Three main strategies exist for critical ignoring. Each one responds to a different type of noxious information.

In the digital world, self-nudging aims to empower people to be citizen “choice architects” by designing their informational environments in ways that work best for them and that constrain their activities in beneficial ways. We can, for instance, remove distracting and irresistible notifications. We may set specific times in which messages can be received, thereby creating pockets of time for concentrated work or socialising. Self-nudging can also help us take control of our digital default settings, for instance, by restricting the use of our personal data for purposes of targeted advertisement.

Lateral reading is a strategy that enables people to emulate how professional fact checkers establish the credibility of online information. It involves opening up new browser tabs to search for information about the organisation or individual behind a site before diving into its contents. Only after consulting the open web do skilled searchers gauge whether expending attention is worth it. Before critical thinking can begin, the first step is to ignore the lure of the site and check out what others say about its alleged factual reports. Lateral reading thus uses the power of the web to check the web.

Most students fail at that task. Past studies show that, when deciding whether a source should be trusted, students (as well as university professors) do what years of school has taught them to do – they read closely and carefully. Attention merchants as well as merchants of doubt are jubilant.

Online, looks can be deceiving. Unless one has extensive background knowledge it is often very difficult to figure out that a site, filled with the trappings of serious research, peddles falsehoods about climate change or vaccinations or any variety of historical topics, such as the Holocaust. Instead of getting entangled in the site’s reports and professional design, fact checkers exercise critical ignoring. They evaluate the site by leaving it and engage in lateral reading instead.

The do-not-feed-the-trolls heuristic targets online trolls and other malicious users who harass, cyberbully or use other antisocial tactics. Trolls thrive on attention, and deliberate spreaders of dangerous disinformation often resort to trolling tactics. One of the main strategies that science denialists use is to hijack people’s attention by creating the appearance of a debate where none exists. The heuristic advises against directly responding to trolling. Resist debating or retaliating. Of course, this strategy of critical ignoring is only a first line of defence. It should be complemented by blocking and reporting trolls and by transparent platform content moderation policies including debunking.

These three strategies are not a set of elite skills. Everybody can make use of them, but educational efforts are crucial for bringing these tools to the public.

Critical ignoring as a new paradigm for education

The philosopher Michael Lynch has noted that the Internet “is both the world’s best fact-checker and the world’s best bias confirmer – often at the same time.”

Navigating it successfully requires new competencies that should be taught in school. Without the competence to choose what to ignore and where to invest one’s limited attention, we allow others to seize control of our eyes and minds. Appreciation for the importance of critically ignoring is not new but has become even more crucial in the digital world.

As the philosopher and psychologist William James astutely observed at the beginning of the 20th century: “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to ignore.”

Ralph Hertwig, Director, Center for Adaptive Rationality, Max Planck Institute for Human Development; Anastasia Kozyreva, Cognitive scientist, Max Planck Institute for Human Development; Sam Wineburg, Professor of Education and (by courtesy) History, Stanford University, and Stephan Lewandowsky, Chair of Cognitive Psychology, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

An activist group is spreading misinformation to stop solar projects in rural America

Read the full story from NPR.

Citizens for Responsible Solar is part of a growing backlash against renewable energy in rural communities across the United States. The group, which was started in 2019 and appears to use strategies honed by other activists in campaigns against the wind industry, has helped local groups fighting solar projects in at least 10 states including Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, according to its website.

“I think for years, there has been this sense that this is not all coincidence. That local groups are popping up in different places, saying the same things, using the same online campaign materials,” says Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

Citizens for Responsible Solar seems to be a well-mobilized “national effort to foment local opposition to renewable energy,” Burger adds. “What that reflects is the unfortunate politicization of climate change, the politicization of energy, and, unfortunately, the political nature of the energy transition, which is really just a necessary response to an environmental reality.”

Citizens for Responsible Solar was founded in an exurb of Washington, D.C., by a longtime political operative named Susan Ralston who worked in the White House under President George W. Bush and still has deep ties to power players in conservative politics.

Lots of people believe in Bigfoot and other pseudoscience claims – this course examines why

Don’t believe the hype about Bigfoot, a flat Earth or ancient aliens. Collage from Getty Images sources, CC BY-ND

by Craig A. Foster, State University of New York Cortland

Text saying: Uncommon Courses, from The Conversation

Uncommon Courses is an occasional series from The Conversation U.S. highlighting unconventional approaches to teaching.

Title of course

“Psychology of Pseudoscience”

What prompted the idea for the course?

While teaching a course on research methods at the United States Air Force Academy, I concluded that the course needed a bigger emphasis on broad scientific reasoning skills.

So I incorporated material about the difference between science – the systematic process of evidence-based inquiry – and pseudoscience, which is the promotion of unreliable scientific claims as if they are more reliable than other explanations.

I wanted to understand why people promote claims that conflict with science. I jumped at the opportunity to develop this type of course at SUNY Cortland.

What does the course explore?

We look at some of the common scientific reasoning failures that pseudoscience exploits. These include hand-picking anecdotes to support a belief, developing a set of beliefs that explain every possible outcome, promoting irrelevant research, ignoring contradictory information and believing in unsubstantiated conpiracies.

We particularly highlight motivated reasoning, the tendency for people to process information in a way that helps them confirm what they already want to believe. For example, someone might accept scientific consensus about cancer treatments but question it with regard to vaccines – even though both are supported by strong scientific evidence and expert consensus.

We also review group polarization, in which people develop more extreme positions after interacting with similarly minded group members.

Some of the topics we examine include the flat-Earth belief, creationism, Bigfoot and other cryptozoology ideas, psychic ability, conversion therapy, anti-vaccination, astrology, ghosts and climate change denial.

Students complete two papers to reinforce their knowledge. First, students develop their own bogus scientific claims and a corresponding plan to convince people that their claims are legitimate. Allowing students to invent and promote novel forms of pseudoscience gives them a safe context in which to examine specious scientific arguments.

Second, students review old issues of Skeptical Inquirer, the leading national magazine about science and critical thinking, to summarize the topics that were being addressed at that time. Students also dive more deeply into a specific topic like unexplained cattle mutilations or the Bermuda Triangle. Then they write a paper based on an example I recently published in Skeptical Inquirer. I’m hopeful that future column installments will include students’ work.

Why is this course relevant now?

The internet has provided pseudoscience communities with the unprecedented ability to promote their false claims.

For instance, flat-Earthers have relied on YouTube to create doubt about Earth as a globe. The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization uses Facebook to support Bigfoot belief. These platforms take advantage of people’s tendency to believe material posted by their friends or authoritative-sounding sources.

This course is also relevant now because the consequences of poor scientific reasoning are so significant. People who believe these sorts of false claims risk their own health and that of the planet, by avoiding helpful, safe vaccines or useful discussions about the problems presented by climate change.

What’s a critical lesson from the course?

It’s important for students to understand that reasonable, intelligent people promote pseudoscience. When people encounter pseudoscience they don’t personally believe, they sometimes conclude that the pseudoscience supporters are unintelligent or mentally unwell. This type of explanation is shortsighted.

Everyday people are drawn into believing pseudoscience because they have limited cognitive resources and they use cognitive strategies, like relying on anecdotes, that can lead to erroneous belief. Human scientific reasoning is particularly flawed when humans really want to reach a particular conclusion.

Belief in pseudoscience also develops out of social interactions. Friends and family members commonly share their reasons for believing in creationism, ghosts, fad diets and so forth. This type of social influence goes into overdrive when people join communities that collectively promote pseudoscience. I have attended Bigfoot and flat-Earth conferences. These conferences create powerful social experiences, because so many friendly people are available to explain that Bigfoot is alive or the Earth is flat, both of which are, clearly, false.

What materials does the course feature?

The “Defining Pseudoscience and Science” chapter by Sven Ove Hansson in “Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem” sets up what I call the psychological puzzle of pseudoscience: How do people convince themselves and others that an unreliable scientific claim is actually reliable?

We also have guest speakers, including philosophy of science scholar Massimo Pigliucci, journalist and folklorist Ben Radford, exposer of psychics Susan Gerbic, a local Bigfoot enthusiast, and Janyce Boynton, who discussed facilitated communication, a discredited communication technique in which some people physically assist nonverbal people with their communication, for example, by guiding their hands as they type.

What will the course prepare students to do?

The course prepares students to identify dubious scientific claims. In so doing, they should become less vulnerable to being drawn into pseudoscience. The course also enhances familiarity with specific forms of pseudoscience. I expect climate change denial, anti-vaccination and creationism to remain major points of contention in American society for decades. Educated people should understand the discussions that occur around these kind of social problems.

Craig A. Foster, Professor and Chair, Department of Psychology, State University of New York Cortland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Infographic: Levels of scientific evidence

Download the resources for grades 7-12+. See also other news literacy resources for educators.

This infographic presents eight distinct levels of scientific evidence arranged in a pyramid that reflects a spectrum of quality. Levels of evidence at the bottom are significantly more prone to error and bias than those at the top. The pyramid is reflective of the process of science itself: as initial hypotheses about a given question are tested, they are either disproven and discarded or they survive to be tested further. As more rigorous studies are completed, and as their results are compiled and analyzed, the picture painted by the evidence becomes clearer and more compelling.

Visual health misinformation: A primer and research roundup

Read the full story from The Journalist’s Resource.

With rapid advances in technology, it’s becoming easier to create and spread visual content that’s inaccurate, misleading and dangerous. There are similarities and differences between visual health misinformation and other types of visual misinformation.

Study analyzes how fact-checkers from four different countries assess climate change claims

Read the full story from the University of Kansas.

A team of researchers analyzed fact checkers from four countries work in relation to climate change claims. They found their methods varied, that they most often checked claims made by politicians and from social media. They also provide arguments for the most effective practice of fact checking to ensure the public gets reliable, understandable information.

Beware of ‘Shark Week’: Scientists watched 202 episodes and found them filled with junk science, misinformation and white male ‘experts’ named Mike

Hammerhead sharks schooling near Costa Rica’s Cocos Island. John Voo/Flickr, CC BY

by David Shiffman, Arizona State University

The Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week is the longest-running cable television series in history, filling screens with sharky content every summer since 1988. It causes one of the largest temporary increases in U.S. viewers’ attention to any science or conservation topic.

It’s also the largest stage in marine biology, giving scientists who appear on it access to an audience of millions. Being featured by high-profile media outlets can help researchers attract attention and funding that can help super-charge their careers.

Unfortunately, Shark Week is also a missed opportunity. As scientists and conservationists have long argued, it is a major source of misinformation and nonsense about sharks, the scientists who study them, and how people can help protect endangered species from extinction.

I am a marine biologist who recently worked with five colleagues to scientifically analyze the content of Shark Week episodes. We tracked down copies of 202 episodes, watched them all and coded their content based on more than 15 variables, including locations, which experts were interviewed, which shark species were mentioned, what scientific research tools were used, whether the episodes mentioned shark conservation and how sharks were portrayed.

Even as longtime Shark Week critics, we were staggered by our findings. The episodes that we reviewed were full of incorrect information and provided a wildly misleading picture of the field of shark research. Some episodes glorified wildlife harassment, and many missed countless chances to teach a massive audience about shark conservation.

Sharks are apex predators that are key to maintaining healthy ecosystems, but a 2020 study that surveyed 371 coral reefs found that 20% had no sharks present.

Spotlight real solutions

First, some facts. Sharks and their relatives, such as rays and skates, are among the most threatened vertebrate animals on Earth. About one-third of all known species are at risk of extinction, thanks mainly to overfishing.

Many policy solutions, such as setting fishing quotas, creating protected species lists and delineating no-fishing zones, are enacted nationally or internationally. But there also are countless situations in which increased public attention can help move the conservation needle. For instance, consumers can avoid buying seafood produced using unsustainable fishing methods that may accidentally catch sharks.

Conversely, focusing on the wrong problems does not lead to useful solutions. As one example, enacting a ban on shark fin sales in the U.S. would have little effect on global shark deaths, since the U.S. is only involved in about 1% of the global fin trade, and could undermine sustainable U.S. shark fisheries.

A shark caught in a fishing net dangles over the side of a boat with a crew member reaching out.
A crew member aboard a commercial fishing boat off the coast of Maine tries to cut a shark loose from a gillnet. Sharks often are caught accidentally by fishermen pursuing other species. Mailee Osten-Tan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Discovery Channel claims that by attracting massive audiences, Shark Week helps educate the public about shark conservation. But most of the shows we reviewed didn’t mention conservation at all, beyond vague statements that sharks need help, without describing the threats they face or how to address them.

Out of 202 episodes that we examined, just six contained any actionable tips. Half of those simply advised against eating shark fin soup, a traditional Asian delicacy. Demand for shark fin soup can contribute to the gruesome practice of “finning” – cutting fins off live sharks and throwing the mutilated fish overboard to die. But finning is not the biggest threat to sharks, and most U.S.-based Shark Week viewers don’t eat shark fin soup.

Spotlighting divers, not research

When we analyzed episodes by the type of scientific research they featured, the most frequent answer was “no scientific research at all,” followed by what we charitably called “other.” This category included nonsense like building a submarine that looks like a shark, or a “high tech” custom shark cage to observe some aspect of shark behavior. These episodes focused on alleged risk to the scuba divers shown on camera, especially when the devices inevitably failed, but failed to address any research questions.

Such framing is not representative of actual shark research, which uses methods ranging from tracking tagged sharks via satellite to genetic and paleontological studies conducted entirely in labs. Such work may not be as exciting on camera as divers surrounded by schooling sharks, but it generates much more useful data.

Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, describes findings from his lab’s analysis of shark genetics.

Who’s on camera

We also were troubled by the “experts” interviewed on many Shark Week shows. The most-featured source, underwater photographer Andy Casagrande, is an award-winning cameraman, and episodes when he stays behind the camera can be great. But given the chance to speak, he regularly claims the mantle of science while making dubious assertions – for example, that shark diving while taking LSD is a great way to learn about these animals – or presents well-known shark behaviors as new discoveries that he made, while misrepresenting what those behaviors mean.

Nor does Shark Week accurately represent experts in this field. One issue is ethnicity: Three of the five most-featured locations on Shark Week are Mexico, South Africa and the Bahamas, but we could count on one hand the number of non-white scientists who we saw featured in shows about their own countries. It was far more common for Discovery to fly a white male halfway around the world than to feature a local scientist.

Moreover, while more than half of U.S. shark scientists are female, you wouldn’t know this from watching Shark Week. Among people who we saw featured in more than one episode, there were more white male non-scientists named Mike than women of any profession or name.

In contrast, the Discovery Channel’s chief competitor, National Geographic, is partnering with the professional organization Minorities in Shark Sciences to feature diverse experts on its shows.

More substance and better representation

How could Shark Week improve? Our paper makes several recommendations, and we recently participated in a workshop, highlighting diverse voices in our field from all over the world, that focused on improving representation of scientists in shark-focused media

First, we believe that not every documentary needs to be a dry, boring science lecture, but that the information shared on marine biology’s biggest stage should be factually correct and useful. Gimmicky concepts like Discovery’s “Naked and Afraid of Sharks 2” – an endurance contest with entrants wearing masks, fins and snorkels, but no clothes – show that people will watch anything with sharks in it. So why not try to make something good?

We also suggest that more scientists seek out media training so they can take advantage of opportunities like Shark Week without being taken advantage of. Similarly, it would be great to have a “Yelp”-like service that scientists could use to rate their experiences with media companies. Producers who want to feature appropriately diverse scientists can turn to databases like 500 Women Scientists and Diversify EEB.

For a decade, concerned scientists and conservationists have reached out to the Discovery Channel about our concerns with Shark Week. As our article recounts, Discovery has pledged in the past to present programming during Shark Week that puts more emphasis on science and less on entertainment – and some episodes have shown improvement.

But our findings show that many Shark Week depictions of sharks are still problematic, pseudoscientific, nonsensical or unhelpful. We hope that our analysis will motivate the network to use its massive audience to help sharks and elevate the scientists who study them.

Editor’s note: The Conversation US contacted Warner Brothers Discovery by phone and email for comment on the study described in this article. The network did not immediately respond or offer comment.

David Shiffman, Post-Doctoral and Research Scholar in Marine Biology, Arizona State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Empowering social media users to assess content helps fight misinformation

Read the full story from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

When fighting the spread of misinformation, social media platforms typically place most users in the passenger seat. Platforms often use machine-learning algorithms or human fact-checkers to flag false or misinforming content for users.

“Just because this is the status quo doesn’t mean it is the correct way or the only way to do it,” says Farnaz Jahanbakhsh, a graduate student in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

She and her collaborators conducted a study in which they put that power into the hands of social media users instead.

Twitter has spent years trying to combat health misinformation. Will Musk’s takeover make that harder?

Read the full story at STAT.

While Musk’s history of downplaying and making false statements about the pandemic doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence about his plans, misinformation researchers say it’s hard to predict how the Tesla and SpaceX CEO will ultimately approach fact-checking, content moderation, and other concerns. Here’s what we do know so far.