Thursday, 31 March 2016

The war on science: How the Internet exposed the failure of our education system?

In this blog post I will make a brief digression from my usual economics topics. 

A year has passed since National Geographic published an issue with the following disturbing cover, featuring a couple of conjectures all too familiar and all too frustrating to professional scientists and science enthusiasts:
"Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?",
National Geographic, March 2015
In a really good op-ed, author Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post goes through a variety of misconceptions and doubts modern science has to fight against. The most obvious examples are listed on the cover. These include - but are not limited to - (i) the non-existence of climate change (never mind the thousands of state-of-the-art research papers that proved otherwise. Don't trust Al Gore on this, check out for yourself here, herehere, or here), (ii) that GMO is evil (what does this even mean? Again, the scientific evidence is quite clear on this), (iii) that the moon landing was fake (!) (Classic conspiracy theory. It's ridiculous even to discuss it), (iv) that evolution never happened (!!) (It keeps getting worse and worse), and of course (v) the typical confusion of cause and effect in that vaccinations lead to autism (despite a hundred-year success of modern medicine in preventing diseases such as polio, measles, mumps, rubella, smallpox, etc. Again, the evidence is overwhelming: here, here, here, or the vast amount of articles available here. And if anyone uses the argument that all the kids that have autism have been vaccinated, smack them across the face (hypothetically) and say, yes, but all the other kids that don't have autism also got vaccinated! - a person familiar with the idea of selection bias would never ever make such a ridiculous claim).

Worse of all, the war on science hasn't evaporated. If anything, it is gaining momentum. Other, more salient, issues have arisen in the mean time, but Internet forums, blogs and websites still get filled with quack ideas with no sign of abating. Regardless of the overwhelming scientific evidence, doubters, as they are colloquially referred to, still reject what was only a few decades ago considered to be universally accepted truth – such as the moon landing, vaccinations, or evolution. This type of ignorance is not only worrying, it’s also dangerous. Take the Ebola panic for example (or any similar supposed pandemic threat such as the recent Zika virus scare). The only way to spread this virus is via direct contact with the bodily fluid of the disease carrier (which was a posthumous custom in certain African tribes). The scientific community was quick to dismiss any possibility of the virus to mutate into a pandemic. This however didn’t stop the general population nor the media to make catastrophic predictions about the virus mutating and presenting an imminent threat to the human race (a good example of the availability heuristic).

Quacks, quacks everywhere 

When panic and ignorance triumph over science, policies change. In democracies politicians follow the will of the voters - at least to some extent, when the issue is of high enough salience to make an electoral difference. So when electorates get overwhelmed by the veil of ignorance, the demand for politicians supporting such ideas increases and eventually, the supply adjusts. Ignorance gives rise to politicians that advocate radical and ridiculous ideas (to which the US is currently exposed). This is particularly dangerous for faulty ideas in economics and politics. A series of social experiments with communism and National Socialism should have been more than enough to convince the vast majority of the population of the obviously wrong approach. Not according to (albeit obscure) websites and forums where such ideas are alive and kicking. What’s even worse is to see such ideas manifested into party politics all across Europe. Forget anger, ignorance is the problem

Economics is not immune from quack ideas either. Whether it’s monetary policy in terms of printing money to pay off ones national debt or simply to make everyone better off, the import-export mercantilist fallacy, or anti-immigration policies, regardless what decades of empirical economic research suggests, the policies applied are often substantially different. You will never see a self-respecting, non-charlatan economist advocate protectionism, oppose immigration, or suggest printing money to reach prosperity. Monetary policy misconceptions are particularly dangerous, as things can go wrong very quickly when you mess with currencies, money supply or interest rates. It takes but a few weeks (even days) for the nations’ savings to get whipped out (recall Argentina in 2001), for the interest rates on loans to hike, or for hyperinflation to send the economy down the drain (particularly in small open economies).

In the natural sciences things are only slightly better. The medical profession is still relatively untouched by the anti-vaccination movement, as is the theory of evolution taught in schools, but it's only a matter of time before this changes. Sooner or later there will be a political movement advocating abandoning vaccination. All it takes is to form an interest group and get a wealthy backer to fund your lobbying activities. In democracies it really is that easy (relatively speaking).

One thing in common to all branches of science (natural and social) are the accusations being made against those struggling to protect the scientific truth. Speaking about climate change will label you a left-wing environmentalist fanatic; speaking pro GM food will label you a globalizationist, advocate of the new world order, and possibly an enemy of European farmers. Arguing pro vaccinations, you’re likely to be accused of protecting the pharmaceutical companies; become a slave to corporate profits; a mercenary for hire with an aim to spread confusion among the people. Arguing against printing money, you will probably be accused of being a mercenary of bank(st)ers. It’s though defending reason these days. 

Blame the internet?

Unfortunately it seems the internet revolution bears a large chunk of responsibility for this outbreak of ignorance. People literally get educated from Facebook and Twitter statuses. From the comment sections of articles. From internet forums. Without ever reading a single book (not to mention a paper) on the topic, they so easily disregard crude scientific evidence. 

Never has there been such a high amount of information available to the general public and on the other hand such a low amount of general knowledge. Never before have more people believed and amplified the role of scientific quacks as they do today. Never have these ridicules of modern science garnered more attention than today, having modern technologies at their disposal with the widest possible audience within reach, only a click away.

Perhaps the congestion of information is causing this decline in knowledge - people simply choose the easiest form of information available to them. It's much easier to close the information gap by succumbing to one's prior set of biases and beliefs. When you look at this from an economic lens, it's actually somewhat rational - people choose the most effective way to lower the informational asymmetry. If you happen to stumble upon a source of information that confirms all of your prior beliefs and misjudgements about a certain topic, you're much more inclined to immediately accept this as an unconditional truth than to try and seek opposing arguments and carefully weight both sides of the story before forming an opinion. Not to mention examining the existing literature, gathering empirical evidence, conducting experiments, etc. After all, who has the time do that? Scientists, that's who! It is, after all, their job description. 

The internet became a platform for anyone to write and argue whatever they want. And in this confusion of information it’s often very difficult to detach fact from fiction. Signal from noise. Particularly for those sparsely educated. The failure of the education system in many countries is only now showing the full depth of its downfall. No one with a high school degree should make a claim that evolution is a disproven theory, or that vaccinations lead to autism. Before, we simply weren’t aware of the vast amount of ignorance around us. Now anyone can read the comment sections and forum entries only to reach an inevitable conclusion that the education system has hopelessly failed in its primary goal – educate the population. 

Win the war – educate! 

So what's left for those on the defense line of science? Most scientists are not loud, media-loving creatures. They shy away from media attention and like it best when they're left alone to do their work. This is the career choice they’ve made. But their voices should be heard. Much more than the voices of attention-loving, exhibitionist quacks supported by bemused politicians. 

To win the war against science, the education reform should be a starting point. Education reform in this case implies a curriculum focused on explaining how the scientific process works and how it makes the world better off. The basic curriculum, starting from primary schools to high schools, should be focused on developing the cognitive capacity of our children to understand the world around them and be better equipped to explain, understand and adapt to the process of constant change in the world; both natural and social. 

Economics should be introduced to the curriculum as well. Or at least the basics about money and finance. No one teaches our children about loans, savings and interest rates. The level of financial knowledge is surprisingly low given the consumerist society we live in where every single household either saves money or has a loan.

Finally, the war against science cannot be won over the short run. Changing the education system means we have to wait for decades to see how it phases out and will it result in a more knowledgeable society. Today we can see that the system we had in the past failed to adapt to the rise of internet technology where actual knowledge was quickly replaced by shovel-made ideas pushed to the people through obscure websites, exploiting the information time gap. What we need to do now is to focus on reforming the education system to bridge this gap – to use the internet as a tool in favor of disseminating knowledge, instead of its current role in contributing to the spread of ignorance.

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