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The Misinformation Age

09/16/16

Samuel Abresman

Wall Street Journal

The phrase “too good to betrue” telegraphs a sense of both surprise and concern. It indicates somethingwe should look more carefully into or immediately swerve away from. But how dowe know how to properly respond? How do we navigate the many claims, facts,statistics and arguments that we are bombarded with on a daily basis? How do wemake sure our little mental alarm bells go off consistently and accurately? Inother words, how do we think critically in our modern world?

While it is easy to say thatwe value critical thinking, I don’t think people are really wired that way. Itis a lot simpler to take a claim at face value than to delve into its veracity.We are not in a constant state of careful thought, reading or consuminginformation vigilantly. We must think of critical thinking like a muscle: Themore we use it, the stronger it will be and the more natural its use becomes.If you train for a marathon, you can run a mile. If you constantly try tograpple with data-riddled documents, seeing through a talking head should be abreeze.

“A Field Guide to Lies” bythe neuroscientist Daniel Levitin lays out the many ways in which each of uscan be fooled and misled by numbers and logic, as well as the modes of criticalthinking we will need to overcome this. You will learn how to think criticallyabout numerical facts, how to recognize the host of cognitive biases that weoften fall prey to, and even how to evaluate the reliability of a website. Mr.Levitin tells us how to think about averages (the mean can be deceiving, suchas in very uneven distributions, like investment returns). He also explains howto read graphs (pay attention to the axes; when they don’t start at zero,something might be fishy).

We are often sloppy whenthinking, for example, about the field of medicine, from how we test fordisease to how we think about a disease’s presence in the population. Thechance of a positive test result, assuming you actually have a disease—such asa certain type of cancer—is not the same as the chance that you have cancergiven that the test results are positive. Depending on the numbers, the chanceof the presence of disease can be overestimated many times over. For instance,if a test for a disease that occurs in 1 in 100 people only detects it 90% ofthe time but someone without the disease still tests positive 9% of the time,about 9 in 10 positive results will actually be false positives. In fact,physicians can fall prey to this error in thinking, with one study that Mr.Levitin quotes noting that 90% of doctors make this error.

These logical failings canarise in more mundane situations. For instance, a lack of critical thinking canlead to problems in how we end up thinking about coincidences. As Mr. Levitinrecognizes, we note coincidental situations when they happen, such as when afriend calls just as we are thinking about him. But we don’t note when we thinkabout him and he doesn’t call or when we don’t think about them and they call,or even when they don’t call and when we don’t think about them. We focus oncertain situations and exclude the rest of the possibilities, making itdifficult to understand the larger picture and the nature of the coincidence.Researchers have even looked at the situation where we come across a new wordand then hear or see it again soon after; with a statistical mind-set, this“coincidence” might appear far less mysterious.

Some readers might have seensimilar forays into this topic elsewhere, particularly for various subsets ofthese approaches, from navigating our cognitive biases to how to think in termsof Bayesian probability (updating our probabilities based on new information).For other readers, this book might have the feel of something akin to eatingyour vegetables: something you recognize that you need to be familiar with andconversant in but only if you are forced to learn it. But I’d recommend thisvegetable eating—it will help you consume healthy information more regularlyrather than the misinformation that is all around us. Ultimately Mr. Levitinappears to be advocating a scientific mind-set in how we approach the worldaround us and the information within it, constantly querying what we encounterwith a skeptical and critical eye.

—Mr. Arbesman is scientistin residence at Lux Capital and the author of “Overcomplicated: Technology atthe Limits of Comprehension.”

http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-misinformation-age-1474059411

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