Surviving in the misinformation age

David Helfand has written a book designed to illuminate thinking that will help spot problems in the public discourse. He is aiming for a popular book, but not too much. He doesn’t dumb it down, and at times I felt he could benefit from a little more compromise with reader. That said, there are lots of interesting things in here. He tackles many of the big issues related (somewhat) to science in public discussions: climate change, teaching evolution, cancer clusters, and vaccination rates being big examples.

A lot of his best advice is standard but good to bear in mind. “…reifying numbers without putting them in context can be .. problematic” (Helfand, 2016, page 49). He illustrates this with an example close to his heart as a Columbia professor. The informational value of Latin honors, “magna cum laude” etc…, depends upon how many of the class get the honors. He is clearly unhappy with Harvard for giving nearly everyone some Latin tag. It is relatively meaningless when everyone gets a prize but it matters as those not in the know think it means something.

He details some standard probability based thinking. For example, the challenge people, including doctors, have with conditional probabilities especially with low base rate diseases. “What is the chance you have a rare disease after testing positive on a good, but fallible, medical test?”

He is robust in defending science from charges of misconduct. He admits fraud happens but: “The impact of scientific fraud (which again is different from the bad science [he] described previously) on the overall scientific enterprise is miniscule: its incidence is very low, much of it is found in relatively obscure journals and uncited papers, and the self-correcting aspects of the enterprise are good at rooting it out. (Helfand, 2016, page 258). I like his positivity — although I’m a little afraid that social sciences may be more vulnerable to fraud. That said his overall message is a good one. Science, given it is a human endeavour has flaws, but using science to inform your decisions is still infinitely preferable to relying on astrology, gut feeling, internet conspiracy, or whatever nonsense is currently fashionable in your community.

Read: David J. Helfand (2016) A survival guide to the misinformation age: scientific habits of mind, Columbia University Press, New York.