Information, Science, Common Sense and Fake News

These days we drown in COVID-19 news, some reliable, some less, some … unclear.

One striking point is the difficulty of communicating scientific facts, whenever they are available, and how they get twisted, misinterpreted and even manipulated by almost everyone: from top leaders, politicians, journalists, communicators, “evangelists”, scientists down and down to even (hopefully not too much) myself.

Having a scientific background, I have been struggling to make sense of the numbers we can read on the news or social media, hear in television or on internet streaming. A few times I tried to make sense of it scientifically, always ending up in “not enough data” or “source and meaning of data unclear”. Numbers do not lie, but only if you know what they mean.

I tried to make sense of the information submerging us using “common sense” (whatever that means) and understanding even less. Actually I realised that “common sense” often leads us closer to give more credibility to Fake News than to authentic information.

This made me think back to the time when I was at the university doing physics. It is well known that in the scientific research world there are at least two major kinds of communicating issues:

  1. communicating with fellow researchers
  2. communicating with the public

and the second is a much bigger issue than the first.

Communication among fellow researchers has to be extremely clear and detailed, all data must be presented and clearly defined otherwise misunderstanding and misinterpretations are the inevitable consequence.  It is possible that a great number of different “opinions” of the experts we hear every day, are indeed based on this type of incomplete communication.

But these days this gets worse since these “opinions” are rushed to the public who understands something else entirely by using common sense and not the appropriate scientific approach. Of this I had personal experiences when I was asked by friends to explain some concepts of elementary particle physics: describing these concepts by means of analogies and not well defined ideas, often led my friends to conclusions which had nothing to do with physics, were wrong or plainly absurd. Obviously it was not my friends’ fault but mine: all of us interpret the information we receive with the logical tools we have, even if none is really appropriate.

So where does this bring us concerning COVID-19? Scientific information should be clearly and precisely presented to the public and in particular to our leaders and politicians, in a form in which data can be logically understood by the recipient. This is difficult but particularly important for information presented to the public by the news and by all information channels in times of crisis such as the one we are experiencing right now. Otherwise misunderstanding, misinterpretation and manipulation of information become too easy and common. Unfortunately recently this seems to have happened too often.

Trust on online information, Fake News and the Information Operations Kill Chain

Can we trust the information we find online?

The general answer is NO, but we all behave as if it was YES.

Personally I see example of it even when I look online for simple information like train schedules or traffic jam conditions. Ever happened to be warned of a major traffic jam ahead and find no traffic whatsoever? Did everybody hear the news and auto-magically disappear from the road?

At a very high level, we can consider two ways in which untrustable (misleading or plainly wrong) news are posted online:

  1. non-intentional or unwilling mistakes due to careleness, untrustable sources, even technical errors in collecting the data;
  2. intentional fake information, eg. “Fake News”, distributed for a purpose usually not moral or legal and at someone particular advantage.

The first goes in the “mistakes” category that hopefully sooner or later will be fixed, but the second goes in the “intentional attacks” category. Unfortunately misusing people trust and conditioning their opinions and actions with “Fake News” is becoming more and more common (just read the news themselves!), to the point that some of these techniques seem to have leaked also to everyday advertising and political campaigning.

Thinking about this, it came back to my mind the “Information Operations Kill Chain” which I read some time ago in Bruce Schneier’s blog here and which I suggest to read and consider.

PS. I am not aware of further developments on this, but if there are, please point them out.