Myanmar and Us
(Series - 2, part - 4)
Hail, the Internet!
Part 3 detailed how Abdus (stranded in Myanmar) blindly believed the internet about predictions that angels would extinguish Covid-19 worldwide before the end of Ramadan 2020. Although internet addicted, he wouldn't research the web for another opinion about his belief that the Sun goes around the Earth, disputing suggestions school textbooks stated otherwise. He claimed a certain star appears only during Ramadan. Unwilling to explore contrasting ideas led him to discard potential sources of useful information. Why is this?
Is Abdus a simpleton lacking science knowledge, unrepresentative of the general population of Bangladesh? If you agree, then consider the most recent National Science Foundation Survey's report in 2014 that found 25% of Americans think the Sun goes around the Earth.
A 2018 poll by The Economist and YouGov found that 35% of US adults think aliens have landed on Earth. Then there are the Raelians who believe an alien race called the Elohim created life on Earth. And 120 lakh US followers of David Icke, who think the human race was bred by reptilians from the constellation Draco.
Abdus could have found another opinion about the Earth on the web - it is flat. About 100 lakh people in the US reckon the Earth is flat (New Scientist, 8 January 2020). Paradoxically, The Pew Research Center's recent research on What American's Know About Science (March 2019) showed that flat-Earthers weren't ignorant about science compared with the average US citizen.
The Flat Earth Society publishes a website with their ideas debunking the principle we live on a globe. The last 50 years of Earth's images from space are no deterrent, nor the rotation of other planets and all the evidence going back to the ancient Greeks who compared shadow sticks at different locations.
Humans have an inherent distrust of information from outside their social groups. Our built-in confirmation bias means we look for evidence that supports our beliefs. Because information sources are overwhelmingly social, we risk building belief echo chambers. Belief in a flat Earth is just one instance of this.
Belief in a flat Earth links in with a belief in a conspiracy theory. There must be a conspiracy by NASA or other authorities to hide the fact that Earth is flat. Belief in conspiracy theories is certainly not a strange quirk that a few individuals have. The functioning of our brains makes us prone to see conspiracies, real or imagined. Many people in the US believe there was some kind of conspiracy behind the 9/11 attacks.
Since the initial outbreak, there's been plenty of conspiracy theories about the origin and scale of Covid-19. Have you heard of the one that says there's a link between the coronavirus pandemic and 5G mobile phone networks? With politicians and heads of state involved, it's hard to avoid exposure to misinformation.
Sometimes conspiracy theories cleverly exploit people's lack of science knowledge. The argument for the Apollo Moon landings being faked cite various so-called anomalies in the photographs and video taken on the Moon. The rationale against the authenticity of the Moon landings includes questions such as: Why are there no stars in the photographs taken on the Moon? Why does the American flag move when there's no wind on the Moon? For conspiracy theorists and those with insufficient science knowledge, these may be compelling arguments. Do you know the answers? If not, then you can see why it's not so easy to rebut falsehood.
An April 2019 UK YouGov survey found out that one in six British people thought the Moon landings were staged. 2019 US polls show 6% of Americans believe the Apollo 11 astronauts never landed on the Moon. Worse, a poll by the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VCIOM, July 2018, press release 2089) revealed 57% of Russians believe that there has never been a manned lunar landing.
People could conceive of Earth as being literally flat, as populations once did. People could also follow Abdus, thinking angels will eradicate the coronavirus. These falsehoods may never adversely affect you. But they could cause irretrievable harm to others. For example, a belief in a flat Earth is incompatible with developing technology to avert Earth's destruction by asteroid strikes. Faith in angels clearing Covid-19 could lead to abandonment of any social distancing or need to develop a vaccine.
Believing unverified information from the internet may seem foolish, it may seem quaint. But regarding Covid-19, spurious claims can spell the difference between life and death. Even rapid dissemination of hastily done research can be risky. It's difficult for even skilled journalists to pick up pretty glaring errors in research reports when trained doctors are rarely equipped to do so. Methodological flaws are not always easy to spot.
Misinformation isn't just a problem related to individuals. Political parties, governments and democracies act similarly, with a swirl of fake news and false claims. Politicians, policy-makers, journalists, bloggers, social media influencers, armchair pandemic warriors, political agitators and conspiracy theorists all share their ideas about Covid-19 on the web.
Another issue is experts in one field turning their hand to another. This is particularly true of serving or retired Bangladeshi people in influential positions writing about anything and everything for newspapers.
Feelings of rightness that accompany belief are not always a reliable guide to reality. This rightness makes people stick to their political party, ideology, or terrorist group. Our moral positions are often made out rapidly and intuitively, then moulded to fit facts, making them very resistant to change. Our psychology has evolved to seek out patterns because this was a useful survival strategy in our ancestors to deal with predators.
Because anyone can publish anything on the internet, believing in a flat Earth, the Sun orbiting the Earth or angels clearing Covid-19 from the Earth before the end of Ramadan, follow similar thinking. It's all to do with science. People are not appraising or equipped to evaluate the data.
Hoaxes such as the story about Ebola victims rising from their graves as zombies, false tweets, posts or videos, happen every day. "One of the reasons why misinformation is so problematic is because once a myth takes hold, it is fiendishly difficult to dislodge" (John Cook, University of Queensland, Australia). In a rush to confirm one's own beliefs, people have a problem of over-believing things on social networks that conform to their prejudices.
Mass delusions are not recent phenomena. Broadcasting H.G. Wells's story, "The War of the Worlds", on radio in 1938, triggered widespread panic. Thousands of people jammed emergency lines believing that Martians (aliens from Mars) were invading.
Abdus had passed his examinations up to Class 10. Has the Bangladesh education system equipped him to seek out impartial verifiable information and evaluate what he finds during the Covid-19 crisis? Can the education system make a difference or are we just at the mercy of the tyranny of misinformation, mere sponges soaking up the latest random bits of opinion? We'll discuss this in Part 5.
To be continued...