Science or Spam?

How do we develop the aptitude to separate spam from knowledge? James Lawrence Powell tells Big Think you need to be "your own spam filter." 

What's the Big Idea?


Every second of every day, more data is being created than our minds can possibly process. Therein lies the great paradox of today's knowledge economy. Is it all just sound and fury, or can the increased speed of information actually lead to greater knowledge?

To answer that question, we need both filters to block out the garbage and curators to point us in the right direction. That's what we try to do here at Big Think, after all. 

In order to accomplish this mission it is necessary to have clear benchmarks and common frames of reference. Science is one of them, and as James Lawrence Powell argued in an interview with Big Think (see the video below), science "should be one of the most respected human enterprises." After all, science has a built-in spam filter called peer review.

And yet, peer-reviewed science journals are not designed for information to pass through quickly. We get our information on the go, in incomplete bursts, and we are all too susceptible to those who would profit by passing on falsehood as truth. For instance, Powell exposes a whole cottage industry of pseudo-scientists who cherry-pick data or even spread deliberate falsehoods in order to undermine the global scientific consensus on climate change in his book The Inquisition of Climate Science

So how do we develop the aptitude to separate garbage from knowledge? Powell says you need to be "your own spam filter." 

Watch the video here:

What's the Significance?

How can you test your spam filter? James Powell says if there is consensus in the world science community on an issue like climate change but you hear one individual -- be it Senator James Inhofe or Viscount Monckton of Brenchley -- arguing that all the scientists are wrong, a bell should go off in your head. After all, Powell tells Big Think, "it just doesn't compute." 

And yet, it's not always so easy as that. 

For instance, take Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, who appears to ooze gravitas with his patrician accent and the logo on his presentation slides that closely resembles the portcullis emblem of the British House of Lords. The House of Lords has asked Monckton to stop pretending he is a member. And yet, as Powell notes, the seals are so small it is hard to tell they are not authentic. The smaller the spam, the easier it is to slip through the filter. 

On the left is the portcullis emblem, the official seal of the House of Lords. On the right is the one used by Viscount Monckton of Brenchley.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

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