Journal(s) of Misrepresentation

It is often said that the Internet has democratized the world. Maybe not in terms of governance, as we all know various governmental organizations collect huge amounts of data about our web use, but in terms of information.

When I was a teacher I saw many students relying on Wikipedia for information. I do the same myself of course, but I am at least wary about the accuracy of the information. They were not, and were shocked when I suggested to them that maybe all that is written is not true.

One worrying aspect is that the more critical a person is the more they are likely to distrust newspaper and TV reporting. This leads to more trust being put into Internet communication. The younger the user the more likely they are to get their news and information through digital media, but the more likely they are to trust it too, and this has consequences.

One of the consequences of this belief coupled with Internet freedom of information is the blurring of boundaries between reliable information in science and more fanciful or non- proven claims. Anyone can start an online journal, webpage or blog and for practically nothing set up a fake foundation, center of excellence or anything else they fancy, become the Director and Editor and publish to the world.

And you or I might find their work and not know how to interpret the information offered.

Sorting the truth from the lies

Sorting the truth from the lies

A couple of years ago I wrote an article on the Bassetti Foundation website about cold nuclear fusion. A small group of scientists is working to create nuclear fusion without using heat. A breakthrough would mean clean, practically free energy. I mentioned it here too as part of my Health of the Planet series.

In 2011 the Journal of Nuclear Physics announced such a breakthrough. It was reported in the national press in Italy, on CNN and the BBC. A Journal of this quality reporting such findings! Peer reviewed, high quality articles etc etc….

But as I was saying earlier, we should look beyond the gloss and at the substance, and it turns out that this wonderful journal is in fact produced and edited by the very scientist/entrepreneur that has made the breakthrough that he is telling us about.

It is not really a rigorous scientific journal, it is really a personal blog, and as such contents are possibly a little bit liable to bias (maybe).

Last week saw wide reporting of an experiment conducted by journalist John Bohannon and published through Science, an online and paper and much more reliable source of information.

To cut the story short Bohannon wrote a paper about a kind of miracle drug for cancer treatment. The paper contained many of the same errors that you or I might include, as non scientists. It came from a false research center too. Then it was submitted to just over 300 online journals. Fake results, flawed experiments, fundamental errors of high school biology, all included.

Half of the journals published the article as it was. High quality peer reviewed online journals (supposedly) accepted the article, it passed their stringent review systems and made it to publication.

You can read a much more detailed account of the event here in the original Science article. Tales of China and payments for publication, love letters from editors etc, it is all here.

So the problem becomes noise. With all of this noise, information, reporting and news, how can we pick out the real important stuff? Everybody’s voice becomes equal, the fact that 99% of scientists believe in something no longer means anything. The 1% of scientists (I know it is a big word) who do not believe that humans are contributing to global climate change have the same weight of voice as the others, and here in the US you can see the results.

Free market, free thinking, free Internet, free publication, free speech. Free propaganda and free misreporting too, unfortunately.

Calling While Driving

One of the problems with humanity is that we all believe that we can do things safely even if others tell us that they are not safe. People who drive fast do so because they are good drivers (so they tell us), people claim that they can drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs when the statistics prove otherwise, and even making a call or texting does not distract some super-drivers.

Governments take some action in some form or other to try and stop people doing these things, but it is selective in nature. Let us take texting while driving as an example. In some countries it is illegal to drive and text at the same time. In the USA it is allowed in some states and prohibited in others. In some states you can talk on the phone, in others not you need a hands-free system.

The law though seems to be selective. Last week research published in the Science journal demonstrates that it is not holding the phone to text or speak that is the problem, it is the conversation itself that causes the distraction.


A typical sight today

A typical sight today?

The research showed little or no difference between the rate of accidents when people are using a hands-free system and when they are physically holding the phone. The type of conversation does make a difference though, the more the driver has to concentrate on the subject matter or think before replying, the more chance there is of having a crash.

They also found that any type of interaction, even listening to the radio, effects reaction times and attention paid to the road. The radio is the least invasive because it does not require a response, but I wonder if listening to a news show or a discussion that you have to concentrate to follow causes more distraction, a logical line of thought would seem to imply so. Interestingly enough voice to text is the most dangerous type of technological interaction addressed.

So there are laws against texting, and not holding a phone (I must add not everywhere) but why not make speaking hands-free illegal too? And we should bear in mind that cars are ever more designed for connectivity, and that means distraction, maybe this should also be regulated.

Well that would require a change in business practices and take away personal freedom some might say, but we should remember that driving is not a right, it is a privilege that is governed by rules.

This is a serious piece of research that uses eye monitoring technology to measure distraction and driver awareness. The findings are clear and there is plenty of supporting data from other sources, but how would you feel about not being able to make a call at all though while driving?

At least your boss couldn’t call you while you were on your way home.

The end of Anonymity?

Over recent years many people have had their DNA analysed and results posted online. The results have been anonymised, but the vast spread of information on the web calls into doubt the possibility of really making information untraceable.

Last week the Boston Globe ran a story reporting an article published in the journal Science, in which researchers demonstrate how they correctly identified individual identities of the owners of some of this DNA.


DNA, a personal business

Scientists at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research wanted to identify the owners of anonymous DNA samples that are available for research purposes online. They did not have any high technology, using ancestor tracing websites and freely available public documents.

We are not talking about hackers or expensive programs, we are talking about people with every-day computers and the same understanding of how they work as you or I.

It took a single researcher with an Internet connection about three to seven hours per person, and all in all the identities of more than 50 participants were discovered.

This raises several issues. What about all of those people who gave materials for research who find themselves posted and traceable on the Internet? What obligations do commercial companies such as 23andMe have towards their customers, operating in a more or less unregulated environment? (see here for posts about their organization). Can there be real guarantees of anonymity in modern life? Given the obvious advantages of data gathering how can it better be shared in order to protect individual owners?

The very scientists who conducted the research argue that the privacy problem needs to be completely re-analysed, with some scientists dubious that privacy to any extent can be guaranteed.

Problems related to this are both practical and philosophical. In the US the GINA legislation was set up to protect individuals from the effects of their DNA codes (and analysis of it) falling into the ‘wrong hands’. The wrong hands in this case are those of health insurance companies, that might not want to insure a person (or may want to charge more) because they have one particular gene mutation or another.

There are shortcomings however, the GINA legislation does not allow health insurance companies to discriminate on the basis of DNA testing, but other insurance companies are not legislated against. Life insurance and long term care insurance is not covered under the document, so in theory they would be free to decline cover on the basis of DNA analysis. This is particularly important as long term care is extremely expensive and is not covered through health insurance.

Given that anyone who has given their DNA for research purposes risks being identified, they may also risk discrimination.