The most AMAZING story you’ll ever read! (A.K.A., the concerning rise of Click-Baiting and sensational “science”)

www.cartoonsbyjim.com
http://www.cartoonsbyjim.com

Social media can be a catalyst for spreading awareness about scientific and environmental issues, and in some cases can help affect positive change. But for every link posted that actually leads to a valid, well-researched story, there are a dozen more that MIS-lead you to some nonsense article, or worse—a sensationalized, one-sided, often poorly-researched story thinly veiled as ‘scientific’.

Let me disclose my own perspective from the start: I trust the evidence showing that climate change is happening, and that CO2 and methane from human-caused activity is a huge contributor. I am skeptical that corporations generally have the best interests of society or the environment at heart, and I realize that government is not always transparent or just—regardless of which party is in control. However, I am also not a conspiracy theorist, and in fact believe that conspiracy theorists tend to draw attention away from some of the most pressing issues affecting the world.

While I know that human knowledge is still very limited, and our view of the universe is naturally incomplete, there are methods we can use to improve our understanding—and then of course there are methods some people use to obfuscate that understanding. As a trained scientist, I am wary of explanations that lack credible evidence (or use faulty evidence) to back them up. Each time we read a scientific story, we should be asking ourselves about the credibility of information we receive—what are the credentials and reputation of the source, what evidence does the source cite, and does the source consider multiple perspectives and valid references?

As a communicator, I am particularly sensitive to journalists, writers, or bloggers who display unacknowledged bias or inaccuracy in their reporting of scientific issues. I don’t claim to know everything, nor do I endorse any particular information source; but irresponsible scientific writing ends up burning more bridges between the public and science in a time when scientific understanding is more critical than ever.

Climate change denialism (like vaccination controversy) has been addressed effectively by hundreds of scientists and communicators, so I won’t spend time here discussing the ways that climate change science has been cherry-picked or misrepresented by people either not well-versed in science or actively trying to distort it. Instead, I’ll provide a few other examples of troublesome reporting.

Aedes albopictus, an invasive mosquito species  in Florida that can spread lethal diseases.
Aedes albopictus, an invasive mosquito species in Florida that can spread lethal diseases.

Frankensquito or Insect Savior?

A smaller—but no less controversial—story popping up in news media lately is the development and release of genetically modified mosquitos to help combat mosquito-borne diseases. I won’t go into the details about their development, here but you can read more about the technology by googling, or in the articles I link to below.

GMOs typically refer to modified crops like soybeans and corn, but more and more research labs are toying with genetically modified insects and animals. I am wary of genetically modified crops for a number of reasons—the unscrupulous purposes of their creation, their reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and their detrimental social-economic impacts to small farmers. However, it would be unfair, and extremely ideological, for me to render every single GMO as evil without considering multiple perspectives.

Even for those GMOs that I oppose, such as GM soy, I must acknowledge that we don’t fully know how harmful these crops will ultimately be to our bodies or the environment compared to conventional crops. GMOs developed by academic or independent institutions (as opposed to agro-corporations) may actually provide some human or environmental benefit that outweighs risks or harms.

So what about these genetically modified mosquitos? Depending on which media source you look to, the mosquitos are either dangerous mutants who will lead the apocalypse, or they are angelic saviors in the plight against deadly disease. Of course, neither of these depictions is completely accurate, but the concept that GM mosquitos are just one more, somewhat successful but limited attempt to control vector-borne disease is not a newsworthy headline.

The click-bait culture has fed into sensationalized media, enticing people to click on extreme headlines that never live up to their hype when you actually read the story. It still doesn’t keep people from clicking on the links, however. And while clicking is harmless, when links begin to spread from reader to reader via social media, a highly distorted viewpoint can reach epic proportions.

One such story from the site Collective Evolution talks about the potential release of GM mosquitos in Florida, arguing that these mosquitos may spread their genetically-modified DNA to humans, that their populations may eventually get out of control, and the diseases they carry are not even that dangerous or prevalent. All of these points are partially valid, but have been purposely slanted or stretched beyond scientific fact. The article does site some references, but many of them are from sources with well-known biases or controversies themselves.

On the other hand, NPR published an article about the mosquitos that projects a very benign, almost positive slant, providing arguments and facts not mentioned by Collective Evolution, but also not delving into much about the risks of GMOs. On the other extreme, an author from Discovery Magazine attempts to squash all fears about the mosquitos point by point, arguing that protests against their release are ignorant fear-mongering. Another pithy author took this approach to the issue in the Washington Post.

A recent article on the GM mosquitos in Time Magazine.
A recent article on the GM mosquitos in Time Magazine.

There are more than 50 Shades of Gray—metaphorically speaking

As with any issue where science meets society, there are many nuances to the GM mosquito story, only some of which are discussed in any one news article. This is not a clear black/white, good/bad issue. The decision to release these mosquitos or not is contingent on particular societal values at a given time.

Some things to consider: the mosquitos being targeted are not native to Florida, so eradicating them (or reducing their numbers) would not necessarily be a disruption to native fauna and flora. The diseases the invasive mosquitos carry, while not widespread in the U.S. at this time, are projected to increase as the climate continues to warm. The same mosquitos have been released in other cities around the world with great success, and no recorded harm, resulting in reduced rates of disease. The current method of controlling these mosquitos is with tons of pesticides—not exactly a healthy alternative. However, there have been many cases of biological releases gone wrong, so this is not a fail-safe procedure.

Would you rather be exposed to pesticides or take antibiotics rather than GM mosquitos? Do you fear GM technology more than tropical diseases? How you feel about these various trade-offs will color how you interpret the issue, and the media provides additional filters. My main point is just to be aware of your own biases as you react to any scientific story—while your viewpoint may remain the same, understanding how you construct your perspective is a valuable thought-experiment that can help you build tolerance and openness to other perspectives.

Our world is a mix of cultural relativism, objective external reality, and subjective reactions to that reality. Cultivating a greater awareness of what you read, and what you share with others, will help us as a society to expand our consciousness and be more thoughtful about how we co-exist in the world.

What’s wrong with being wrong?

egoI feel like most of the suffering that we as humans create for ourselves originates with just a few misguided behavioral tendencies that become reinforced by society until they solidify into norms that lead us astray from our true fundamental selves. One of those tendencies is the habit of refusing to admit when we are wrong about something; i.e., our tendency to protect our worldview through defensiveness and refusal to accept new information/evidence that is presented before us as ‘truth’.

If we as individuals, as well as society as a whole, were better able to (or perhaps better encouraged to) admit when we are wrong about something and be open to other possibilities, we would subject ourselves to a significantly lower amount of suffering and delusion. The field of science, while far from an error or value free existence, is one of the few professions that appears to encourage a trial and error approach in which errors and mistakes are considered a valuable component of moving closer to the ultimate truth. When you are trained as a scientist, you prepare yourself for being wrong (or at least only partially right), for making mistakes, and for starting from scratch again and again. In fact, the scientific process thrives on this iterative approach in which incremental successes are built of a delicate play between errors and discoveries, until a clearer and more accurate picture of our world is slowly constructed across the eons.

Unfortunately, in most other professions (and societal roles), admitting that you are wrong is often considered weak or shameful–whether it be in the realm of law, politics, law enforcement, or even teaching, where admitting that you were wrong about something is typically perceived as losing face and credibility. Even as a parent, admitting wrongness to your children may feel like you are undermining your own authority and ability to garner respect. It’s quite sad really–most leadership positions require at least the appearance of unquestioning faith and confidence, even though most of us are fumbling about in this world looking for half-hidden answers. When you attempt to perform a task or gain understanding and are genuinely wrong, admitting your mistake should be considered noble and honest, not weak or wavering. It should be a sign of a thoughtful, critical, and scrutinizing individual.

We are all continuously re-writing our realities, coming to terms with who we think we are and how we engage the external world. Nothing is constant, so why must we pretend that our perceptions are so unwavering? Perhaps it is just an extension of our brain’s ability to filter out all ‘unnecessary’ information, to shield us from information overload. Maybe we shield ourselves from the many other possible ‘truths’ and ‘rights’ that don’t fit our personal worldviews or paradigms in fear that this openness would overload our sense of self, doing away with the Ego for good. It’s a legitimate fear—we spend our whole lives building up a sense of self, so the threat of losing it does seem great indeed. But maintaining that persona comes at great pain and often violence or emotional suffering not only for ourselves, but for others we subject to it.

Sometimes, I feel like we would all benefit from letting go of our sense of selves, at least temporarily, a bit each day. This is, really, the point of meditation, isn’t it? To let go of our ego, our ‘personality’, that is not the true US, just the caricature we have built up over the years to try to protect our underlying selves from pain and embarrassment (which, ironically, tends to open us up to even MORE suffering!). I wish we could all be better encouraged to lower our shields and respect each other for who we truly are, and to realize that everyone is valid, everyone makes mistakes, and that all paths may ultimately lead to the same place. Those that are misguided have become so lost in their solidified personalities, trying to protect themselves from being torn down, that they lash out at others, sometimes entire groups of people, causing great pain, only because they are crumbling inside.

I guess that the ultimate remedy for all of this defensiveness is compassion. Compassion allows people to let down their guard, to realize that their likes and dislikes, their understanding of science and religion, or their struggle for meaning in life, is all part of one giant puzzle–they fit together with everyone else, and we are constantly rearranging that puzzle in an attempt to ‘solve’ it, when in reality it is what we make of it! All the puzzle pieces are really just fractals of one giant ‘reality’, universe, existence, or whatever you want to call it.

If we could only admit that we are all ‘wrong’ sometimes (in that our perception is inevitably limited and as new information is introduced it is normal to evolve and negotiate new relationships with the world), we would be a giant step closer to the world that I think almost all of us imagines would be a ‘better’ place to live.

world hands

Food for Thought: A contemplation on ‘self’

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This is another from the vaults–a 4 part blog series in which I contemplate what determines our sense of ‘self’, and how our internal and external perceptions influence that self.

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Now, beshrew my father’s ambition!
He was thinking of civil wars
when he got me: therefore was I created with a
stubborn outside, with an aspect of iron, that, when
I come to woo ladies, I frighten them.
-William Shakespeare, Henry V Act V scene 2

What makes us who we are? I mean, I know in genetic terms why my eyes are green and my skin is annoyingly pale and prone to freckle. But why am I an introvert rather than an extrovert, or have a passion for environmental conservation rather than for playing the stock market? Why do I prefer the color purple over yellow?

Are we each nothing more than the definitive sum of a series of genetic expressions? Perhaps we are simply the biological end-products of the chemical components in the minerals and nutrients we must daily consume—i.e., we are what we eat. Or is our sense of self shaped through our interactions with others; the influence of parents, acceptance or rejection by peers, pressures of society; our interpretation of these interactions weaving together a subconscious tapestry of beliefs and emotions that blanket us in self awareness? Or, if I were to believe the theory of many enlightened spiritual thinkers, then I would have to consider that our true ‘selves’ are not any of these things, but rather that our minds and bodies are mere abstractions (or distractions, as the case may be) of an underlying core that is our essential ‘Being’. At the level of ‘Being’, none of us can be individualized into separate and distinct bodies. Rather, all sentient “beings” are connected by one consciousness, like countless rays of light (some brighter than others, granted) emanating from a single, universal sun.

As it happens, I have read several books recently that touch on various aspects of these possibilities, from scientific theories of gene expression and investigations into the lamentable modern diet, to evidence that our thoughts and attitudes influence our physical health, and studies on the positive impact that meditation can have within ourselves and society as a whole. Interestingly, the ideas expressed in each of these books complement each other, and taken together create a holistic approach to understanding who we are, why we are here, and how we can improve both our own physical and mental health, and the health of the environment.

In my next few posts I thought I’d explore some of the themes expressed in these books that I’ve found relevant, and how they relate to each other. Perhaps some of these ideas will grasp your interest as well, especially if you are like me and wish to cultivate more balance in your life while reducing the need for harmful prescribed medications, or industrially produced preservative-filled ‘food’ and ‘nutritional supplements’. At any rate, consider the following reflections and excerpts as “food for thought”, which may yet be more nourishing than the microwavable organic TV dinner from Whole Foods waiting conveniently in the freezer.