Are we too gullible? Or, are we relearning how to communicate?

Internet and social media 2019

Are people too gullible?

On the surface, the answer is “yes.” We vote in the millions sometimes to elect and even reelect politicians who patently will say and do anything to get elected, clearly care more for themselves than those they had pledged to “help”, and routinely line their pockets at public expense. We vote against our own economic benefit and we tolerate legislation that helps the few over the many. And, we do this over and over again.

Why do we do this?

Research points at the corrosive effects on individuals and on society of Internet social media. Algorithm-driven thought bubbles push us into distinct groups suspicious of and sometimes violent toward those who think or worship or speak or look differently.

Sometimes, the world today seems to be unraveling; all the news is bad. No one can get along.

Is there a positive way forward? Is there any hope for the future?

Think of this–in the mid 1400’s, there were technological advances in moveable type printing and the Gutenberg Bible was produced. Suddenly (over the next 100-200 years), bibles and other printed works became available outside closely controlled monastic and scholarly collections for the first time. “Cheap bibles meant more readers and, ultimately, more debate over the meaning of God’s word.” It was a time of great social, cultural, and commercial change.

Fast forward 550 years–the 1990’s; the Internet becomes widely, publicly, commercially available. In step with that, satellite/cell phones become ubiquitous. Suddenly (in 10-15 years), literally everyone wherever they are–rich and poor–are connected to a network that takes them outside their immediate area. People can communicate across the globe.

In the past 25-30 years, our world has undergone almost unimaginable technological change–and the greatest of that has centered around how people can communicate, receive, and send information. What we are living through is the stuff of wild science fiction.

George Orwell’s1984 used to be a symbol of a distant, speculative technologically and politically repressive future … and now “1984” is a good 35 years in the past. We have and are living it; we are beyond “1984”, and it has turned out to be a much more complex, dangerous, and beneficial time.

Are we too gullible? Yes … but maybe because we are learning once again–as a society and, for the first time, as a world–to communicate with each other. The Internet and social media has almost swept away the habits and customs of past millennia. So now we have to learn how to do it effectively all over again.

And, we will … but, we are only about one generation into the process; the speed of technological change is much faster than the speed of human change. We will get there eventually; it may take another one to two generations and maybe more.

Unfortunately, this great “communication change” is occurring at the same time as climate change and ongoing technological change (including impending job automation). Any one of these means profound societal shift; all three at the same time brings great uncertainty, great stress, great risk, great danger … but also incredible opportunity and possible incredible benefit for the many.

(Kevin Engel, February 2, 2019)

Moveable type printed book

Weather extremes–global warming and polar cold

Lake Michigan shore, Chicago, Illinois, USA
January 29, 2019
Lake Michigan shore, Chicago, Illinois, USA January 29, 2019
Joshua Lott for The New York Times

Read this article

Weather extremes–a hallmark of climate change. Searing heat, wildfires, drought, electrical grids being overwhelmed, deaths, etc. in one place. Arctic cold, frostbite in minutes, school and college closings, city and county offices closed, states at a standstill, more deaths, etc. in another place … and both happening at the same time in different parts of the world.

“This is weather in the age of extremes. It comes on top of multiple extremes, all kinds, in all kinds of places.”

But, how can extreme cold be part of an overall global warming?

Research is indicating that global warming, specifically “a warming Arctic is causing changes in the jet stream and pushing polar air down to latitudes that are unaccustomed to them and often unprepared.”

I write this from Newton, Iowa, USA–a place not unaccustomed or unprepared for cold weather. But, not accustomed and prepared for cold weather of this extreme. It was -22 F this morning (with a wind chill of -49). That’s 54 degrees F below average air temperature for January 30.

Climate change is here, it’s happening, and it is impacting every place. And, as with most disasters and upheavals, the poor and vulnerable suffer the most.

This is not a time for decision-makers to stick their heads in the sand …

(Somini Sengupta, New York Times, January 29, 2019)

Dust storm in Australia 2018-2019
Dust storm in Australia 2018-2019

Americans are more aware of climate change than ever (quick post)

“Two major new polls are in, and they both found that Americans are more attuned to the threats of climate change than ever before.
My colleague John Schwartz wrote about one of the big surveys, which was conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate
Change Communication. It found that about 73 percent of Americans believe global warming is occurring, a record high and a jump of 10 percentage points from 2015. Another record: The percentage of Americans who said global warming is personally important to them was 72 percent, an increase of nine points since March.
Those results mirrored a separate survey, from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, that found 71 percent of Americans believe climate change is happening. About half of those people said they found the science of climate change to be more conclusive than it was five years ago and the vast majority cited extreme weather as the main reason.
And the science remains dire. A new study, which my colleague John also wrote about, found that  Greenland is losing ice at a pace never before seen. The authors found that the ice loss in 2012, more than 400 billion tons per year, was nearly four times the rate in 2003. It’s part of a growing body of research, John noted, that shows the effects of rising global temperatures are mounting.”

(Lisa Friedman, New York Times, January 16, 2019)
Camp Fire, Paradise, California
Camp Fire, Paradise, California, USA
(Eric Thayer, New York Times)

Consumer DNA testing–no oversight, no peer review, only estimates (quick post)

In a recent test, identical twins received different ancestry profiles from each of five well-known consumer DNA testing companies; the results should have been identical.

The difference comes through the calculations done by the companies–the reference panels and algorithms used; data that is kept secret by the companies. Remember that the results of this kind of testing are no more than estimates; they are not precise scientific fact —

(Charlsie Agro and Luke Denne, CBC News, January 18, 2019).

Identical twins and consumer DNA testing

Termites may do good


Are termites always bad? Maybe not …

In a study conducted in Borneo during the extreme drought of 2015-2016, researchers compared “widely scattered” plots of land within a tropical rainforest. In some of the plots, termites were removed; in other plots, the termites were left alone.

“In the plots with intact termite mounds and nests, soil moisture … was 36% higher during the drought than it was in plots where termite activity was disrupted.” In addition, the termites aided litter decomposition and soil nutrient content.

Termites like a moist environment and , if needed, “will dig down … to bring water up to their living spaces.”

The increase in soil moisture caused by the termite activity helped plants in the rainforest survive during the drought; plants used in the research were “51% more likely to survive” in areas where termites were active compared to areas where they were not.

What could this mean?

Due to climate change, “droughts are expected to occur more frequently” all over the world. As a result, termites could play “an increasingly important role” in assisting current and future “rainforest productivity and biodiversity.” Everything has a role to play and some human attempts to eradicate termites may lead to unintended consequences …

Read the article (Sid Perkins, Science, January 10, 2019).

Consumer DNA testing and the placebo effect (quick post)

Research shows that receiving genetic risk information for Alzheimer’s, cancer, obesity, etc. through consumer DNA testing can change actual body physiology, exertion/endurance during exercise, and the feeling of fullness after eating “in a self-fulfilling manner.” “Effects of perceived genetic risk … were sometimes greater than the effects associated with actual genetic risk.”

The placebo and nocebo effects can be powerful —

(Bradley P. Turnwald, et al., Nature Human Behavior, December 10, 2018).

Consumer DNA testing can create a powerful placebo or nocebo effect.