For over two years Ingenium Magazine has been promoting the datum culture, recounting it with its stories, experiences and visions. Sometimes I wonder if we have achieved results and which ones. Have we managed to raise interest in the importance of data in our professional and personal life? Have we stimulated food for thought about how each of us can improve the process of gathering and screening information for forming our opinions and making decisions?
It cannot be said so. We can only hope for it. Our ability to produce data is growing exponentially and in this confusion of percentages, graphs and trends it becomes difficult to distinguish what is reliable from what is not.
About a year ago I wrote on these pages about fake data, all the more subtle because they are numbers, quantities and values by definition of greater credit and authority. The phrase “the statistics show …” is the modern version of “I heard on it on TV …“. However, how many know the difference between media and median or know what a linear regression is and how you really interpret it?
The mother of all fake news
These and other reflections were recently presented to me during a confrontation with a supporter of the (non-existent) link between vaccines and autism in a totally random and unexpected context. I confess I was surprised by my own surprise. Browsing the web a little, I know very well that everything can be found, from chemtrails to pyramids built by aliens, to the Earth that would be flat, without offending Eratosthenes who in the III century BC calculated the meridian with an error of only 1% compared with the correct value.
But the story of Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who published a study in 1998 on a hypothetical link between autism and trivalent vaccine, is particular. False propaganda has existed for as long as man has existed, but this can be considered the mother of all fake news in the digital era. Not only because of the virality and the following it has had and (unfortunately) continues to have, but because of the manner in which it was produced and disseminated.
Wakefield used fake data, taking into account only 12 children, falsifying data for 5 of them and publishing the study in a medical journal (Lancet). Moreover, the paper did not affirm tout-court the harmfulness or uselessness of the vaccines but put forward doubts only on the trivalent, suggesting a return to single vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella.
In 2004, ten of the thirteen co-authors of the paper withdrew their signature with an official declaration of “retraction” which stated textually: “We wish to make it clear that in this paper no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient. ”
In 2007, the UK General Medical Council initiated an investigation during which Wakefield moved to Austin (Texas), opening a formally non-profit clinic for the treatment of autism, which was responsible for the research program (although without permission for practicing as a doctor in the USA) with an annual salary of 270,000 dollars.
In 2010, he was struck off the British medical register. Among other reasons, the Council motivated the decision by stating that Wakefield had a conflict of interest because he was working on a patent for his own measles vaccine that would have brought him great gains, if he could have had it considered a “safe” alternative to the trivalent.
Thereafter, not one of dozens of scientific studies ever succeeded in demonstrating any link between vaccines and autism, but sensationalist advertising, dissemination on the web and the activism of several influencers led to a decrease in immunization rates in the UK of more than 10%, leaving persistent doubts among parents worldwide and extending the extent of the fake news from the specific trivalent vaccine to the Kantian vaccine noumeno in the most general sense possible..
The long wake of this movement is still causing consequences. Accomplice is a political debate not without exploitation, with many people remaining convinced that Wakefield was right and that his striking off the medical register was a plot hatched by pharmaceutical companies. In the meantime, vaccination coverage in Italy has decreased and in 2017 we had 4,991 cases of measles compared with 862 in 2016, with an increase of 479% [source: Istituto Superiore di Sanità (National Health Institute)].
Science and disintermediation: AI will not save us
I could rebut the supporters of Wakefield saying that he is unreliable because his last name is the anagram of “wield fake”. However, even if it is an amusing coincidence, I limit myself to trusting the World Health Organization and the previously mentioned Istituto Superiore di Sanità.
In other words, I delegate to someone who knows more than me. At the root of fake news and fake data there is, in fact, a problem of delegating knowledge. The information overload we are subjected to does not allow an exhaustive verification of sources and contents, so it is necessary to delegate to “experts” who do for us that work that we cannot or do not want to do. The disintermediation offered by the web and social networks, however, risks fueling a dangerous delegitimization of the expert, pushing us to overestimate our possibility – moreover only theoretical – of accessing information and tragically underestimate our ignorance.
Many think that the solution to fake news can come from technology, through fact-checking based on Artificial Intelligence and Big Data, with Machine Learning algorithms trained to recognize the syntax typical of fake content.
However, there is a problem. If on the one hand AI can help us debunk different unfounded stories, on the other hand it will generate new and increasingly sophisticated ones (as I wrote in the aforementioned article). A little like Goedel’s incompleteness theorems. There are “true” theorems that are not demonstrable. To prove them we should introduce new axioms, which in turn would however generate further non-demonstrable theorems.
To save us from the risks of disintermediation through the web will not be (only) AI but culture, critical thinking, awareness of what science is and what it is for. So that between two opposing arguments on a given topic, one published on the website of an official institution and the other on … www.quellochenonvoglionofartisapere.com, it should not be difficult to select the most reliable source.
If we talk about vaccines, no “ordinary person” can dream of having something to object to, not to the individual immunologist, but to an entire scientific community that has set itself strict criteria for verification. Is it therefore true, as Roberto Burioni says, that “science is not democratic”?
I think not, in the most absolute way. Science is an undertaking to which everyone can have access, provided that we acknowledge a gap of knowledge that can only be filled with years of study, without shortcuts or “searching on the Internet”. If I want to be a decision maker on the subject of vaccines I try to pass the admission test, I enroll in medicine, graduate, specialize in immunology, publish papers that my peers will evaluate in terms of merit and method and perhaps in a dozen years will be able to talk about it again.
Therefore, more than technology, application of the scientific method can be a powerful tool for distinguishing between valid and fake content. Critical spirit, culture of doubt, rejection of any dogmatism and ability to interpret the (quantitative) data available resisting the temptation of confirmation bias.
Unfortunately, Italy – which also gave birth to Galileo – has a difficult relationship with scientific culture, starting with education. Research is vilified and funded little and badly, the mathematics and physics taught in upper secondary schools are a pale appearance of what a student faces in the first year of a degree program in the STEM area.
However, we cannot get away with simple recipes, such as increasing the number of school hours of this or that subject or introducing some coding and technology into schools. We would end up feeding a sterile contraposition between scientific and humanistic culture.
Science is simply included in the multiform and multidisciplinary corpus of the culture produced by man, hence “humanistic” in the etymological sense. Science does not come from Mars or aliens but is the result of our ingenuity and our cognitive abilities, as well as the arts and philosophy.
We need a “Humanism 4.0”, with which we can knowingly face future challenges, which is easy to define. Simply take the original one (Humanism ‘400), remove a zero and add a decimal point. For the rest, it would be sufficient to follow the spirit and example of Leon Battista Alberti or Leonardo da Vinci, whose works embraced every field of knowledge, from architecture to letters and philosophy. If quantum mechanics had existed in the fifteenth century, it would certainly have been inserted into their vision of the world.
Humanistic culture does not attend a particular type of high school or recovery of the classics. Rather, it is the bringing together of the domains of human knowledge in holistic synergy, so that the total is greater than the sum of the parts. In full digital transformation and in waiting to understand how machines “will evolve”, we can and must integrate art and science, philosophy and technology, literature and mathematics. As Leonardo said: “The knowledge of all things is possible”.
Was Bertold Brecht right?
More than any epistemology essay, there is a passage from “Life of Galileo” by Bertold Brecht that defines in a magnificent and powerful way what science is and how it operates. It seems to me the best possible synthesis for putting man at the center, overcoming any cultural division.
The scientific method explained by its same inventor Galileo in a play through the words of a great dramatist, to remind us always to feed that critical spirit which, more than any technology, can allow us to orient ourselves in the ocean of information of our digital present and future.
“With some probability of giving evidence of the rotation of the sun. I do not care to show that I was right, but to determine if I was. And I tell you: abandon all hope, o you who are about to observe! Perhaps they are vapors, perhaps they are stains; but before affirming that they are stains, let us try to ascertain if by chance they are fried fish. Yes, we will restore everything, everything in doubt. And we will not proceed with seven league boots, but at a snail’s pace. And what we find today, tomorrow we will cancel from the blackboard and we will not rewrite it again, unless the day after tomorrow we find it again. If any discovery follows our predictions, we will consider it with special distrust. And so, let us get ready now to observe the sun with the unyielding determination of showing that the earth is still! And only when we have failed, when, beaten without hope, we will be reduced to licking our wounds, then with death in the soul we will begin to ask ourselves if by chance we were not right, if indeed it is the Earth that rotates! But if all the other hypotheses, other than this, should melt in the fingers, then no mercy for those who, without having tried, will want to talk! Andrea, remove the cloth from the telescope and turn it towards the sun!”
Yes. It is time to finally remove the cloth from the telescope.