Essay on study of "junk news"

Calling a fabricated or misleading story “fake news” is less and less an option now that the president has made that the label for information that undermines whatever stories he feels compelled to tell at any given moment. (Never underestimate a bully’s capacity to play word games -- or to win by changing the rules.)

The effect of Trump’s semantic rebranding can be felt in “Polarization, Partisanship and Junk News Consumption Over Social Media in the U.S.,” a study issued Wednesday by the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University. Vidya Narayanan and her five co-authors use the expression “fake news” just once in the paper, in a sentence that also appears, slightly tweaked, in the abstract. The researchers define their preferred term, “junk news,” as “misleading, deceptive or incorrect information purporting to be about real news about politics, economics or culture.”

A distinction without a difference? Perhaps -- though I think the Oxford study has less to say about problems of veracity at the level of individual articles than it does about how American public culture is filling up with big bags of garbage.

Old-fashioned public opinion surveying requires finding a demographically representative set of respondents willing to answer a series of questions -- and usually to do so by selecting from the range of options established beforehand. The availability to researchers of public pages on social media makes a different sort of analysis possible. Researchers can gather opinions previously expressed, for example, as well as indications of whether those doing the opining are connected, and of how strong those connections are. And all of these data can be collected on a large scale and relatively quickly.

The Oxford study focuses on public communications among Twitter and Facebook users (about 13,500 and 10,700, respectively) in the three months leading up to Donald Trump’s first State of the Union. These sources were identified from Computational Propaganda Project sample of over 22 million tweets posted between Nov. 1 and 11, 2016, as well as a data set of about 47,700 public Facebook pages also from the election year.

Networks, communities and interest groups can be mapped via the following and friending connections among users of each social media platform. The results, when translated into graphic form, look like a masses of hundreds of bubbles of various sizes, color coded according to expressed affinities (Republican or Democrat), media preferences (progressive, conservative, mainstream, local) or special interests (public health, women’s rights, conspiracy theory, sustainable farming). And the coloration makes it easier to see how smaller social networks cluster together to form cultural and ideological enclaves -- each overlapping somewhat with two or three others but at considerable distance from the rest.

From the pool of media links shared by Twitter and Facebook users, the researchers found “91 sources of political news and information, which we identified over the course of several years of research and monitoring, produce content that includes various forms of propaganda and ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan and conspiratorial political information.” Besides the grinding of axes, these junk-news sources tended to be characterized by a neglect of fact-checking, a failure to publish corrections and the tendency “to present opinion and commentary essays as news.”

The study finds that “a network of Trump supporters” on Twitter “shares the widest range of known junk news sources and circulates more junk news than all the other groups put together,” while “on Facebook, extreme hard-right pages -- distinct from Republican pages -- share the widest range of known junk news sources and circulate more junk news than all the other audiences put together.” Finally, “the audiences for junk news on Twitter share a wider range of known junk news sources than audiences on Facebook’s public pages.”

This is not shocking. It will anger some people, and there is some validity to the complaint that secondhand accounts of the report tend to equate sharing junk news with believing in it. But on the whole, the findings render as charts and correlations something that would otherwise go undoubted: that an already well-funded and well-organized hard-right political movement has forged its own media system (much as Roger Ailes told Richard Nixon would be necessary, decades ago), which has in turn gathered an audience that welcomes "alternative facts" as long as they are delivered with the right tone and feeling.

The authors of the paper note that "social polarization is a driver -- just as much as it may be a result -- of polarized social media consumption patterns." This is true, although at some point, the distinction becomes moot. Evidence about how fast the vicious circle is spinning is interesting to have, but it seems like time for some research on how to put on the brakes.

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A tenure-track professor explains why she left academe to join a tech company (opinion)

Chandra Y. Osborn explains why she walked away from a position at a prestigious university to join a tech start-up -- and what she learned about academic research along the way.

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STEM professors' choices of content are political whether they like it or not (opinion)

Two decades ago, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, Jane Lubchenco, called for a new social contract for science. She pointed out that, given the current state of the human-environment system, it is no longer adequate for scientists -- and all STEM practitioners -- to view our primary obligations as simply to discover, publish and train the next generation of scientists. If we expect society to support the pursuit of our disciplines, our work and our teaching must have at least some direct relevance to society. Whether we are personally interested in fundamental or applied issues, it is also our job to communicate the insights of our disciplines in a way that informs policy and management decisions.

On the surface, it would seem that this is not such a radical notion: to provide the best information possible to decision makers and voters. Yet, science has a long and illustrious history of challenging deeply held views of society and thus becoming politicized. (Consider Galileo, Darwin, Carson and the like.) Still, while STEM practitioners don’t necessarily have any special expertise or primacy in determining what society should do about problems, it has until recently been accepted that at least it was appropriate for us to provide information that could be used to develop solutions.

In general, STEM practitioners rightly adhere to the fundamental notion that if science is to be used to inform political decisions, it must be viewed as nonpartisan. We believe that there should not be Democrat Science that differs from Republican Science. Or that there is a liberal science that is different from a conservative science. History shows us that when this happens, as it did in the Soviet Union in the 1930s with Lysenkoism, social disaster ensues.

Despite this warning from history, the relationship between politics and science in the United States has deteriorated to the point where a crude cognitive relativism allows for “alternative facts” and state legislatures to ban the mention of scientific discoveries. Today, simply being a STEM practitioner has become, in and of itself, a political statement, as reflected in last year’s March for Science. For better or worse, apolitical no longer means nonpartisan. Apolitical now means being irrelevant.

Mirroring Lubchenco’s call for a new social contract for science, it is now time for a new social contract for STEM educators. While the STEM classroom might be a nonpartisan space, we can no longer afford to pretend that it is an apolitical space. The choice to attempt to be apolitical is now a political choice. Global temperature change, sea level rise, water and food insecurity, biodiversity loss, degradation of ecosystem services, loss of arable land, global human population growth, alterations in the global nitrogen cycle, plastics in the ocean, depletion of fossil fuel resources -- all these and more are associated with real data. As a society, we can and should debate prioritization, resource allocation and social justice issues regarding all these problems. And who better to get our students thinking critically about these societal problems based on data than STEM educators? If we don’t, who will?

In 1998, Lubchenco suggested that it is time for scientists to prioritize their work based on societal need. Today it is all the more imperative that STEM educators take every opportunity -- and, in many cases, create opportunities -- to connect our content in the classroom to pressing societal issues. Each of us needs to take a comprehensive look at our overall curriculum and specific course content, and then make the changes necessary to be certain that our students are prepared to enter society with the knowledge, technical skills and cognitive tools to deal with these looming issues.

We are not suggesting that we need to do this 100 percent of the time, but it can no longer be absent. In addition, because of the increased blurring between knowledge and the current trending and transient political whimsy, we also must spend some time on metacognitive thinking about knowledge generation itself. How do we know what we know? How does knowledge generation in the STEM disciplines happen? What is the difference between an idea supported by theory and data as opposed to one supported by our own wants and desires?

Our choices of content are now political whether we like it or not. There are about 7.5 billion people on the planet, a challenging quantity to understand, with hundreds of millions of humans -- more than 10 percent of the world population -- living in extreme poverty. We are changing the earth’s atmosphere, altering our climate and using resources at an ever-increasing rate. The sizes of the quantities and flux rates for our influences on the social-ecological system are difficult to comprehend by themselves, let alone their ramifications. STEM educators have a responsibility to provide the education to make this comprehensible -- and solutions possible.

The new social contract for STEM educators recognizes that our classrooms are the crucial settings for addressing sustainability issues related to our social-ecological system. The issues we are dealing with are all encompassing and complex to the degree that all the STEM disciplines are needed. We cannot hope that the environmental and sustainability scientists can do this alone.

For example, statistics classes can discuss distributions of income and wealth in different parts of the world, or how a day or month with below-average temperatures does not disprove climate change. Calculus classes can address income inequality with the Gini coefficient and use curve fitting to investigate the change of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Global heat balance with changes in albedo can be discussed in physics classes, and kinetic and potential energy provide a setting to discuss regenerative braking in hybrid cars. Chemistry courses can discuss the heat-trapping qualities of carbon dioxide and the breakdown (or lack thereof) of persistent toxic chemicals and plastics in the environment. Computer science classes can discuss climate modeling. For all of these examples, quality data sets and educational materials are available online that can be taken advantage of by numerous STEM courses.

As STEM practitioners and educators, the issues and ramifications brought up by dealing with the real world will not be comfortable for us. As soon as we start dealing with the social-ecological system, issues of equity, fairness, race and class will arise. We will be accused of being elitists pushing a leftist liberal agenda, but then again, the academy is already accused of this. We do need to push an agenda, but the agenda is not one of partisan politics. The agenda, which should be made explicit to students, is to add real data, careful analysis and reason to the emotional debates regarding the future of our society and how we as humans will take care of each other and the other organisms on this planet.

In addition, many of us are neither trained nor experienced in dealing with the emotions that will be brought out in our students when dealing with real-world, value-laden issues. However, we are not alone here. Our colleagues in the humanities and social sciences are well trained to deal with exactly this. We can seek their advice or partner with our colleagues in an interdisciplinary collaboration to help us in this new area for us.

The new social contract for STEM educators calls for us to adapt to the reality that data and discovery challenge people's worldviews and are, at times, upsetting. Retreating into the realm of “neutral” facts is not an option. (Today we have “alternative” facts.) We must counter with a concerted effort to broadly educate all students about the complex issues facing society. This is the challenge facing us, and while the task may seem daunting, the STEM community is about solving problems. And we can solve this one.

Thomas J. Pfaff is a professor of mathematics at Ithaca College. Jason G. Hamilton is a professor and chair of environmental studies and sciences at the college.

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A corporation strives to democratize access to research funding data


New product from Digital Science, a major corporate player, will make information about scholarly research life cycle available free to individual scientists.

Study finds female professors experience more work demands and special favor requests, particularly from academically entitled students

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Searching for other forms of life in the universe (opinion)

It’s been a very long year, and unrelievedly peculiar. So much so that the revelation of a Pentagon research program on unidentified flying objects (with an annual budget, at one point, of $22 million) hardly registers except as a return to old, familiar modes of strangeness.

The New York Times story about the program ran Dec. 16. On a hunch, I checked IMDB and confirmed that the 40th anniversary of Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s release was just a couple of days before that -- a coincidence, but also a reminder that public interest in the matter tends to be cyclical. As are sightings: the French scientist in Close Encounters is based on Jacques Vallée, whose computer analysis of UFO reports from around the world established that they typically come in waves.

Here the skeptic is prone to think in terms of the extraordinary popular delusions and madness of crowds. The cynic will be impressed, though not surprised, by the elasticity of the Pentagon’s budget. On the other hand, the holiday season is the best possible time for headlines about UFOs. Of any topic in the news likely to come up during a family gathering, it’s the one where disagreement is most likely to remain friendly.

In the interest of peace on earth, let’s end the year with a look at the Rio scale and the London scale -- two 21st-century metrics for assessing the impact of solid evidence, should it ever arrive, that We Are Not Alone.

While similar in important ways, the scales cover different phenomena. They take as a model the Torino scale for rating the threat posed by an asteroid or comet passing through earth’s orbit. Based on the estimated diameter, mass and probability of hitting our planet, the Torino formula generates an index ranging from zero (no likelihood of collision or significant impact) to 10 (certain collision with catastrophic global effect on climate) with the intervening values expressing varying levels of risk and possible destructiveness.

The “impacts” registered by the other two scales are less apocalyptic, at least in their immediate implications. The Rio scale is designed to rate the potential significance of any announcement claiming the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. It was proposed in a paper given at the International Academy of Astronautics conference in Rio de Janeiro in 2000 and adopted by the organization’s standing committee on the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence two years later.

Most SETI research involves looking for electromagnetic signals produced by civilizations elsewhere in the universe. The Rio scale defines three parameters for a purported discovery based on the type of phenomenon, the circumstances through which it was identified and the distance from which it originated. An ongoing transmission from within our solar system, detected by a number of SETI researchers and assessed as meant to establish contact, would be assigned a high value in each parameter. At the other extreme would be a short-lived phenomenon found in an archival data set, judged to be the equivalent of machine noise from a device outside this galaxy. Finally, a reliability factor is assigned to the claimed discovery, based, in part, on whether verification has been carried out. The various weightings are combined to generate a Rio scale value ranking the claim between zero (meaningless or fraudulent) and 10 (extraordinary).

In 2010, one of the scale's creators, Iván Almár of the Konkoly Observatory of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, collaborated on a similar index for research concerning extraterrestrial but nonintelligent life forms. The London scale (presented at a meeting of the Royal Society in London) would rate claimed discoveries of microbes on Mars, or of whatever may be swimming in the oceans on Saturn's moons.

"In addition to ranking the discoveries," says the paper proposing the scale, it "is useful to highlight and understand the types or categories of information that may be needed for further validation or dismissal of a claim." Both the Rio and the London metrics are, ultimately, a kind of peer review expressed in quantitative form, and not widely known; they lack the sensational simplicity of J. Allen Hynek's three kinds of close encounter. To knock Homo sapiens out of any lingering belief in Earth as the center of the universe wouldn't really take a Steven Spielberg light-and-sound extravaganza or the air force shooting down a flying Tic-Tac -- just a fossil skeleton in a meteorite or two.

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Theatrical poster of film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"
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Study finds men speak twice as often as do women at colloquiums

Study finds that men speak twice as often as women do at colloquiums, a difference that can't be explained away by rank, speaker pool composition or women's interest in giving talks.

Maybe there isn't a peer-review 'crisis,' at least in terms of quantity


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Scholars need to use their research more effectively to weigh in on public issues of the day (essay)

That academic policy analysis is not very likely to influence public opinion let alone be given weight in legislative or political domains should hardly come as a shock. People often disdain university research professors as intellectuals who inhabit spaces far removed from where the common man abides. Our perceived insularity and elitism hardly help, but neither does the undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in America that has received a boost in recent months.

The effect is to divide the “educated them” from the “uneducated us” and to alienate those needing information from those in good positions to provide it.

Citizens are bombarded with so much information, moreover, that responsible vetting of it has become increasingly difficult. They may absorb information about climate change, health care, school choice, foreign trade and diplomacy, and immigration without critically questioning the sources, or the intentions, of those creating the message.

So it behooves academics to reach across political and ideological divides to bring their expertise to bear on the issues of the day and to put policy arguments forward effectively.

Our work is cut out for us: not only have legislators in various states since 2014 filed close to 70 “academic freedom” bills permitting teachers to present established science as controversial, but science is now also under siege by an administration that questions empirical reality and disregards objective information to make policy. Scientists are fighting back, but they and academics more broadly need to do more than protest. We must figure out how to translate what we know and what we discover into understandable, meaningful language that is clear and credible, so that it, in a word, matters.

That we do not do this in a substantial way is, at least in part, our own shortcoming.

We develop expertise in our disciplines, often with a narrow, even detached, focus that can dissuade us from speaking publicly, let alone advocating actively. What’s more, academics who do speak in public often meet disapproval from their colleagues who perceive public communication as unprofessional, or worse, attention grabbing. Consequently, a public scholar is taking a risk.

Yet democracy depends on taking that risk. Otherwise, the public arena can devolve to the loudest or most politically pointed voices, not to the best informed.

Informing Public Discourse and Policy Making

With respect to climate change and public health, to take but two vital areas, academic research should figure prominently in public discourse and decision making. Providing it is a seminal role for a university, especially one with a land-grant tradition. At my institution, Rutgers University, such work has begun in earnest. For example, several scientists at our Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences and Rutgers President Robert Barchi have presented groundbreaking research in New York, Philadelphia and Washington that highlights how climate change is affecting life on our planet.

Disseminating Rutgers research on human health -- on the impacts of environmental hazards of toxic spills, on climate change and vector-borne diseases -- is another example and provides a model for other research areas. A series of programs that included faculty members and communications professionals focused on: 1) attracting media coverage to research, 2) communicating with the mass media on air and in print, 3) writing books for general audiences, 4) developing an online presence through the websites, social media and blogs of academics, and 5) forging social change by communicating the research to policy makers by, among other initiatives, giving effective expert testimony to legislators and building productive collaborative relationships with state and federal policy makers.

Rutgers is hardly alone in this. Stony Brook University has pioneered a program to train faculty members and graduate students so that their research can inform and engage a broad audience. Public writing and presentations are an important part of an academic’s overall mission there. It’s a promising initiative.

Professional associations are lending a hand, too. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, is encouraging their scientists to speak publicly about their expertise more often and teaching them how to reach policy makers. That was prompted by the paucity of university researchers -- as opposed to lobbyists -- among those invited to address lawmakers during a period surveyed by the association.

According to Todd Gittlin in “Promoting Knowledge in the Age of Unreason,” we need to move beyond Earth Day demonstrations -- although those matter -- to new strategies, such as deploying billboards to present short messages from science that attest to, say, the importance of vaccines. It means institutions should sponsor more nonprofit, nonpartisan journalistic endeavors, such as the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism in Madison and the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Iowa.

Demonstrating just how effective researchers can be when deploying their knowledge to public purpose, geometry professor Moon Duchin of Tufts University has shown how to use mathematics to confront gerrymandering. Duchin also created a program to train mathematicians to serve as expert witnesses in court cases over redrawn electoral districts.

At Carnegie Mellon University, graduate students started a group called Public Communication for Researchers, an undertaking to learn to explain their work to the public in ways that can be understood and valued.

Taking Public Engagement Seriously

If academe is to embrace a more expansive view of scholarship, to connect our disciplines to the complexities of life and bring scholarly research and thinking to pressing issues, then institutions should give such public engagement weight in the promotion and tenure process. They should encourage faculty members to engage in such public service and reward them for it. If professors appear before congressional committees and staff, for example, as well as state legislatures, they should be supported with university funds.

Universities might give some thought to hiring a dedicated communications liaison in their public relations offices to aid this important mission of translating significant research into forms and formats that can inform policy and educate the nation’s citizens. This person could play a key role in both shaping faculty members’ writings for mass-market outlets -- Politico, The Huffington Post, Red State, RealClearPolitics, Drudge Report, Vox and more -- and in facilitating the access the media have to faculty members and their writings. Entering the viral internet to create well-crafted messages for Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms can be an opportunity as well. Liaisons can also create contacts and build relationships with think tanks, libraries and community centers -- places where public programs take place -- not to mention keep doors open to legislative chambers for hearings and staff briefings.

And, as philanthropies become more engaged with public policy matters -- as they try to shape political discourse, education policy, health-care research and more -- academics ought not to overlook the need to deploy their research to help determine what ideas have legitimacy and deserve support, and thus seek to influence where donors choose to make their grants and investments.

Getting Results

The kind of concerted effort in which academe joined with media to help reduce cigarette smoking, raise awareness of threats to our seas and mobilize behind Earth Day is what we need to keep climate change, public health concerns and other pressing issues front and center on the nation’s and the world’s agenda. For advancing understanding -- and undertaking the policy challenges that face the nation -- we need to have an honest and thorough conversation with academics who are willing, prepared and encouraged to embrace an active public role.

Linda Stamato is a faculty fellow at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and co-director of its Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. She has also served as chair of the Board of Governors at Rutgers.

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AAU reports on efforts to improve science teaching at research universities

AAU wanted to improve science education beyond an instructor-by-instructor basis. Five years on, a major initiative piloted on eight campuses seems to be working.


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