Friday, September 23, 2011

How Google, IBM and Others Can Help Hold Feet to the Fire

A Proposal to Harness Computing Power to Showcase the Truth During Political Debates
Like so many, I'm profoundly disturbed when facts are ignored or twisted. I bristle especially when it comes to junk science and false health claims. Politics aside, Michele Bachmann's repeated assertion that Merck's HPV vaccine may cause mental retardation goes beyond inaccurate; it directly undermines public health. She ignores the experience of millions (and the lives saved, the disease prevented), clinical evidence, and the findings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. It would be an absolute crime if Ms. Bachmann's fear-mongering statement leads to just one girl eventually getting cervical cancer because her mother decided against vaccination. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts."

Of course, health advocates, and public health and medical professionals blitzed the news media with the actual facts, which were 100 percent contrary to the presidential hopeful's claim. Unfortunately, the damage was already done. For some, the corrections will stick in their brains; for others, however, it will be in one ear and out the other. In Camelot, Inc., I addressed the challenge of undoing false or misleading statements: "It’s difficult to defeat because once in place, misinformation is terribly difficult to retract and, harder still, to erase from one’s memory. In a study of nearly 900 participants, researchers showed that “the repetition of tentative news stories, even if they are subsequently disconfirmed, can assist in the creation of false memories in a substantial proportion of people.”* Once the information is published “its subsequent correction does not alter people’s beliefs unless they are suspicious about the motives underlying the events the news stories are about.” And, “when people ignore corrections, they do so irrespective of how certain they are that the corrections occurred.” The bottom line is that people may continue to rely on misinformation even when a subsequent retraction is made and remembered."

Following last night's Republican debate, Ms. Bachmann denied saying that the vaccine was "potentially dangerous." "I didn't make that claim nor did I make that statement," she countered. And, yet, anyone can read the transcripts or look at YouTube to see and hear for themselves that she said it again and again. Of course, there were plenty of other flagrant violations of the truth by the other candidates. In the debate follow up, and others comment on the veracity of some of their key statements. It's important and worthwhile and... maybe too late to matter. How many listen to the pundits after the main event is over or read the news articles the next day? Just some small fraction of the debate audience, I'll bet.

So, here's a proposal that will hold every candidates' feet to the fire. Let's have all the fact checking completed during the debate. Before everyone shakes hands and calls it a night, a final segment is added: the candidates are confronted with their false or misleading talking points (maybe even a report card on how accurate or truthful they've been) and are asked to address the issues right then and there. During the course of the debate, all of the statements could be crunched through the vast holdings of credible, objective knowledge. Google was a co-sponsor of last night's debate, for crying out loud. And, if IBM's Watson computer can win at Jeopardy!, there's no reason that near-real time fact checking couldn't be a reality. It could be PolitiFact's Truth-O-Meter(TM) on steroids. No opinion sites or blogs would be part of the fact checking database -- only transcripts, proceedings and testimony; almanacs and atlases; laws, regulations and policy statements; credible survey data, and peer-reviewed research reports.

Google/YouTube and Twitter have expanded interest and engagement in the political debates. Here's a way for them and others to ensure that the widening audience gets the facts and not the flimflam.

* Lewandowsky, S., et. al., “Memory for Fact, Fiction, and Misinformation” (2005), Psychological Science, 16(3):190-195.

Between blog posts, you can follow me @pauloestreicher.

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