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Physicist Lawrence Krauss says speaking plainly is key to educating public.
February 14, 2017

Theoretical physicist Krauss, ASU Law's James Weinstein discuss information, science and educating the public

Losing the truth is no less disconcerting than losing gravity. Suddenly, you’re down a rabbit hole where nothing makes sense and you don’t know what to believe. Normal rules don’t apply any more.

What do you do?

Educate, present a process and data for people to arrive at their own conclusions, and speak to them in a language they understand.

That was the topic of a discussion Tuesday between internationally recognized theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss and James Weinstein, the Dan Cracchiolo Chair in Constitutional Law at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. (See it here.) The conversation was part of Second Nature’s Presidential Climate Leadership Summit, which is part of ASU’s Sustainability Solutions Festival.

Before that chat, KraussKrauss is a professor in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration and is part of the Department of Physics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He is director of the Origins Project, a university initiative created to explore humankind's most fundamental questions about our origins. gave an overview to ASU Now.

Question: You are going to be talking about our new idea of "alternative facts"?

Krauss: There have always been "alternative facts." They’ve just been wrong.

Q: What happens when facts are dismissed, seen as optional or replaced with “alternative facts”?

A: A healthy democracy depends on access to information, because you can’t make reasonable voting decisions without knowing what’s happening.

More importantly, the government requires access to information to make reasonable public policy. That’s a key point.

Governments are going to make policies. If they don’t make policies based on empirical evidence, the policies are going to be bad policies. So they rely on science. Scientists should decide what to do in science, and in a democracy voters should decide what to do.

Ultimately, the voters can’t make reasonable voting decisions and government can’t make reasonable policies if they don’t have access to proper information.

If they discard it, distort it or ignore it, the policies are going to be bad. It’s that simple.

Q: Or accepting pseudo-science like creationism?

A: There’s a deep influence.

First of all, it produces bad policy now, but it also ultimately leads to a more poorly informed electorate — both in the point of view of voting, but also if there’s a notion that there’s no such thing as objective reality, that you can’t trust key sources of information, then how do you proceed as a human being?

Ultimately, it’s a process of education, and we’re at an educational institution.

What too many people think is that science is a bunch of facts. Science is a process to determine how the world works, to ask questions, to separate nonsense from sense.

That’s what we should be teaching. When the government gives up that whole notion of the scientific process, it sets a poor example for parents and children in the school system.

Q: So how do you effectively communicate facts in this kind of an environment?

A: You don’t start with the facts. You start with the process of how to uncover facts.

In a world where people have learned not to trust people and a lot of people sound good on both sides, then you’re automatically starting from a position of weakness in a sense.

There’s also a sense that scientists are a sort of liberal-leaning whatever. There’s a long history in teaching in education that says the only way people can learn is by confronting their own misconceptions.

Ultimately, what you have to do is present a process by which a reasonable person will say, "This seems reasonable, and this seems reasonable, but wait! It leads to an opposite conclusion from what I have."

Then they’ll confront their own misconceptions. One has to start with how you get to the facts, not saying that global warming is happening, but how do we know? Is it complicated? Can the average person understand it? Also, more importantly, present data. Data is a little bit different than facts. Talk about how the globe is warming and people say, "That’s just modeling." Show the data. Show pictures. Show stuff that is evidence in your hands. Then I think people will be more open and accessible. ...

I think that’s ultimately it. If you want people to start trusting, speak in a language they can understand.

They’ll naturally distrust experts. I think the good news about these "alternative facts" is that people are beginning to be distrustful of the people who are speaking "alternative facts."

People are beginning to be skeptical, which is the first step in thinking for yourself. And we’re seeing that happen. I have more faith than I did two weeks ago.

Ultimately, reality has a way of biting you in the butt. It can take a long time before that happens. Even George Orwell said, "Ultimately, you knock up against reality." And as one of my favorite science fiction writers Philip K. Dick said, "Reality is that which continues to exist even when you stop believing in it."

 

Top photo: Foundation Professor Lawrence Krauss talks Tuesday about the detrimental effects of "fake news" and "alternative facts" within communities, education and policy makers. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4502

 
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Disciplines include psychology, sociology, politics, anthropology, archeology.
February 16, 2017

Cooperation and Conflict Symposium brings experts from around the world to discuss the many and varied forms of foul play

The guy at work who contributes squat to a team project. The one who develops alligator arms every time the check arrives. The people you’ve had for dinner 20 times who always show up empty-handed.

Does it make you feel any better that ants, bees and wasps suffer from similar company?

Arizona State University’s first Cooperation and Conflict Symposium was held Thursday, bringing scholars from around campus and the world to discuss “Solving the problem of cheating in large-scale cooperative systems.”

The symposium’s scientists peered through the lens of different disciplines to see how the problem of cheating is addressed, and how cheating is detected, controlled and eliminated.

The event was the brainchild of Athena Aktipis, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, and Michael Hechter, a Foundation Professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies. The idea for the symposium began when Aktipis and Hechter started talking about how if you look at how lots of different social organizations work — everything from groups of humans to groups of cells interacting — there are some principles and ideas that apply across all these systems.

“All of these systems have in common that social interactions are happening among the individuals that make them up,” Aktipis said. “We tend to think of social interactions as something that humans do, but it’s actually something that happens across lots of different scales of life. … Cells also have social interaction. They send signals, they respond to signals, they change their behavior and what they’re expressing based on inputs from each other. So sociality is everywhere.”

And so is cheating and the risk of being exploited. That tension exists across all systems, whether human, cell or animal.

“So the idea for the symposium was to see if we could learn about how cheating is limited by looking across lots of systems,” Aktipis said.

Assistant professor Joe Blattman
ASU School of Life Sciences assistant professor Joe Blattman explains his quantitative analysis of viruses and their roles as cheaters or parasites at the ASU Cooperation and Conflict Symposium on Thursday. Twenty speakers from the U.S. and Europe spoke to around 50 people and a live-streaming audience about solving the problem of cheating in large-scale cooperative systems. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Speakers came from across a wide array of disciplines, including a psychologist, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, immunologists, an archaeologist and an emergency medical doctor.

“We’re all over the map in terms of disciplines, but we’re all focusing on the same problem, which is how to get large-scale cooperation to be viable across multiple systems and how to limit cheating,” Aktipis said.

Are there general principles underlying cooperation?

When you go from small-scale cooperation to large-scale cooperation, cheating increases.

Vampire bats, social insects and people living pastoral lifestyles all share in times of need.

“It doesn’t always work perfectly,” Aktipis said. Cancer, for example, is multicellular cheating; it avoids cell death, monopolizes resources and shrinks the labor pool.

“What this means is you need cheater-detection systems in cellular societies,” she said.

Multicellular bodies detect cheating with an alarm system. At the cellular level, it monitors things like DNA damage. Neighborhood monitoring tracks cell adhesion and architecture. System-wide surveillance eyeballs regions with abnormal proliferation, resource use and waste production.

“As we look at one system and compare it to another … what are the general principles?” Aktipis asked.

Lee Cronk, an anthropology professor at Rutgers University, discussed coordination strategies. Walking up and down a sidewalk without bumping into anyone is a coordination strategy.

Two things interfere with cooperation, according to Cronk: free riders and problems where no one can benefit from cheating. The classic example of the latter is the prisoner’s dilemma, a game that shows why two completely "rational" individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so. 

“If you can find a way to get both parties to understand,” that is the best coordination strategy, Cronk said. Coordination can happen on large scales, he said. He cited international trade as an example. “It’s happening on a planet-wide scale,” he said.

But does it eliminate cheating? No. Swindlers, gamblers and others will always cheat.

Oliver Scott Curry, an anthropologist from Oxford, discussed “Bastards, Deviants, Rebels and Scumbags: Other types of cooperation and defection.”

“The main point I want to make this morning is that there are many different types of cooperation,” Scott Curry said. “There are also many types of bad guys.”

The good news is humans are adept at detecting bastards and deviants. These are ancient problems, not new problems. One way to solve cheating is by conditional cooperation, colloquially known as “tit for tat.”

“Life is full of these types of problems,” Scott Curry said.

Regardless of field, the same fundamental problems arise that could benefit from interdisciplinary collaboration.

“Things like cells interacting are going to have different mechanisms compared to how humans interact,” Aktipis said. “But some of the fundamental interactions can be parallel, which means there’s an opportunity to learn from each other, to gain insight into the work each of us is doing. When we start getting synergies in terms of understating the fundamental architecture of how these systems work, each discipline is much more empowered to make an impact because they’re leveraging the strengths from other disciplines as well.”

Written by Emma Greguska and Scott Seckel/ASU Now

 

Top photo: University of Maryland biology professor Gerald Wilkinson asks a question to ASU's Joe Blattman following his talk about viruses and their roles as cheaters or parasites, at the ASU Cooperation and Conflict Symposium on Thursday. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now