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Web scientific pollution

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I feel like opening another thread, because this phenomenon bothers me increasingly.

Quite a lot of people, if they are not sure about the exact explanation of a topic, they may go to Wikipedia, or if they have more time, sit down and watch an educational youtube video. Most of us will have to admit to doing this, on occasion.

The problem is what kind of experience this may bring to you. Mostly I am personally interested in mathematical topics. I can read a Wikipedia page and identify mistakes in maths, and make corrections, so that is fine, it seems. Except when the work required to do so begins to exceed my capacity. I cannot spend every working hour on this project. I have to live with the fact that increasing amount of Wikipedia content consists of inaccuracies and misinformation. This is bad enough, but...

Youtube is even worse, because you can obviously not enter into a video and correct its mistakes. You may make a comment to the video. Then you either end up as the 180'th commenter, and the poster may answer that, oh yeah, I said it wrong there, it should really be etc. in the best case scenario. Or you get no response, or you get a nonsensical response that makes it obvious that the poster of the video really has no idea of the subject.

Youtube does not distance itself from videos that argue that gravity does not exist, irrational numbers do not exist, or the earth is flat as a pancake and the sun is a little electric powered lamp that moves around above the surface. This still is kind of okay, because posters, however misguided, present accounts of the world as they see it individually. Which makes it a document of the diverse cultural and non-scientific attitudes to topics some of which happen to be scientific. 

I do however have a problem with the youtube categories, that allow exactly such videos to be labelled as "Educational". I can provide examples, if necessary, but I do not imagine they are hard to come by.

Am I wrong in thinking that such a practice is unethical? I could be just old-fashioned in this respect. But to me, there is a certain responsibility attached to certifying, as it were, content as having educational value. 

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Posted (edited)

I agree completely, although there is some good quality channels on YouTube, if you don't understand the details and are just a layman it can be hard to tell if it's real or just a hypothesis. 

But if you think their bad, you should see some of the stuff on Quora :lol:

Edited by Curious layman

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Unless a YT video is by or of a person I know knows their stuff I don't generally class it as an educational portal; it is for entertainment. The thing with Wikipedia is to check the references.

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46 minutes ago, StringJunky said:

Unless a YT video is by or of a person I know knows their stuff I don't generally class it as an educational portal; it is for entertainment. The thing with Wikipedia is to check the references.

I agree, though I found that the references in wikipedia for many topics are not that great, sometimes general textbook references are given other times there are papers but not always the ones that folks in the field would consider to be really relevant or important. The reason of course being that the editors are often not experts themselves and there is the tendency on the web to cite whatever google shows up in a given topic. The danger there is that there is a disconnect in terms of what the internet seemingly tells you what important research is being done versus what experts actually think. But obviously, the quality varies and especially for basic concepts linking to text books is not actually a bad thing. 

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On 1/8/2020 at 11:57 PM, StringJunky said:

Unless a YT video is by or of a person I know knows their stuff I don't generally class it as an educational portal; it is for entertainment. The thing with Wikipedia is to check the references.

Sound advice. But I try to think of myself when once I was just a high school student, and pitifully naive. Back then we did not have the massive presence of pseudoscientific material which exists now. It scares me to think of such a vulnerable mind, somewhat interested in scientific subjects, and not yet able to tell the difference between actual evidence and stuff that is purely made up. How will you react to hundreds of anti-science propaganda videos with "easy refutations" of just about every scientific topic. And as I started saying, it is kind of okay that YT keeps videos available that are propaganda, misinformative, conspiratorial and presenting made up evidence. What bothers me is that some such videos get clearly marked by Youtube as being "Educational". YT videos by Ken Wheeler get placed by Youtube in the "Educational" category. 

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That's what our resident experts are there for.

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Quite. But I read in another thread something to the effect that if someone has gotten convinced to believe something other than by facts, then any facts presented to them may not change their beliefs. What we do experience is actually a little stronger than that, namely that they are increasingly likely to avoid confronting facts. Of course "Impossible to see - the future is" (Yoda, ~4.7B BC).

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Most consumption of "science" information laymen is in the form of this infotainment. It's probably just wise for those seeking degrees in science to consume as little "science" from YT as possible.

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I think you've made an interesting point here, but I also think you go a bit too far when you say it's unethical.

YT does have excellent scholar contributions OTOH, university channels, and the like. I know you're not talking about those, though.

As to the educational, which is your focus, there's excellent stuff too IMO. But you have to be careful and scan for hours or trust in a chain of reliability. Curiously enough, I'm never happy with popularisations of physics, which is my degree. I'm quite happier with the other sciences' educational material. When you want to get a rough idea, rigour can wait...

As to wikipedia,.. well. I'm in two mids, really. Take a look at this:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncertainty_principle#Robertson–Schrödinger_uncertainty_relations

Nobody I've talked to in the physics department knows about the Schrödinger version of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, except professor Shor, who pointed out to me that that was on Wikipedia. I'd found a new uncertainty principle for the anti-commutator of two operators!! Yes, it is correct. Yes, it is more general than Heisenberg's. No, it's not in any major book on QM. Yes, it is on Wikipedia. It is many decades old, actually. There is a value to Wikipedia, dangerous though it may be to take it as an oracle. In this day and age we must be careful with the sources, and keeping an open mind has become more difficult than ever. Cross checks is the rule for me in this age of information overflow.

The counterpart to wikipedia is scholarpedia:

http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Main_Page

But it takes ages to compile. Now, those are real experts, sometimes the people who contributed to develop the subject themselves. Also, topics tend to be quite high-brow.

Good post ****

On 1/9/2020 at 12:47 AM, CharonY said:

I agree, though I found that the references in wikipedia for many topics are not that great, sometimes general textbook references are given other times there are papers but not always the ones that folks in the field would consider to be really relevant or important. The reason of course being that the editors are often not experts themselves and there is the tendency on the web to cite whatever google shows up in a given topic. The danger there is that there is a disconnect in terms of what the internet seemingly tells you what important research is being done versus what experts actually think. But obviously, the quality varies and especially for basic concepts linking to text books is not actually a bad thing. 

You're right. Sometimes it's even the article itself that's not that good. But that's why the connection of information has to be valued more than ever. "Cross" as in "cross checks," "cross references" and the like. Takes time and effort, but it's always been in the character of humans to adapt to new situations. Developing your instinct for what is a good source of information and what's not will become part of the training process.

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On 6/16/2020 at 3:02 PM, joigus said:

You're right. Sometimes it's even the article itself that's not that good. But that's why the connection of information has to be valued more than ever. "Cross" as in "cross checks," "cross references" and the like. Takes time and effort, but it's always been in the character of humans to adapt to new situations. Developing your instinct for what is a good source of information and what's not will become part of the training process.

I think the overabundance of sources has reduced the willingness of folks to really dig into lit. Over the years I have seen students reading less, not more and it is getting harder to motivate them. It used to be hours or even days digging through the library to get all the articles one needs so you would sit down and read them if only to pretend that you have not wasting time. Now I find quite a few quite after literally reading perhaps the first two articles in a google scholars search and give up if those papers do not give all the answers. It is frustrating, to say the least. 

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9 minutes ago, CharonY said:

Now I find quite a few quit after literally reading perhaps the first two articles in a google scholars search and give up if those papers do not give all the answers. It is frustrating, to say the least.

I know what you mean. I think that's probably because today, rather than facing a problem of unavailability of information, we're lacking an efficient method to get to the relevant information we need. Our brains evolve far slower than the world of technology. And, as a consequence, connecting the dots is harder than it has ever been. I've learnt that Darwin had had Mendel's paper on his "to do" list, maybe for years. He never got round to it. Imagine how much worse it can be now. Maybe as we speak two people in opposite parts of the world have had ideas that are complementary and would result in a tremendous advance, and they'll never find out for decades just because they don't know how to sort out the information overflow.

We may need a new age of search engines based on semantics, rather than the grammatical-lexical search engines we've got today. But that's easier said than done.

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1 hour ago, joigus said:

I think that's probably because today, rather than facing a problem of unavailability of information, we're lacking an efficient method to get to the relevant information we need.

And to add to this, after all my years on amateur science forums, there are two other crucial problems I see:

1. People often develop an intense focus on one particular or narrow point/source/information, and may even possess a good grasp on it; but then they fail to understand how it fits into a larger context. For example, I have met lots of people who have a good handle on Minkowski spacetime (SR), but then they naively try to add in gravity, and fail to understand why this does not work. Or people who become almost obsessed with one paper by one author, without grasping the context in which it was written, and thus draw the wrong conclusions from it. Nothing in the sciences stands in isolation, knowing and understanding the larger context is as important as any individual piece of knowledge.

2. Too many people seem to be entirely unable to distinguish valid sources of scientific information from pop-sci, personal opinions, or outright woo. Access to information is useless - even dangerous - if one is not equipped to judge the scientific value (or lack thereof!) of it.

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1 hour ago, Markus Hanke said:

Nothing in the sciences stands in isolation, knowing and understanding the larger context is as important as any individual piece of knowledge.

So right. So central. +1

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2 hours ago, Markus Hanke said:

Nothing in the sciences stands in isolation, knowing and understanding the larger context is as important as any individual piece of knowledge

Perhaps relevant, I remember one  of my teachers some telling us some 50 years ago that it was not so  much important what one knew as to know where  to find that information.

 

This was of course at a time when the cutting technology was slide rules (a little  before pocket calculators)  and ,when he referred to accessing the information I imagined he was describing to process of looking through books  and their back ends where the subject matter of their innards were catalogued alphabetically.

 

I think if you have to go through the process  of tracking down a piece of information ,then a context  comes with  the furniture.(although one  context might be that you look for what you hope justifies your predisposition)

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