March 20, 2014

Rebecca's Evil Twin

It is interesting to see how journalists copying each other produce misinformation.

A while ago Rebecca Roache (and me, but she is the star and lead author on our paper) was interviewed in Aeon about enhancement and punishment. She got plenty of space to explain the tricky interplay between feelings of revenge, ethical theories of just punishment, how law enforcement actually works, and how future technology could complicate things. (It all began in this Practical Ethics post and has now led to some talks - and an upcoming paper, we promise!)

As soon as Aeon showed up the story was reported by the Daily Mail, immediately turned senastionalist: "Could we condemn criminals to suffer for hundreds of years? Biotechnology could let us extend convicts' lives 'indefinitely'". I assume the readers of the DM might feel this is a bit too wussy still.

Then the Telegraph turned it into "Prisoners 'could serve 1,000 year sentence in eight hours'" - now it is not just life extension, but superspeed drugs.

And then Slashdot reports "Time Dilation Drug Could Let Heinous Criminals Serve 1,000 Year Sentences" - by now the drug seems like an almost real thing, 1,000 year sentences are apparently a good thing, and the readers of Slashdot now think poor Rebecca is a nasty psychopath for promoting such a thing. Sigh.

If this was just a cascade of credulous media outlets copying each other I would not be that concerned - annoying, but a bit like agonizing over YouTube comments. However, the coverage also led to a post on Practical Ethics by Luke Davies taking Rebecca to task for her approval of these technologies. Except that most of this post of course builds on the distorted versions of what she actually said. The great irony is that he is now doing many of the arguments we have in our paper... and commenters are further outraged by the ruthless retributionist Rebecca. I am annoyed that the stupidity now has come home to our office again.

This is a sign we need to improve the epistemic systems of our society so noise does not overwhelm signal. Every step of filtering introduces bias, and as stories are rapidly bounced through a series of media they quickly become strongly distorted (image). And if a few hot buttons get pressed, the result gets even crazier (see this and this!)

A simple rule: before you comment or write an article about anything, check out the original source. People who just respond to a summary are filling our heads with filth, and should be treated with the same disdain as people who spit on the floor.

Posted by Anders3 at March 20, 2014 07:02 PM