Friday, 30 March 2018

Select News on the Fake Committee

There is a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods having public hearings. They invited Human Rights Watch to present their views (and be subjected to questions), and HRW (wisely or coward) declined. ("We only Human Rights WATCH lah! Where we say we Human Rights DO?")

Professor Cherian George dropped by, and spoke about how our current laws have been "weaponised" by those who would be (or feint being) insulted by comments on their race or religion. And caution against setting the bar too low or defining the problem too loosely.

And Reporters Without Borders found that the border around SG was too hard to ignore. The reason given was that there was no specifics to study (there is no draft bill, no definition of "deliberate online falsehood", or "fake news". So they reserved comments until there is something concrete to comment on.)

That is a very prudent position to take. "Fake news" needs definition. Cherian George's comments (and warning) on the matter are very appropriate. 

The problem is, from official (governmental) condemnation and rebuttal of alternative views, the govt's definition of "fake news" varies from factual inaccuracies and outright lies, to controversial opinion, informed or otherwise.

But first, can we even agree on what we mean by "fake news" or "deliberate online falsehoods"?

The problem is most people do not distinguish between facts, values, and opinion.

Take the "classic" conspiracy theory that one does not "own" one's HDB flat, but merely "rents" it from HDB. For 99 years at the most. Is this a factual inaccuracy? Or an opinion? Based on a narrow or biased interpretation of facts? Or from a perverse point of view?

Is that "fake news" or an "online falsehood"?

Or take TCM, or more specifically, acupuncture.

Western Science says acupuncture does not work any better than placebo effect, if at all. Someone then claims that his uncle who had a stroke was told by his doctors that he would at best recover 70%. After undergoing acupuncture, he is fully recovered. 

Fake news? Or truth?

Or take Alternative Medicine like Bioresonance Therapy (BRT).

Doctors have written in to the Forum Page to point out that BRT (and other unproven therapies) could cause unwitting harm.

And in the same link, you can see defenders of BRT with anecdotal "evidence" of the validity of BRT.
I suffered from a chronic gastric condition for 20 years. I was treated by both general practitioners and specialists in both government and private clinics. I was put through all kinds of tests and prescribed many medicines... but these did not improve my condition.
A friend introduced me to bioresonance therapy last year and my health has since improved.
The scientific method, vs personal testimony and anecdotal evidence. Fake news? Deliberate online falsehood? This is the response of the scientific method:
Advocates may trot out testimonials from satisfied customers, but testimonials are not data. Its efficacy can be proven only with trustworthy data obtained from rigorous trials with blinded controls. 
Which may strike some as epistemological arrogance. Aren't we all in the process of learning?
In short, we are all learning. I remember years ago when traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) was not recognised by medical practitioners. But now, there is a TCM practice even in major hospitals.

[If we agree that the human body has a remarkable ability to heal itself, then sometimes the best thing you can do is to let the body heal itself. It is more natural, less intrusive, and if the body fights off an illness, it gets stronger and immunity in the future. If so, the best thing doctors can do is generally to let the illness "run its course" - which is simply letting the body heal itself. (i.e. do nothing)

However, when people go to a doctor, they want a "cure". Or more correctly, they want relief. They want the pain and discomfort to go away. Here's the thing, a significant portion of the effect of medicine is "placebo" effect. And most of the medicine you get from your doctors provide symptomatic relief - pain-killers, fever suppression, nasal decongestant, etc. Only antibiotics are actually targeting the cause of your illness. 

Much of TCM medication or herbs are intended to work over the long term - strengthening one's immunity, and fighting off disease. However, most of TCM treatments have not been objectively proven as efficacious. But it doesn't matter.

If most illnesses can be allowed to "run its course" without undue harm to the patient or the general public, then it does not matter if the patient is treated by western medicine, TCM, or self-medicates/rest at home. 

Channelling patients to TCM relieves the hospital of demand for western doctors. Sure. you can read that to mean that TCM is recognised by medical practitioners.]
In other words, saying that Hospitals in Singapore that practice "Western Medicine" are now allowing TCM to practice within their premises is evidence of the efficacy of TCM is an incorrect and irrelevant conclusion (logical fallacy). There may be many other reasons for Hospitals to incorporate TCM in a Chinese-dominant society like Singapore. 

TCM may have been incorporated by Western Medicine simply because many Singaporeans believe in it. And it offers an opportunity for Western Medicine to reduce the cost and burden of medication for the patients. And yes, Western drugs are potent and harmful. And if there is a way to channel patients to gentler TCM, with its tonics and "elixirs" that are generally harmless even if inefficacious, while allowing the body to heal itself, why not?

So factually, hospitals now include or allow some TCM practices on their premises, and may even enlist the aid of TCM in treatment and therapy. Is that factually accurate?

Would it be  inconceivable that some people may interpret the above as an endorsement of the efficacy of TCM? Would that be a faslehood?

And what of personal anecdotes? "Moxibustion cured my smoking problem." Is that a falsehood? Or a belief? Or a fact?

And then there are conspiracy theories.

Like the Anti-Vaccination movement. That is based on a falsified data. Was it fake news or deliberate falsehood if you had shared that information just after Andrew Wakefield had published his research based on falsified data? Are you deliberately disseminating falsehoods? After all, he had not been discredited nor his research debunked at the time. Even today, one might still quote his discredited study because of ignorance.

And Anti-GMO. Is this "anti-science" and therefore a falsehood, or is it simply an opinion? Or is this a "Great Debate (tm)" that is still being worked out?

Like Climate Change.

Or Water Flouridation.


Or talcum powder causes cancer.

The problem is science is very cautious and prudent in its claims. Science almost never says "X causes cancer", for example.  Instead, it may say something like this:
The American Cancer Society says studies on talcum powder and ovarian cancer “have been mixed, with some studies reporting a slightly increased risk and some reporting no increase … For any individual woman, if there is an increased risk, the overall increase is likely to be very small.”
Or it might say,
“... talc’s effects on female genital system tissues have not been adequately investigated.”
In contrast, non-scientific testimony or conclusion are a lot more certain: My grandmother used talcum powder all her life and developed ovarian cancer.

In non-scientific language, correlation and causation are confounded.

Is the solution to require people to speak like scientists making a conclusion from facts?

In the final day of the public hearing, there was a heated argument between Minister for Law Shanmugam and historian Thum Ping Tjin on the various narratives of Singapore history, including Operation Coldstore, and the Hock Lee Bus Riots.

Is this a case of a contradictory interpretation of the facts that arrived at a different conclusion, or as Shanmugam charges, ""Your views on communism,... ignores evidence which you don't like... and suppress what is inconvenient and in your writings, you present quite an untrue picture"?

Well, his assertions can be easily checked - by a historian. Were there inconvenient evidence that was ignored? I have NO idea, but certainly his assertions can be verified.

Similarly, the historian's view can also be verified.

Unfortunately, "history" is NOT an exact science, and it more of an "art" - a B.A. not a B.Sc., and there is an element of interpretation and perhaps even speculation in the historical narrative that is informed by facts.

And the truth of the matter will not be resolved by how many historians one gets on one's side of the narrative. Truth cannot be democratically decided.

Singapore intends to draft laws to outlaw deliberate online falsehoods.

There are a lot of questions to be resolved, and a lot of definitions to be elucidated. And there should be clear distinction made between what are facts, and what are opinions.

I do not envy those tasked to draft this law.

And I do not believe that the early versions of the law will be satisfactory.

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