Will artificial intelligence actually take over the earth? Is there other life in the universe? A quick Google search might offer you answers, but are they really true? In the age of the misinformation, it’s troubling that most of us can’t tell the different between fact and fiction. Columbia Astronomy Professor David Helfand is here to help. His new book A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age tackles the problem of misinformation and offers ways for all of us to be better informed.

David Helfand is the former chair of the Department of Astronomy at Columbia University where he has served on the faculty for nearly four decades. He has made it his personal quest to help people learn how to properly assess information and react to the onslaught of facts with skepticism.

As one of IVY’s newest Thought Leaders, Professor David Helfand sat down with us to discuss about how we can become more informed citizens and use information to make the world a better place. In additional to catching him at IVY events, catch his book release and talk at Book Culture (450 Columbus Avenue between 81st St. and 82nd St) on Thursday, April 21 at 7:00pm.

David Helfand

What was the inspiration for your book? Has there ever been a time when you truly believed a piece of misinformation and were surprised to learn the truth?

Our society is drowning in a tsunami of misinformation that is crippling our ability to make rational decisions about our health, our finances, and other important personal matters, as well as eliminating the possibility of forming good public policy. An informed citizenry is essential for the functioning of a successful democracy. Today we have a largely misinformed citizenry, and as a long-time resident of this planet, I find that scary. I certainly have adopted views that are not true. I hope fewer recently than in the past. Constant vigilance is required!

Why do you think there is so much misinformation in the world today?

Because there are no negative consequences for spreading it. For 97% of the time homo sapiens have been on Earth, we lived in small hunter-gatherer kin groups. Good information was critical for survival, and everyone you conveyed a bit of information to you both knew and depended on for that survival. Thus, the hunter who always led the tribe toward the hungry lions instead of the young zebras was quickly ignored; the young forager who gathered the poisonous berries instead of the nutritious ones was quickly eliminated from the gene pool. Information was limited, but the quality was high.

Today, it is easy for anyone to upload arrant nonsense to the Internet and reach a vast audience. If mis- (or dis-) information brings greater money, power, or fame, there is no downside to spreading it—for free—to everyone. We lack the equivalent of the hungry lions.

What strategies would you recommend for people looking to distinguish between good information and misinformation?

Read my book! Understand why evidence is important to sustain claims, and remain forever vigilant in your skepticism. Know why misinformation is so prevalent, and learn to test ideas yourself—your search engine won’t do it for you (it’s there to sell advertising).

The Fermi Paradox raises the question of other intelligent life in the universe. What is your opinion on the Fermi paradox? Do you believe there is intelligent life in the universe – why or why not?

Since we only have a sample of one, only a statistical statement is possible. But in the last two decades, we have learned that there are more planets in our Galaxy than there are stars, and that literally millions of these planets are similar to Earth. We know the raw ingredients of life exist in abundance where new solar systems are formed, and we know that life sprang into being on Earth very quickly, within the first 7% of the Sun’s lifetime. So I think life elsewhere is highly likely.

And I don’t find the Fermi paradox paradoxical at all. By the time a civilization reaches the point it can communicate with another civilization across the galaxy, it will have unlocked the secrets of the atomic nucleus, have an insatiable desire for energy, and likely possess the ability to destroy itself and its home. If it is to get through this bottleneck (the one we are currently in) it might well have to abandon the notion that growth and expansion and conquest are the sine qua non of civilization. It might well have found a way to live happily in its own solar system and not define success as subjugating the rest of the inferior civilizations in the Milky Way. It will also, by definition, since we are so technologically young, be vastly more advanced than we are.

Are you concerned with the future possibility of AI?

I think a healthy skepticism should be brought to bear on any new technology we develop. I am not particularly concerned with AI in the sense that the robots will take over. I am very concerned about the implications for the structure of our society when the vast majority of tasks people now do at “work” will no longer need people to do them. This will require a major restructuring of society, a restructuring I believe we are on the brink of, and I don’t think enough people are thinking about what this will mean.

Why is it important to be skeptical about the world?

Skepticism has a bad rap, a negative connotation that we really need to get rid of. Skepticism is the application of the pre-frontal cortex—that remarkable evolutionary achievement that sets us apart from all other creatures—to see beyond the immediate sensory inputs that dominate the lives of all other species and to construct models that help us understand and predict how the world behaves. It is an invaluable tool, and should be wielded constantly.

What are some of your favorite sources for quality information that you trust?

While my primary news sources are The New York Times and NPR, my book is full of examples of misinformation from those sources, so I certainly don’t take them as gospel. If it is a scientific or medical question, I look to the primary literature although, again, my book has many examples where this fails. The only reliable source (and it, of course, is not 100% reliable) is information from a variety of sources that has been skeptically assessed and remains subject to revision when new information emerges.

What advice would you give young people looking to improve the world today?

Our science and technology is dangerously ahead of our political maturity. It is important to be able to reason quantitatively, as my book argues, but it is even more important that we figure out how to increase the sophistication of our political discourse (world-wide, not just in the US) so that we can address global problems with global solutions and recognize that to manage this planet sustainably, major changes must occur.

Want to hear more from Professor David Helfand? Be sure to catch his book release and talk at Book Culture (450 Columbus Avenue between 81st St. and 82nd St) on Thursday, April 21 at 7:00pm.

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