Science Illiterate Public? Science Illiterate News Media...
Last week a story about science and technology swept across mainstream media. The headline signaled that a watershed moment in artificial intelligence had been reached: Turing Test Passed by Computer. For those who may not be acquainted with Alan Turing's proposed "test," the mathematician and father of modern computing suggested that around the the new millennium, computers would be capable of conversing via text in a manner so human-like that "average interrogator will not have more than 70 per cent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning."
Needless to say that on the day on which this milestone is reached, humanity will have ventured into a new unknown technological, and some would argue, moral frontier. It's certainly a story one would think the media would have thoroughly verified before spreading across TV, print and the inter-webs. Or not. As it turned out, as anyone who read further than the byline, the truth of the matter was that a piece of software colloquially known as a chat-bot had merely been refined by a 13 year old to win a contest at The University of Reading.
The distinction is not a subtle one and speaks volumes about the level of reading comprehension present in the newspaper editing rooms across the globe. Even a cursory scan of the Wikipedia page for "The Turing Test" would have squashed this complete non-story from being pimped out by CBC, The Guardian, BBC others.
In the following days, many of the same news outlets back-pedalled with embarrassing op-eds and the usual grotesque displays of false-equivalence - with the Toronto Star going so far as to pit a lone dissenting Canadian professor against Kevin Warwick from the University of Reading: Warwick adds that critics questioning how good the test is should know that ‘we are all skeptical in the same way…but what we did was the Turing Test’.
Even the shittiest porn sites are filled with Chat-Bots trying to seduce you,Turing style.
There's a reason that news stories of a scientific nature are usually under-reported, buried deep in the news cycle, or just plane wrong. Most of the blame rests on the journalistic premise of objectivity through the granting of equal coverage to "both sides." The problem with representing scientific topics in this way is that for one, the "sides" are drawn along lines between those who share a consensus across disciplines, versus a few lone dissenting whack jobs. In addition to that, there exists a confounding of common language; many words have usage in scientific discourse that differ slightly from their vernacular.
In my opinion, the solution to this problem is two fold. First we need to have a course in critical thinking taught not as a college or university elective, but as a high school compulsory for graduation. Secondly, in a few years, a crop of journalist will spring up with sharper reading comprehension skills and the quality of the written word, field report, and talking-head pundit will be elevated from a sixth grade level.
(Of course, even when CNN manages to explain the Higgs Boson,
the comments section takes you a on ride of academic discussion...)
Then we'll see coverage that presents scientific topics, if not in depth, then at least briefly summarized with a hint of accuracy that so eludes all coverage outside of actual scientific literature.