TIME: 13.00-14.00, Monday 23rd January 2017
VENUE: The Henry Jackson Society, 26th Floor, Millbank Tower, 21-21 Millbank, London, SW1P 4QP
SPEAKER: Professor Daniel J Levitin, Author of ‘A Field Guide to Lies and James McGill Professor of Psychology and Music at McGill University, Montreal.
CHAIR: Dr Alan Mendoza, Executive Director of The Henry Jackson Society
Alan Mendoza: We are of course here to hear Daniel Levitin, who is the James McGill Professor of Psychology and Music at McGill University, Montreal. He also holds appointments at the Programme of Behavioural Neuroscience, the School of Computer Science and the Faculty of Education. That’s a lot of appointments. He was telling me earlier that he was also founding Dean of Arts and Humanities at the Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute in San Francisco, which is one of the Claremont Colleges which must have caused a great deal of entertaining travel arrangements between both coasts of North America. An award winning teacher, he’s also of course an author, and his titles ‘This is Your Brain on Music’, ‘The World in Six Songs’ and ‘The Organized Mind’ were bestsellers. His work has been translated into 20 languages and before becoming a neuroscientist, he worked as a session musician, sound engineer and record producer, working with people such as Stevie Wonder and Blue Oyster Cult. I haven’t heard of the latter, but I’m sure they are good. He’s published extensively in psychology journals as well as music magazines such as Grammy and Billboard. But we’re here to discuss this book: ‘A Field Guide to Lies’. And given all the fake news we hear about and everything else in that respect, I think it’s quite an appropriate time to be here, and, should you be impressed – which I’m sure you will be, by what he has to say – you will be delighted to know that we have copies of the book for sale outside and I’m sure Daniel might well sign one with a little message as well afterwards, at the knock down price of 14.99. But, we will…
Daniel Levitin: A bargain at half the price.
Alan Mendoza: Half the price, exactly, a real bargain and that’s not a lie or a statistic, well it may be a statistic actually but yes, but good, anyway…
Daniel Levitin: You know that 90% of statistics are made up on the spot?
Alan Mendoza: Good, and there’s your first lesson for today. Over to Daniel, please give him a very warm welcome.
Daniel Levitin: Thank you so much for inviting me here, I’m just delighted to be here. I’d like to… I brought some little notes just because I can’t remember if I don’t do it this way. I want to talk today about venerating expertise. We are living in a time when the public is sceptical of experts – not all members of the public, presumably not you discriminating folks – but many members of the public are, and part of it is that Wikipedia has become the de-facto information source for many many, if not most people, and Wikipedia was founded on the premise that expertise has no place in an encyclopaedia. The founders of Wikipedia, Laurence Sanger and Jimmy Wales, have stated publicly and not retreated from this position, that experts should have no special privilege for editing or modifying a Wikipedia entry. Wikipedia is the people’s encyclopaedia. Now what are the practical implications of this? I mean, this is maybe all just theoretical stuff, but the practical implications are that when you go to look something up on Wikipedia, you can’t know whether the last edit was done by a world expert, or by, I don’t know , some 12 year old with too much time on their hands who’s gone around and modified articles. So suppose, you want to look up the article on aneurysms, you know brain aneurysms. You don’t know whether it was a brain surgeon who wrote it or a high school dropout. There’s no way to tell and even if the brain surgeon had written the original one, it could have been changed, the good stuff taken out and bad stuff put in, because expertise is not venerated there. Now, the lack of respect for expertise has led to the current climate of fake news and alternative facts, which is the new phrase that has come out of the White House. Kellyanne Conway, ingenious in her deception, now says that she has access to alternative facts. Um, I would like to say that words matter. I don’t think you can just call something anything. I think that to use the phrase alternative facts is nonsensical, I object to the phrase fake news. I don’t think there’s anything news about fake news, and the word fake I think is a bit too benign. It sort of implies mischief along the lines of a schoolchild faking illness to avoid a test or something. But fake news is not benign and I think we should call it what it is. It’s a lie. Similarly post-truth, alternative truth, there’s no such thing as post-truth or alternative truth, it’s just there are facts and then there are things that are not facts. And the reason this is important is – if I can quote the US senator, the late great senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan – ‘you are entitled to your own opinions, you are not entitled to your own facts’. We can’t have civil discourse for free society or democratic instructions unless we can take as an agreed upon starting point what the facts are. Now, we can differ in how we interpret them, we can differ in what we think the conclusions might be. But we have to agree that facts are facts. We can also disagree I suppose about whether we want to admit something as a fact. We can ask questions, like how do you know that? Who produced the fact? Are the numbers accurate? But we have to have a conversation about what is fact and what is not fact, rather than a conversation about: facts don’t matter, or I can believe anything I want because nobody knows anything anyway. Now, this brings us to the topic of lies. In this forum and here at the Henry Jackson Society, I think it comes to none of us as a surprise that on occasion politicians may lie. They’ve been known to lie since the days of Cicero and even before. The Old Testament is full of accounts of people lying, the great Patriarch of Judeo-Christian Islamic religion, Abraham, lied about the identity of his wife. The Trojan horse was a lie. So lies exist. I think that more generously you can say that politicians don’t lie, but they might contradict themselves by saying different things to different audiences, as a way to build consensus or to get things done. And we don’t expect a stump speech or a campaign speech to necessarily be held of the same standard as a policy speech for somebody who’s already in office. But what we’ve seen in Brexit and in the American presidential campaign is something that is entirely new, and I would like to say threatening in fact to the very nature of democracy. And that is that people have stopped admitting that there are facts and they’ve said oh, I’ve got alternative facts or I have a different view. Never mind the facts. The conversations in the parlance of science have devolved, uh regressed to not being about evidence anymore. They are about feelings and I don’t wanna, look I’m a psychologist by training, I’m the last person to invalidate your feelings, but feelings have a role to play in our daily lives, as does evidence based information gathering and evidence based reasoning. I think that all of us have been to ready to give up on asking the question of whether something is true. And I think I know some of the root causes of that. I’m a neuroscientist and I’ve spent the last ten years looking at information overload. My previous book before this one was about information overload – ‘The Organised Mind’, the subtitle was ‘Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload’ – and information load is partly to blame here, for why we have allowed ourselves to stop asking for more information. It’s because we’re overwhelmed by the information we have. As a society, we’ve created more information in the last five years than in all of human history before it. Think about that. All of human history, up until 5 years ago that amount of information is the same as what we’ve produced not just in our lifetimes but since 2012. Now you might ask, what’s my source for that? How do I know that? Well, this was told to me by a google engineer when I visited google. Someone pretty high up in the google food chain, and I wanted to know how he came up with that estimate and he talked about server space storage and about redundancy and about the amount of information being generated on everything from the magnetic stripe on the back of your credit card – that keeps track of all kinds of things that you don’t want to know about – or your search history, or your medical records. But one need look no further than scientific information to conclude that this is true. The number of scientific papers in the last five years have revealed more information than all of the scientific papers before. But I didn’t take the Google persons word for it. I checked with a couple of other people at Google, I asked people at Yahoo, Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle, people who are in the information business. I asked members of the American Library Association and everybody felt that the number was plausible. By independent research methods, people had come up with it. So I’m willing to accept that it’s a fact. But here’s a case where I’m willing to keep an open mind, and if you’ve got some contrary evidence I’m willing to entertain it. That is part of the conversation. What is the evidence? What are we going to trust? Who are we going to trust? But that is a conversation we don’t have. Instead we have a conversation about how every month, Britain as part of the EU is costing us – I don’t know what the number was – 235 million pounds, something like that, that’s being taken from the National Health Service, is that the number?
Alan Mendoza: Higher
Audience Member: 350 Million
Daniel Levitin: 350 Million, thank you.
Audience member: A week
Another Audience member: Gross
Daniel Levitin: I have an excuse, I’m not from here, but I had a sense that I was within an order of magnitude input. 350 million a week. So nobody was talking about whether the number was real or not, they were talking about how horrible that would be if it was true…
Audience Member: Correction, sorry.
Daniel Levitin: It’s just not the right level of conversation. I mean, yes it would be horrible if true, but wait a minute, is it true? How would we find out? Where can we get the data? So, part of the problem is information overload; we’re overwhelmed, we don’t know where to start, we feel like we don’t have time, we feel like somebody else should be doing all this fact checking for us. And thank goodness in the last 48 hours, I’ve noticed that the British press and the US press have not retreated, although President Trump asked them to. They’ve actually doubled down on checking facts in the last 48 hours. Good for them, I mean we’ve got to support them in that. This is not a political issue as far as I’m concerned. It’s not about Left vs Right, it’s not about Conservative vs Liberal policies, it’s about having a discussion based on evidence. And part of that is agreeing what the evidence is, and holding people accountable when they bring in things that are patently false. I think another part of the problem besides information overload is the Balkanisation of news sources. It used to be that there were a handful of news sources that you could turn to: The BBC, the New York Times, and you knew that on the whole, they were diligent reporters doing as best they could, they made mistakes, when they did they would print retractions, broadcast retractions. They might have had a political agenda on their opinion segments, opinion pages or op. eds. But the news itself was pretty straight and narrow. That still is the case, but now there are thousands of news outlets which allows you to very quickly find news that is compatible with your world view. Or news that is less news and more opinion that is compatible with your world view and it puts us into what has been called the Echo Chamber, where we are not being exposed to new things. The Balkanisation of news has meant that the traditional gatekeepers and check and balances have been left somewhat toothless. It used to be there were limited number of gatekeepers and all of us, because it was limited, had to get all our news from them. Now you can run into somebody and start having a conversation, and they don’t read the same news stories as you, so then you begin arguing about whether what they’re reading is actually true or not. Hopefully you can have that argument, if they’re willing, too many people are not. So I think it’s incumbent on all of us that we strengthen three democratic institutions that support facts and evidence. It’s probably more, but the three that come to mind are science. Scientists, yes there are scientists who are dishonest, who make up data, it’s not a perfect system but it’s a pretty good system. We ostracise, we write about a case of a scientist who’s imprisoned for making up data. Now you would think that that’s not a felony or a federal offence, but if you use government money to collect the data then it is. So this scientist was put away for twenty years for falsifying data. You must all know the story of Andrew Wakefield and the autism MMR link; he wasn’t imprisoned but he lost his license for making up data and not revealing conflicts of interest. So science, science is a good system, it’s evidence based. I’m going to talk a little bit more about some of the errors that scientists make and the scientific process, but that’s one institution that I believe we should support. Another is the free Press and the third is legal systems. We need to trust our legal systems, that if a politician or someone else does something that is bad, that they can be held accountable by an impartial judge who is not answerable to any person or entity other than the truth itself. Now I think a third problem that has caused this state, apart from the Balkanisation of the news and information overload, is that experts do seem to contradict one another. I said at the beginning I want to venerate expertise, but let’s face it, if you try to get dietary advice or exercise advice it’s very confusing. The story seems to change all the time. And I think that that’s certainly true, if we were having a conversation – I was just speaking to a reporter from the BBC this morning and he said, you know, you can’t trust science, it changes all the time, 500 years ago we were talking scientifically, we’d be talking about how many angels you can fit on the head of a pin because everybody agreed that angels existed, and now we don’t have those conversations. But science is a self-correcting process, we believe what we believe based on evidence, new evidence comes in. But what we are lacking, most of us, is an education in how science works. So we’re ignorant unfortunately most of us, we’re not trained, ignorant has a pejorative sense and I don’t mean it that way. We’re just not suitably trained to know the difference between the different flavours of science. So when a scientific report is published that looks at say 200 different studies – what in my field we call a Meta-analysis – that’s when you can really trust it. There’s no scientist who gets excited about the results of a single experiment. It just doesn’t mean anything, no matter how statistically significant it is. What we want to see is the result replicated across different populations of people or animals. We want to see the result replicated in different laboratories and by different researchers. That’s when it enters the scientific canon. And that’s when newspapers should report on it. So, you may have read the story this morning that you’re not supposed to eat burnt toast, it could lead to cancer. As far as I was able to ascertain this is a single study. So it’s interesting, you may want to follow it, you can follow the advice or not, but I wouldn’t say it’s science with a capital S. It’s still just a finding and you know we have to wait and see. The interesting thing about that though is they have a mechanism, they actually have a theory about why it may be true having to do with chemical changes that occur at certain cooking temperatures and the sugars that are contained in the carbohydrates for both potatoes and breads. So having a mechanism, raises it up in the scientific hierarchy. If you just have a story like: ‘listening to music for twenty minutes a day makes you smarter’ and you have no idea why that might be true, then it’s not very high in the scientific hierarchy and in fact that so called Mozart Effect has been debunked twenty times over. So I think science education is the answer, educating school children about how science works, letting them know the difference between a Peer Reviewed Journal and a Predatorial Open Access Journal. And then I think also part of the problem is pseudo experts. People who claim to be an expert in a field and actually aren’t. And I think we scientists share some of the blame here, for two reasons. One is that we haven’t done a very good of explaining what we do to the public and I think that’s a moral failing on our part. Because most of our money for scientific research comes from Government agencies: The National Research Council, The European Society For Research, The Council for Research, The National Science Foundation, various governmental organisations fund the research of science. And scientists have to tell the tax-payers where their money is going and how they do what they do, and the reward structure for science is such that we don’t get any credit for doing that, we are just supposed to publish more and more papers, but I think we have an ethical obligation to change that. The other problem is that too often we’re asked our opinion about things that we’re not expert in and we are too ready to give that opinion. How many times have you seen a pundit on the television or heard them on the radio, where they are talking on and on and on but they really don’t have the expertise. I’m frequently asked to comment on matters of public policy or political science because I’m interested in truth and how it effects and impacts the political process, but I always say I don’t have training, I’m not a political scientist, I cannot answer that question. And if pressed I’ll say this is what I think as a private citizen but you shouldn’t give my views any more credence than the next person. And there are many tragic examples of scientists stepping outside their expertise. William Shockley, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, developed deeply racist views after he won the Nobel Prize, and he went around the world saying that a certain segment of the population were genetically inferior and people tended to believe him because they said ‘‘oh he’s a Nobel Prize winner he must be smart’’. But expertise doesn’t work that way. It tends to be narrowly confined to a discipline. Shockley won his Nobel Prize for being one of three co-inventors of the Transistor. I’m sure he had no expertise in String Theory, or in Quantum Physics or in Cosmology, not even other branches of physics, let alone biology or genetics or any of the things he was pontificating about. And it was the testimony of a British paediatrician that put a poor woman in prison. She was accused of killing her own infant, and in court, the Crown brought a paediatrician to testify about the cause of death and the probability that the infant could have died by some other means and she was convicted – she didn’t have a very good defence – she was convicted and sentenced to prison for killing her own infant. She was eventually exonerated by evidence from an autopsy three years later showing that the infant had died from a virus, or a genetic defect – one or the other I don’t’ recall, I’m trying to be open about my memory failings – but it’s in the book and it’s cited. But in any case, the problem is that paediatricians are experts in keeping infants alive, they’re not experts in how infants die. The average paediatrician doesn’t see an infant death in their lifetime, they’re that rare. If you’re a really unlucky paediatrician, you might have had two or three infants die, you are hardly an expert on causes of death. What you’d need in this case is a coroner or an epidemiologist or a forensic paediatrician, or somebody who actually sees hundreds and hundreds of cases, that’s who the appropriate expert would be. So the next time you hear an expert pontificating, ask yourself are they actually trained in the field in which they are testifying? If you look at the Climate Change debate, I don’t mean to rub anybody the wrong way here, I know this is a contentious issue, but my interpretation of the debate is that every single scientist who’s trained in climate science says climate change is real. Among them are some disagreements about whether it’s human cause or not, but they agree that it’s real. And then you’ve got a bunch of people outside of climate science who might be physicists and chemists and engineers and other perhaps peripherally related training. But I don’t know of any case of somebody in the field, maybe there are a few, I don’t know of them, but in any case the overwhelming majority of qualified experts believe that it’s real. I said this to an audience in Northern California and of course the people were very angry with me because that’s ground zero for conspiracy theories, and they said ‘‘well obviously all those climate change scientists are on the take, the government has paid them off’’. Which I guess is possible, but it seems to be implausible that you could reach every single climate scientist with a bribe, perhaps. One of the things that I advocate for, is that we pay closer attention to the claims and just take a step back and think whether the claim is actually leading to the conclusion that the claimer wants you to arrive at. So for example, how many have you heard this claim that four out of five dentists recommend Colgate. As you may know, Colgate was sued here in the UK for that claim. It turns out that the claim is factually true, four out of five dentists surveyed did recommend Colgate. The problem, the crux of the matter was the implication. The implication is that four out of five dentists prefer Colgate. That wasn’t the claim, the claim was ‘recommend’, but it makes you think well, they prefer it. In fact the way the question was asked of these dentists, was they could name as many toothpastes as they want to recommend to their patients and Colgate was named alongside eight or ten other toothpastes and Colgate is the one that run with the Ad, and they were sued and they had to stop making that claim. But let’s take another step back. When you hear a claim like that the question I want to ask is, who are these dentists? Where did they find them? Have they been kicked out of the dental association? Are they members in good standing? Were they getting free Colgate from the manufacturer? Were they getting other incentives? And by the way, how many did they actually talk to? Did they talk to only five? Or is that a proportion that they talked to 500? I mean, these thing matter, right? Then, I mean, not to be too much of a naysayer, but I’m not sure that the dentist is the right expert to ask. You know, in all the years I’ve been going to dentists, not one of them ever asked me what toothpaste I used. So the dentist keeps track of how many cavities and gum diseases his or her patient has, but unless they’re doing a scientific study to correlate it with the use of different toothpastes, unless those toothpastes are randomly assigned in a true experiment, how would the dentist know which toothpaste is the best toothpaste, right? Interesting question. I would just like to add one thing about conspiracy theories. In particular there’s this conspiracy theory in the United States that – I don’t know if it’s familiar to you here – that humans never actually landed on the moon. Big conspiracy theory, and they’ve got all this ‘evidence’ for it. There’s another conspiracy theory that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by the American Government. If you look at the evidence for these things, if you look at the evidence, the evidence isn’t very strong in my view, but more importantly, whether the evidence is strong or not, when you’re dealing with a complicated investigation like a plane crashing into a building, or a complicated issue like whether a rocket ship actually went to the moon, there are always going to be a few unexplained anomalies. You can’t find every jet piece, you can’t find every piece of forensic evidence you might want at a crime scene. And I think a principle here is that a handful of unexplained anomalies does not discredit or undermine an established theory that is based on thousands of pieces of evidence. You have to accept that there are always going to be some unexplained things, it doesn’t mean that there is a conspiracy. Now, there are conspiracies, I believe there are. There are certainly conspiracies in repressive regimes, there are certainly conspiracies here, but there are probably not as many as the conspiracy theorists think that there are. One other thing on getting back to statistics and the kinds of questions you might ask, and basically what this book is, by the way I’m a neuroscientist as you heard, but there’s no neuroscience in the book, deliberately. There’s no theory about why the brain does what it does. There’s no extra baggage. It’s just a practical book for anybody who wants to know, if you see a Facebook post, how do I know whether it’s true or not? Or if you hear something on the radio or read something on the web, what questions might I ask. And it just gives you a whole laundry list of things to think about. One of them goes like this; there was a claim that more people died in plane crashes in 2014 than in 1960. Now, that might make you think that it’s very unsafe to fly today, which is what the newspaper that reported it wanted you to believe, they actually discussed this. So the first thing I did, was I went to the website of the government transportation agencies in three of four different G10 countries, and I looked to see, and it turns out it’s true, there were far more plane crashes in 2014 than in 1960. What’s the problem here?
Audience member: Yes, the number of flights.
Daniel Levitin: Right, the raw number of fatalities is not the statistic you’re interested in. You’re interested in the proportion of people who die as a function of the number of people who fly. There are so many more flights and so many more people flying, and you could measure it another way…
Audience Member: Larger capacity of planes.
Daniel Levitin: Planes are larger, so if one plane goes down, more people are killed. Exactly. You could look at the number of how many deaths per thousand miles flown. There are a number of ways you could look at it. It turns out any way you look at it, air travel today is safer than it ever has been, safer than driving for sure; I mean you’ve probably heard the old joke, you’re far more likely, I think it’s ten times more likely to die on the way to the airport if you drive there, than in the aeroplane. I think that the most, I’m not going to go through any more of these tricks because they’re in the book and we can talk about them. I’d like to sort of end the more formal stand up part of our time together and move into a conversation with you all, but I would just like to sum up by saying that I think the most important quality that we need to have to think critically, and the single most important quality we should teach our children is humility, and that seems to be in short supply, certainly on my side of the pond. And I say that because I think that if you think you know everything, you can’t learn anything. The only way you can learn is if you adopt the attitude, that yeah, maybe I don’t know this and I want to find out, and I want to see what other people who are possibly more knowledgeable than me might have to say. It doesn’t mean that you accept what they say blindly and gullibly, nor does it mean you cynically reject everything they have to say, you just ask follow up questions like I said earlier; How do you know that? Who told you this? Has this been replicated? Do other people think this? And you don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking, well just because everyone thinks it, that doesn’t make it true, but it depends who the other people are. Are they expert or not? I think this kind of inquisitiveness coupled with humility is the key, and I think we need to take communal responsibility at this point. If you read something on the web, I would recommend, I would urge you, don’t forward it, or put a thumbs up on it, or put a heart on it, or any of those things we do, until you become reasonably certain that it’s true. Don’t just blindly say ‘oh this is interesting’, that’s how you get these run away fake news stories some of which have had a million hits, for a lie, I promised I wasn’t going to call it by the euphuism. A lie can get a million hits and its retraction or its debunking can get 30,000 hits. And a bunch of people believe it because somebody just thought oh this is a funny, interesting story, it made me laugh, but it takes hold. And I think that we have to rely on these three things to come back to, science, scientific method, free press and the legal system. Sooner or later, false claims make their way through the legal system, it’s long, it’s slow and laborious but its what we’ve got and I think that all of us need to support these three institutions and any others that you think are critical to the functioning of democracy. Thank you very much for coming out to spend this part of the afternoon with me and I’m very grateful to you for your invitation to be here, thank you.
Alan Mendoza: Well Daniel, that was very good stand up, now let’s have some sit down and some questions from the audience. If you wouldn’t mind just detailing who you are, who you represent and the organisation, yes madam.
First Question, Carole Taylor: I’m a researcher in the House of Lords. How can you implement an infrastructure for politicians to make decisions using an evidence based approach to policy making? I know that’s a big question, however you want to answer it will be fine for me.
Daniel Levitin: Did I hear the question, how can we implement an infrastructure for politicians to use evidence based thinking?
Carole Taylor: Because you know, one mistake in a politician’s strategy will be reported, whereas with a scientist there’s a little bit more flexibility.
Daniel Levitin: Well I had the great privilege to serve as the science advisor for the United States’ Congressman representing Florida’s tenth district. And he had a team of volunteer advisors in various areas of expertise. He sat on the House, he was the reigning minority leader of the House Science and Technology Committee, which was responsible for propriations to scientific and medical research, space research, and we would have these interesting conversations where he would say; ‘so and so just sent me this report, and you know, what questions do I need to ask when I’m talking to so and so, or when so and so is giving testimony in the House? And this was an unpaid position but I was honoured and privileged to serve in this role as many of my colleagues have done. Another colleague served on George W. Bush’s Ethics Panel on Stem Cell Research, and although the meetings didn’t go my colleague’s way, he was taking part. And I think you’d find that if you reach out to academics in this country, they would love to have an opportunity to participate in the democratic process. Find the right experts of course, but I think that’s a first step, is to get some help from people who will volunteer their time.
4.31-4.41: Inaudible audience member
Alan Mendoza: Your name, your name, I know who you are but…
Daniel Levitin: Could you tell us your name?
Second Question, Marsara Rose: I don’t belong to any organisation. Free press, it was never really free, they choose what to write, they’re privately owned and they have their own agenda, so it’s not a very substantial thing to rely on.
Daniel Levitin: Well the free press, the question is there are problems with the free press, some of them are privately owned and some of them are given constraints. The BBC is public is it not? We have national public radio in the United States and public broadcasting system which are public and they are not interfered with by the government. We have to wait and see if the present Administration in the US changes that, but so far they function independently and some newspapers function more independently than others, but I’ve had a number of interactions with the New York Times, both as a writer for them and as the subject of scientific stories they do and I’ve met just an incredibly dedicated, underpaid, super qualified bunch of young people who really want to get the story right, and won’t be intimidated. I would like to see an even freer press, I’m sure there are mechanisms we can put in place that would enable the kinds of things, the reforms you’d like to see and limit the kinds of biases that you’ve mentioned. I don’t have any expertise to talk about how that might come about but I think it’s something we should all be talking about and I’m grateful to you for bringing it up, now’s the time.
Third Question: Euan Grant: Thank you very much. Euan Grant, former Law Enforcement Intelligence Analyst. I wonder if you’ve got any comments to make – which I think are implied in your excellent closing point about the answer being inquisitiveness combined with humility – between education, and also to be frank, if you can say so, intelligence and susceptibility to fake news and conspiracy theories. My question is partly driven by the fact that I’ve had to find a new person to repair my car, because the person who was doing it has only just been released from prison after what is believed to be the first case in England and Wales of marital coercion. Basically beating up his wife. He is of Pakistani origin and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he was a strong believer that 9/11 was organised by the American Government. But of course when I asked him why, he was not able to give any reason, and when I pointed out that an American President once had to resign for obstructing justice, he had never heard of that and could not see the connection.
Daniel Levitin: And could you repeat the question?
Alan Mendoza: What is the connection between education and intelligence.
Daniel Levitin: I’ve devoted the past 25 years of my life to being an educator. And in fact, when I was in the music business, I saw my role as an educator. As a record producer it was my job to educate musicians and artists about what was possible in the studio and how the technology could enable their artistic work. And I’m proud to say that our record label was the first label in the world that allowed artists to keep all of their copyrights and publishing rights, and that has now become standard practice, so it was about educating the music industry. So I believe that education works, and I believe that education works across all levels of the intelligence span. The methods that one uses may differ if you’re dealing with a young little Stephen Hawking vs. dealing with someone who doesn’t have professor Hawking’s capacity, but education works, and it starts in the home and it starts at a very young age. It starts with parents talking to their children instead of just plopping them in front of a digital device. There’s solid neuro-scientific research on this, about how parts of the child’s brain atrophy if they’re not interacting with others in the crucial first few years of life. And their willingness to learn and engage from and with people changes in those first few years. So, I think education is the answer. And when I’m talking about information literacy and inquisitiveness, on the information literacy side, I’m talking about something, I think we can start with twelve year olds. Teach them that when they land on a website, that’s not the end of their research, that’s only the beginning. They have to ask who operates this website, what biases might they have, is the website current, is it really operated by the people that it seems to be operated by? If you go to MartinLutherKing.org, it turns out it’s run by a bunch of racist Ku Klux Klan type – what do you call it? – Aryan nation people, who’ve registered the name deceptively because they want you to think – the name suggests because it’s .org that it’s a neutral sight but it’s not. So twelve year olds should be taught that. And then in terms of inquisitiveness, we’re all born with the kind of inquisitiveness that I think being a critical thinker demands. Anybody who has ever tried to put a four year old to bed has seen this. You say to the four year old ‘it’s bed time Susie’, and Susie says ‘why’. And you say ‘well because it’s eight o’clock’. ‘Why’? ‘Well you know eight o’clock is your bed time because you need to have a good night’s sleep’. ‘Why’? ‘Well because you have school in the morning’. ‘Why?’ And this goes on and on and on and on, and children are born that way and some lucky children have their parents answer the questions over and over again. And some unlucky children have their parents say ‘don’t bother me kid’. And there’s a huge difference in which kids grow up to become productive well-adjusted members of society and those who don’t.
Euan Grant: I’ve seen that first-hand in my own family life.
Alan Mendoza: Okay right, we are going to move to the back, yes, the gentlemen in the middle and then we’ll come to…
Daniel Levitin: And thank you very much for your services to law enforcement, it’s a meaningful occupation, I’ve had some personal traumatic encounters when it has gone array.
Euan Grant: So have I.
Alan Mendoza: A subject for another time I think, but yes.
4th Question, Malory Wahlberg [?]: Malory Wahlberg, I’m a psychologist.
Daniel Levitin: a psychologist, Dr Wahlberg.
Malory Wahlberg: Believe it or not! I don’t expect you to answer this question right now but I hope to invite you to think about it, to perhaps change the label ‘free press’, because what that sprang from was the press, which was a trained and principled institution whose standards one could trust to an extent..
Daniel Levitin: You’re right.
Malory Wahlberg: That’s overlapped now into what is called social media. But I would hope that it would perhaps better be called anti-social media, so I would be interested to know where the lines are to be drawn and what your reflections are on these thoughts?
Daniel Levitin: I take the point. Free press has some semantic baggage, how about if we agree to call it an independent press of trained professional journalists. That to me is one of the crucial distinctions. Now journalists are people to, they have their own biases, they can be bribed unfortunately, and they can follow their own self-interests sometimes, but I think as a whole when it functions well, it’s the best system we’ve got and it’s self-correcting more or less.
5th Question, Roslyn Pine, Board of Deputies of British Jews: The greatest lie we see currently is put about by nation states, namely that the settlements are illegal against international law; actually the British Government says ‘we believe’ which just goes to show. The point is I actually – with an enquiring mind – have researched this in great detail. It’s an easily debunkable lie. But of course what you have is, you have the interests that nations have in 1.6 billion Muslim opinions, as opposed to 12 million Jewish opinions. And the problem is that people actually believe it, people don’t have enquiring minds, and how can the few individuals who actually write about this, how can we overturn the opinions of vast agents of the UN, the United States who produces this statement which is a complete falsehood? In fact actually the opposite true, inhibiting settlement is against International law. So there you are, an example of a huge lie.
Daniel Levitin: Yes, so there are some very tricky issues here. One of them being that sometimes, if you call out a lie, your speech can be misinterpreted as being racist, or as taking a political side, when in fact all you’re trying to do is establish the evidence so it can be agreed upon. And often in public discourse subtlety can be lost. There was a book published in the United States in the 80s, called the Bell Curve, which did an enormous amount of damage to race relations. It was by a psychologist, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray –two psychologists – and it was about a lot of different things, but the crux of it was that black Americans, statistically speaking over large large samples, have a lower IQ than white Americans. And it was three points or something like that, it was statistically significant. That was a fact, everybody who is in the field of intelligence testing agreed that it was a fact. Now, if you want to start talking about what it means; what got lost in the public discourse was that the two curves are almost entirely overlapping and you’ve got brilliant geniuses of both races and you’ve got people who lack intellectual capacity of both races. There are so many more whites than blacks, that the number of dumb whites certainly outnumbers the number of dumb blacks. I mean you can see the problem there, and also what got lost is that there are biases built into the IQ tests that are cultural. It turns out simple changes in wording or who administers the test can raise the black scores. All that got lost. So there’s a case where for public policy reasons you might not want to talk about that even though it’s true. You’re talking about the opposite case I think, where you want to talk about something that’s true that can help level the playing field, but by doing so you’re putting yourself in danger of being seen as a proponent of a view that you may not necessarily hold.
Roslyn Pine: No, it’s how do you get the truth out there against all the vast forces against you, that’s the problem.
Daniel Levitin: Well, I, I… I believe that, I believe that the truth is harder to dislodge than lies and that if we hold to it, sooner or later – hopefully sooner – the truth will win out.
Alan Mendoza: Let me pick up on that, because that specific point, I don’t want to go into any specific details, but it seems to me that’s a legal issue you’re talking about. There’s a slight difference between a statistical fact along the lines of a large sample of IQ say which everyone in the field agrees, whereas you all know that in law, there isn’t necessarily such a thing as a fact, there is an opinion based on evidence, but two people coming to it could take very different views on what the fact actually is based on the evidence they’ve seen there. And both could come legitimately to a legal point of view which they would both believe would be true.