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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Its News App Makes Apple Rather Like Orwell's Ministry of Truth

George Orwell's novel 1984 is a classic of dystopian fiction. It depicts a totalitarian state which requires absolute obedience from its subjects. The citizens of the oppressive regime are kept in control through a wide variety of methods, such as posters everywhere saying "Big Brother Is Watching You," home electronic devices that spy on them, a government agency called the Ministry of Truth that grinds out misleading propaganda, and a government agency (called the Ministry of Love) that tortures citizens who dare to break the rules.  The novel 1984 was referenced by a classic 1984 television commercial produced by Apple, one that ran during the 1984 Super Bowl. 

In the commercial we see a giant screen in which an old authority is lecturing a group of people. The people are all dressed the same, and all have shaved heads. After we see the people marching robotically in lockstep, we see the people all look kind of hypnotized, like unthinking thought slaves. The old authority lecturing the people says this:

"Today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives. We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology—where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory thoughts. Our Unification of Thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth. We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause." 

Pursued by some kind of police, a young woman runs into the large room. She is carrying a huge sledgehammer. The woman hurls the sledgehammer toward the giant screen, and it is shattered.  We see some text announcing the first Macintosh computer, and a claim that this would show why "1984 won't be like 1984."

You can only properly understand the commercial if you know something about the 1980's competition between Apple and IBM. Often called "Big Blue," IBM was the behemoth of the computer industry in the early 1980's. IBM had enjoyed great success marketing bulky refrigerator-sized computers in the period between 1960 and 1980. In 1981 IBM made its big move into personal computers. Around 1983 the vast majority of personal computers were either IBM computers or what were called IBM-compatible computers, which could run the same software used by IBM personal computers. 

At this time Apple was a kind of a rebellious upstart. To use a Star Wars analogy, it was like IBM was the Galactic Empire of the first Star Wars movie, and it was like Apple was the Rebel Alliance. In Apple's early 1984 commercial alluding to the novel 1984, the old head on the giant screen represented IBM and its near-monopoly on personal computing. The young woman hurling the sledgehammer represents Apple and its rebellious new ways,  which around 1984 included introducing a computer with a graphical user interface, which no IBM computer had at the time.

Now Apple has become the behemoth of computing devices. After enjoying great success in selling personal computers like the Macintosh, Apple's greatest success came in selling smartphone and tablet devices such as the iPad. People love such devices because you can use them while doing little typing. 

I have an Apple iPad, in addition to a personal computer with a regular keyboard.  At the center of the iPad experience is the Apple News app. The News app is something that allows me to access a vast number of articles from many different sources, on many different subjects, without typing anything or using any mouse or menu. 

Let me describe how it works for those who have never used it. When you open the News app, you get five stories at the top of your tablet device. 

Scrolling down by finger-swiping, you can find very many sections called Channels. In addition to sections marked "For You," "Reader Favorites," and "For You in News+," you may see thirty or forty different sections or channels, each of which can be reached just by finger-swiping to scroll the screen down.  A typical channel will show about three to seven stories, each of which has a photo next to it. For example, below we see a "Science Fiction" channel and the first part of a "Biology" channel:

By clicking on any of the channel titles, you will get many articles on the topic you clicked on. So, for example, when I click on the title of the Science Fiction channel shown above, I get many articles about Science Fiction, not just the articles shown below, but many other Science Fiction articles I can reach by using finger-swiping to scroll the screen down:

I can use my finger to read any of these articles; and reading any of them is easy because all I have to do is finger-swipe to scroll the screen down when I come to the bottom of the screen. Once I have finished reading the story, there is a convenient back button allowing me to return to a double-column page like the one shown above. When I want to switch to a different channel, I can use a back button at the top left of the tablet to go back to the main News app page, which allows me to find stories on many different topics. 

This interface is a masterpiece from an ease-of-use standpoint. With this interface I can access many hundreds of stories on 30 or more topics without typing anything and without ever using a mouse. The News app of the Apple iPad is so easy to use, and has access to so many stories that I would imagine a typical iPad user probably spends 30% or more of his iPad time only using the News app. 

But there is a huge problem with Apple's News app. The News app  restricts you to a very limited number of information sources. It therefore acts as a very severe "reality filter," extremely restricting the type of articles that you will read when using its interface, and severely restricting the type of viewpoints you will be exposed to. 

Let's look at the Channels that are available to me. We see below some of them:

If I scroll down more to get more items on this list, I also get these Channels:

If I scroll down more to get more items on this list, I only get this:

There is a Discover Channels button at the bottom that allows me to add some more sections or channels, each of which will be a particular section showing up in the News feed.  But the choice is only very limited. When I press Discover Channels, I get only 36 possibilities, about half of which are city-specific channels such as a Los Angeles channel. 

Despite the great ease of use, there is something very wrong here. One minor irritation is that the Apple News app is filled with promos for stories that are only available if you have a paid subscription to Apple News+.  If you haven't yet learned the trick of not clicking on stories marked Apple News+ unless you pay for that service, you might find such promo links to be annoying. 

More seriously, this interface has enormously restricted the type of content I can view. I cannot get any Philosophy channel, or any Religion channel. I cannot get any channel on New Age topics, or any channel related to the paranormal. I cannot get any History channel or any Psychology channel or any Viewpoints channel. I can get a Daily Mail channel, but the articles are only the more bland articles from the Daily Mail, not the more provocative articles the Daily Mail regularly publishes that criticize the US government, the US president, or US social trends.  I cannot chose any channel that gives me a critical analysis of the claims made by US science authorities. The articles in the News app have a liberal bias, and tend to favor the current Biden administration. If you ever get a religion-related story in the Apple News app, there's a good chance it will be some "trojan horse" article like a recent article I saw with a title mentioning someone's "far-seeing faith," but which turned out to be an article suggesting that one major religious group had "profound afflictions," and consisted of racist anti-intellectuals.    

What Apple's News app has done is to pretty much restrict me to articles that parrot the "official party line" of America's ruling class of politicians, professors and pundits, and also a vast variety of entertainment articles and articles such as sports articles and real estate articles and celebrity-oriented articles. What's wrong with that? Well, for one thing there is the problem that the stories that I get from the News app are very often stories filled with very bad  falsehoods, misrepresentations and groundless boasts. This is largely because nowadays the articles of so-called "science news" are very often articles filled with errors and misstatements. 

Many branches of scientific academia are currently in a sad state. Professors are judged by how many papers they have written and how many citations such papers have got. With such metrics being used to judge performance, there is a huge incentive for scientists to produce poorly-designed "quick and dirty" studies that are guilty of questionable research practices (called QRP), such as way-too-small study group sizes, lack of pre-registration and a lack of a blinding protocol. In some fields such as neuroscience, the use of questionable research practices is more the norm than the exception. Eager to get as many paper citations as possible, scientists very often make claims in their paper titles and abstracts that are not justified by any observations reported in their papers.  

After a scientific paper has been written up and published, it is announced with a press release issued by the main academic institution involved in the research. Nowadays the press releases of universities and colleges are notorious for making sensationalized claims that are not warranted by anything discovered in the research being discovered. Often a tentative claim made in a scientific paper (basically a "perhaps" or a "maybe") will be stated as if it is was simply a discovery of a definite fact.  Other times a university press release will make some important-sounding claim that was never made in the scientific paper writing up the research.  An example was that when  there appeared a scientific paper merely claiming that "Regional synapse gain and loss accompany memory formation in larval zebrafish," there appeared a great number of press stories repeating the headline of a press release claiming that the formation of a memory had been observed (a claim not made in the paper).  We have every reason to believe that synapse gains and losses occur  continually in the human body, regardless of whether some new memory is forming. 

Authorship anonymity is a large factor that facilitates the appearance of misleading university and college press releases.  Nowadays university and college press releases typically appear without any person listed as the author. So when a lie or misleading statement occurs (as they very often do in university press releases), you can never point your finger and identify one particular person who was lying.  When PR men at universities are thinking to themselves "no one will blame me specifically if the press release has an error," they will feel more free to say misleading and untrue things that make unimpressive research sound important. 
Misleading press releases produce an indirect financial benefit for the colleges and universities that release them.  When there occurs untrue announcements of important research results, such press releases make the college and university sound like some place where important research is being done. The more such press releases appear, the more people will think that the college or university is worth the very high tuition fees it charges. 

Besides such press releases, additional exaggerations, distortions, misstatements and hype occur when writers produce articles based on the press release. Such writers are encouraged to behave in such a way, to produce click-bait that is economically profitable. If a web site has an article with an untrue or half-true title that sounds exciting, such an article can entice many people to click on some headline that takes them to a page where there are ads. The web site may therefore get revenue proportional to how many people saw the page. 

Some of the economic and professional factors that encourage misstatements in science papers, science press releases, and science news articles are shown in the diagram below. The Apple News app is part of this profit complex, and I wonder whether Apple richly profits from all the untrue clickbait headlines it has routing you to pages that have advertising, and generate revenue not just for the site that has the page, but the site that routes people to such a page.  

academia cyberspace profit complex

Today's so-called "science news" articles very often contain falsehoods, groundless hype and shameless exaggeration, largely because of economic motivations charted in the diagram above. The diagram above tells only part of the story, failing to even mention two other gigantic factors tending to produce misleading or dubious claims in scientist literature:

(1) how financial influence from the pharmaceutical industry is a major factor leading to junk science studies and junk science news;

(2) how scientist belief communities (such as the neuroscientist belief community, the evolutionary biology belief community, and the dark matter belief community) leads scientists to keep producing research that sounds supportive of the ideology of such belief communities, and the dogmas of particular scientist tribes. 

There are other huge reasons why so many errors and falsehoods occur in what we read in the so-called science news. One reason is a large amount of fraud in experimental research. A recent article in a leading science journal cites a researcher who "estimates up to 34% of neuroscience papers published in 2020 were likely made up or plagiarized."  Another very large reason is that scientists such as neuroscientists and cosmologists and evolutionary biologists are members of belief communities dedicated to the perpetuation of cherished dogmas held by their belief communities. Many of our "science news" articles are written by authors attempting to bolster belief in their favorite belief dogmas. When acting in such a way, which we might call "Sunday school mode," scientists and science journalists can be guilty of very bad errors and very bad misstatements, just as some person zealous to advance his political ideology may make very bad misstatements. 

Because so many scientists are following Questionable Research Practices leading to shoddy research that is not highly reproducible, there is a replication crisis in fields such as psychology and neuroscience. In their 2017 paper "Empirical assessment of published effect sizes and power in the recent cognitive neuroscience and psychology literature," Denes Szucs and John P. A. Ioannidis concluded that the replication crisis in cognitive neuroscience was even worse than in psychology. They concluded that most reported effects in neuroscience were probably false alarms. In their paper we read this:

"Assuming similar true effect sizes in both disciplines, power was lower in cognitive neuroscience than in psychology. Journal impact factors negatively correlated with power. Assuming a realistic range of prior probabilities for null hypotheses, false report probability is likely to exceed 50% for the whole literature."

And don't think for a moment that you can tell good research by looking for some paper published in some "high impact factor"  journal such as Cell or Nature or Science. Those journals very often publish junk research guilty of Questionable Research Practices, and publish papers with titles proclaiming results not matching anything observed or demonstrated in the described research. Referring to statistical power (a measure of how robust and trustworthy research is) the preceding paper made the remarkable claim that "journal impact factors negatively correlated with power."  

Apple's News app reflects all of these very bad problems, without doing anything to mitigate them. Almost every day I read in the News app some headlines that are false or groundless, and "news stories" containing very bad errors. Often very untrue headlines are repeated in multiple different News app stories on the same day, with the misleading headline merely being rephrased, as the same erring press release is covered by different science journalists. I often read some bunk claim made in the headline of some story in the Science channel of News app, and then read an equally bunk headline about the same research appearing in the Biology channel of the News app, and then read an equally false headline in the Neuroscience channel of the News app. 

An example of the false statements we get every week from the Apple News app is an article this week that made the untrue claim that "many lab experiments have successfully reproduced different stages of abiogenesis." No such stages of abiogenesis (an accidental origin of life) have occurred in any lab experiments realistically simulating the early Earth, and not even building blocks of the building blocks of one-celled life (amino acids) have been produced in any such experiments. The article refers to the "iconic Miller-Urey experiment," failing to mention how scientists now believe the experiment used a wrong mixture of gases to try to simulate the early Earth atmosphere (only one of many reasons why the experiement was not a realistic simulation of early Earth conditions).  

Some of the falsehoods I very often read in the headlines and stories of Apple's News app are untrue claims that will give you wrong ideas about who you are, how your species and your mind arose,  and what kind of universe you live in. It seems the curators of Apple's News app are blissfully ignorant of all the problems associated with today's scientific papers and the boastful and untrustworthy press releases promoting them. 

There seems to be no way to customize the News app to reduce such problems. The Apple News service is free for those who have bought a device such as the iPad. There is an Apple News+ paid subscription you can get for 10 dollars a month. But that subscription  only offers the set of sources listed here, which almost never challenge the hype, dogma and groundless claims so often appearing in mainstream sources. There is no such problem on information sources such as Youtube.com. For example, if you search for some videos on near-death experiences or other spiritual topics on www.youtube.com, you will find your subsequent list of displayed videos reflecting the interest in such topics that you previously displayed. Although it is called a News app, the Apple News app often includes pure opinion pieces, which are often atheist propaganda pieces, but almost never opinion pieces challenging any of the more dubious dogmas of today's science professors.

The factors above and the News app's restrictions on independent analysis and viewpoint diversity mean that nowadays Apple's News app is kind of like a Pravda for materialists. Between 1918 and 1991 the newspaper Pravda was the official party organ of the Communist Party that ruled the Soviet Union. During that period whenever a Moscow communist opened up his morning paper, he would find a newspaper telling him that the world was working just exactly the way a Moscow communist would expect it to work. The pages of Pravda contained very many falsehoods, and prevented its readers  from reading about very many things they should have been informed about. And so it is for Apple's News app.  The reader of Apple's News app will always read headlines telling him that the world is working just exactly the way an atheist materialist would expect it to work. Restricted to a filter bubble, such a reader will be carefully prevented from discovering a thousand facts and observer reports that conflict with such ideas. 

In this respect Apple has become rather like the restrictive behemoth it mocked in its early 1984 ad referencing the novel 1984.  The curators of Apple's News app seem rather like the workers of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell's 1984, who only informed the masses of an official party line, one that contained many a falsehood.  Such curators rather seem like people under the control of rules rather like the "Information Purification Directives" mentioned in Apple's 1984 commercial. 

Apple News App

If you look at my posts here, here, here, here, hereherehere, here and here, you will find examples this year of shoddy research or groundless "science news" claims that were promoted in Apple's News app as if they were important science progress. If you didn't realize that Apple's News app is largely a kind of party-line echo chamber filter bubble "Ministry of Truth news feed" affair, it's partially because people who have for many years got defective news streams come to think of them as normal (like 1970's Moscow Pravda readers who didn't notice how bad the newspaper was), and also because Apple did such a good job of mixing up all its ruling class propaganda with entertaining tidbits, glitz, razzle-dazzle and sparkly neon glitter. It's kind of like what goes on in The Hunger Games series, where lots of untruthful government propaganda is delivered by some slick stylish  charming celebrity with the folksy pizazz of a "Tonight Show" host. 

1 comment:

  1. Pardon my sarcasm, but I am shocked--shocked to find that there is gambling happening in that casino. Science fraud has been going on for many years. Do you remember when a high school teacher was fired for penalizing her students for cheating and plagiarism? Have you heard people talk about "My truth?" Did you see the news report on live TV in which the reporter, standing in front of burning buildings, described it as a "mostly peaceful demonstration?" Scientists are shaped by their culture. Our culture does not value truth, but only feelings. Deep fake, anyone?