Clickbait, Fake News and Low-Calorie Science

A tiny drone tries to gather pollen from a lily, to show that it is just as good at it as a bee. [Photo by E.Miyako]

The hucksters of high tech are abroad in the land, proving they are the equal of Donald Trump in their ability to tell brazen lies and feel no shame. These days, that’s called leadership. Their latest whopper is that we don’t need to worry about the fact that we are killing off the bees that pollinate our food crops, we can do the job mechanically. Here’s a typical headline inspired by the latest revelations in the field: “Should pollinating drones take over for honey bees?”

Consider the technique used in the headline –it’s the craft of clickbait, not journalism. The journalistic headlines would be “Scientists have used a small drone to pollinate a flower.” Yawn. If you said, “Scientists prepare to replace bees with drones,” the lie would be so big and so obvious that scientists would have to protest and your credibility, if any, would suffer. But who could blame you for simply asking the question? (Headlines asking questions, by the way, are an indicator of fake news.)

The story itself breathes heavily through an account of a team in Japan outfitting a little drone with some horsehairs and sticky stuff and successfully transferring some pollen from one lily (a flower selected for its large size and accessible pollen) to another. Mission accomplished, in approximately half the attempts made. The team leader — Eijiro Miyako of Japan’s Nanomaterials Research Institute — said he felt “happiness that I’m a scientist.”

Couple things. The drone they used cost over a hundred dollars and required a human operator. To pollinate just the almond crop, in California alone, each year requires 35 billion bees pollinating three trillion flowers on 900,000 acres. Each little drone, with its four slashing propellers, is going to scare and injure real bees and damage plants while barging around the flowers.

Well, sure, comes the response, we’ll have to develop some kind of artificial intelligence to make the drones self-piloting, and we’ll have to achieve economies of scale, but we can do that. Eventually. In other words if we had some ham we could have ham and eggs if we had some eggs.

Over and over again we are treated to the same cycle; some minor achievement in the lab, announced with a flurry of irrational predictions about the brave new world to come because of this breakthrough. Fusion (at room temperature) has been announced a half dozen times. A week or so ago a breathless account of the creation of metallic hydrogen caught the world’s attention until it fell apart of its own weight.

These “studies” continue to flourish for the same reason that clickbait ads and fake news flourish; because of the avid appetite of ill-informed people for easy solutions. When the ad offers a quick and easy cure for cancer, or the fake news proclaims that a politician we don’t like has been caught running a child sex-slave ring out of a pizza parlor, or fake science proclaims that we no longer have to worry about the bees dying or the globe warming or the world running out of oil, way too many of us turn off our critical faculties and go back to sleep.

Money flows to the grant proposals that envision finding out that what we want to be true, is true. Money flows to the clickbait ads that offer easy solutions to complex problems. Eyeballs cascade to the fake news that proclaims what we want to hear, or what we are afraid we’ll hear. And the institutions that once imposed responsibility on these offerings — the universities, the regulatory bodies, the great newspapers — are vampires now whose souls have fled, leaving behind only a vast craving for cash.   

There’s no one left to tell us there aren’t going to be driverless cars and tabletop fusion and eternal life and a cure for cancer and a mechanical replacement for bees and a simple fix for climate change; to tell us it’s up to us not to be taken, not to be gullible, not to accept a view of the world that’s simple and easy and deadly wrong. It’s hard work, but somebody’s got to do it, and there’s no drone that will do it for you.

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12 Responses to Clickbait, Fake News and Low-Calorie Science

  1. Tom says:

    Excellent, Mr. Lewis – YOU told us! (of course it’ll take a while for the word to spread around, and most probably won’t pay any attention, anyway)

    See, that’s the point. Nobody (present company excepted) WANTS to hear it! We’re so comfortable living the (profligate) way we do – drive (instead of walk) to the store (instead of a garden) to “buy” (and all that entails) what you want, turn on the tap (instead of walk to the nearest source of potable water) to get a glass of clean water, etc. – why change anything?

    McPherson (it’s not just him, there are many sounding the alarm) has had this same problem for years now. Despite all his (and others’) talks, nothing is even slowing down civilization. If anything, with Trump at the helm, it’s “full speed ahead!” (Those in powerful, high level government positions, as well as many scientists, probably KNOW where it all leads – and maybe have a general idea WHEN the shit will hit the fan, too; most scientists won’t or can’t speak about it, or they’ll lose their jobs, income streams and/or their credibility).

    So we live in fantasy land – until we can’t.
    The song Hotel California is about this. Here we are in this Brave New World that isn’t going to last much longer, and despite increasing evidence that we fucked up (royally) by upsetting the atmospheric chemistry, turning the ocean into a cesspool and the land into a garbage dump, we just keep on keepin’ on! Because “nobody told me it will end badly” (if you are the common moron living your little fantasy life – too distracted with survival and self pleasure to look around and notice the dying trees or the dead animals by the side of the road).

    Oh, and it HAS to be this way, ya know, ’cause “we don’t know how to live any other way.”

    • Davebee says:

      I hate to tell you this but I personally have been hearing this the-end-is-nigh scare story since I was a kid in primary school. When I got to high school in the 1960’s we were being fed the yarn that aerosol cans and refrigeration gas were gonna do us in but nope, we are still around collecting our pensions and paying our taxes.
      I’m 70 years of age now and as far as I can see this ol’ world just rolls along without a hitch, humans or not. Chances are it will keep on that way too until I’m ready to punch my ticket. Hopefully in the not too distant future though.

      • Tom Lewis says:

        Aerosol cans and refrigeration gas almost did do us in, Davebee. It took a massive global effort, including a much-resented ban on certain refrigerants, to save the ozone layer that shields us from excessive ultraviolet radiation. It’s the only real success story in the not-very-long history of humans v. the environment, and humans seem to have resolved never to let it happen again. Where were you, I wonder?

  2. Brian Miller says:

    A perfect mirror for my thinking this morning.

  3. Ken Barrows says:

    Davebee, 70 years isn’t a long time, even historically speaking. To give some perspective, half of all CO2 emissions since 1990, 99% of oil burned since 1900, etc.

  4. UnhingedBecauseLucid says:

    I somehow feel this post should be [more] widely diffused…
    I’m not on Facebook but, should you ever get to adding a Google+ widget, I would certainly make use of it from time to time.
    Although, since I’m recluse troglodyte of sort, keep in mind my network pathways would only gain you a [very] marginally wider audience…

  5. SomeoneInAsia says:

    I sometimes wonder if some might not be so audacious as to declare that the very laws of arithmetic themselves can now be rewritten, so that it will now be possible to have indefinite exponential growth in a finite world.

    It’s plainly tragic that even those of us who are supposed to be in the know, such as the scientists, are now or have become part of the problem rather than its solution. Hence we have people like Stephen Hawking warning us about alien invasions rather than about climate change and resource depletion.

  6. Mike Kay says:

    Technological wonders are no match for the power and mystery of Nature.

  7. Liz says:

    I’ll never look at questions the same way again. Here’s a good one:

    “Could giant machines refreeze the Arctic?”

  8. Michael Fretchel says:

    Oh ya that idea that this old world will do just fine With out us might have been a decent thought like 40 years ago but we put up all those chemicals into this planets atmosphere and into the oceans and that kind of pollutuon does not go away that easy ,but really it is the 430 or so odd Nuclear facilites that will melt down with out us to watch them, then it truly is game over for all life on this planet save perhapes some microbial things that eat nuclear radiation.
    ,hells bells we can not even leave peacfully.

  9. Greg Rose says:

    I would like your posts but I don’t do FaceDeath…

    But I read them all the time and I appreciate the time you take to write them.