seeking knowledge and laughter, putting a bullseye on inaccuracy

True Enough - Preparing to Survive a Post-Fact Society

How is it that millions of Americans are convinced that the Bush Administration - a group of people so thoroughly incompetent that it appears they could not successfully carry out even the most minute task - executed, or at least abetted, the most devastating terrorist attack against the United States? The 9/11 'Truthers' have, in part, convinced themselves by fixating on a single photograph while ignoring thousands that contradict it.

This is one of the symptoms of what Farhad Manjoo calls our Post-Fact Society in his book "True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society." The book explores the fascinating question that drove me back to grad school - How is it that in the age of Google, when we have unprecedented access to information, that people are more misinformed than ever?

People who think that Saddam Hussein (or George Bush, for that matter) planned 9/11 are less ignorant than misinformed. Ignorance suggests a lack of information; but these people are convinced that they know the truth. To be ignorant, they would have to not know. That they "know" something which is not true suggests we should specifically call the phenomenon misinformation rather than ignorance.

When I entered grad school, I had the naive idea that with so much information everywhere, the best (by which I meant accurate) information should have risen to the top. How foolish of me! In this marketplace of excess information, people are more interested in the information that fits with what they already believe. I have written previously, at some length about this subject.

Manjoo surveys some of the scientific studies on this, showing that people go out of their way to find information that agrees with their current beliefs and similarly actively try to avoid information that may conflict with their existing views. Writing that, I wonder how many read it and think "duh." Nonetheless, the studies in the area are fascinating.

But Manjoo applies this to a number of recent national political controversies and disagreements. The most fascinating one for me was the 2004 Presidential election in Ohio - because it touched some of my unexamined beliefs. I had read a number of pieces over the years that convincingly argued that Kerry would have won Ohio absent some cynical manipulations by Ohio public officials. I believed that the small number of voting machines in the urban districts had a massive influence on the outcome. However, I also raised some doubts following an article in Mother Jones that challenged fraud allegations.

Turns out I was not hearing (or finding) the whole story. Robert Kennnedy wrote a Rolling Stone article detailing the problems with the Ohio election but relied upon the analysis of amateurs whose work had been strongly refuted by experts in the field. This raises perhaps the biggest problem - sometimes experts all agree wrongly on something and need to be challenged by others from outside the field. But mostly not. So how do we distinguish between the two situations?

I'm not sure. And to be honest, I don't think Majoo really lives up to his title which suggests that we will learn how to live in this Post-Fact Society. I think he teaches us how to recognize that we are in a Post-Fact Society but not really what to do about it. Recognizing it is probably only the first step. After that, I cannot help but remember a friend from college who had the following bumpersticker on the back of his VW bus: "If you haven't changed your mind recently, how can you be sure you still have it?"

In so many areas of modern knowledge, we will remain dependent on experts. Nearly all of those who claim evolution is garbage do not actually know what evolution is. They think they know - because they have picked their experts ... and many of their experts do not themselves understand evolution (many - not all). This was conclusively demonstrated at the Dover, Pennsylvania, trial on so-called Intelligent Design (which I wrote about here).

The good news is that people actually want to be informed. This is the most interesting proposition of the book - people are always pulled in multiple directions. I want to eat ice cream every day but I also want to be healthy and fit. I don't want to pollute more than necessary but the car is more convenient that the bus. I want to be informed but my brain would prefer to do it by listening to a single perspective with which I am nearly guaranteed to agree.

Manjoo notes that when SALT II was being discussed during the Carter Administration, the public had strong opinions about it though very few could actually name who was involved with the Treaty or what it would actually do. It is distressing to see people take a stand on issues that they clearly do not understand, but what is the alternative? Are we to come up with a poll exam in lieu of poll taxes?

I must conclude that living in a free society is not a free proposition. Freedom is indeed not free - though serving in the military is hardly the sole way one may defend freedom. If we are to maintain our freedom, we must inform ourselves as citizens. This is one of the costs (just as the ability to do it is a benefit). And right now, I think that means forcing ourselves to examine the arguments of those we know that we disagree with. And we must find ways of discussing politics with those we may disagree with - in part because if only a few of us inform ourselves, we will be continued to be outvoted by the many who get their opinions from the most recent radio host to fill their ears with talking-points faxed over by a cynical political party bent on putting the needs of the rich ahead of the country.

One of the best motivations for learning more about an issue is looking like a fool who cannot defend what you have stated. I have said many things I cannot defend, and when someone backs me into a corner where I look foolish, you can bet I'll examine that issue in greater depth rather than merely turning to insults and writing off the person who cornered me (though I do find doing both to be rewarding).

Many of us have long practiced the maxim of "Question Authority" (I actually now prefer "Interrogate Authority with Enhanced Techniques). It is time to question the experts with which we agree. It takes more work - but freedom isn't free. This is not something we can fix merely be resolving to be better citizens any more than global warming will be solved by a few people changing their lightbulbs. Schools absolutely must teach media literacy and the foolishness of relying upon a single ideological viewpoint for information.