The Post-Truth Era?
I was working on a post about why severe psychiatric disorder’s persist in the human population against what should be strong selective pressure to weed them out, when I came across a video on Gizmodo talking about how the moon landing couldn’t have been faked because the film and video technology were not advanced enough to do the slow motion simulation of low gravity. If you’ve been leading a virtuous life or living off the grid for many years you may not know this, but there is in fact a contingent of conspiracy theorists who believe that the moon landings were faked in some terrestrial sound stage (a la Capricorn One). I’m past being surprised at what conspiracy theorists will believe (I’m more of an incompetence theorist1 myself), but the video, and especially the comments on the blog from some seemingly intelligent people, led me to the question of how crazy ideas persist in the population. This parallel between the natural selection of genes in a population, and the spread of ideas among social networks was made by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, where he coined the term “meme.” In fact, the question of why reasonable people cling to unreasonable ideas has promoted a lot of hand wringing lately. We sciency types worry about poor critical thinking skills, innumeracy and lack of emphasis on science education, but sometimes it seems like there is a fundamental loss of consensus about what constitutes convincing evidence, especially in the political/policy sphere (Watch Karl Rove’s epistemological meltdown on Fox News). This was the satirical genius of Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” coinage during the confabulatory excesses of the W administration. The possibility of a post-truth political media landscape also came up during the most recent presidential campaign, when staffers simply refused to retract statements that independent organizations had demonstrated were false (saying they wouldn’t be pushed around by fact checkers). An only slightly less grim possibility is that that we are all still capable of being convinced by evidence, but we are increasingly and systematically limiting our access to alternative points of view by focusing our attention on sympathetic media sources and like-minded clones in our social networks. On the Media has had some thoughtful stories on this echo chamber concept, though I can’t say their work gives much hope either. Another excellent piece on the polarization of the political dialog in this country comes from a recent program on This American Life. Also pretty depressing, but they at least focus on Phil Neisser and Jacob Hess, who wrote a book about trying bridge the political divide with civil dialog.
1 After watching the Iran Contra hearings in the 1980s, and seeing what bumbling boobs were running the NSA, I became convinced that large organizations are simply too incompetent to perpetuate large-scale conspiracies. The corollary is that the motives of individuals in large organizations are too heterogeneous to maintain scandalous secrets for long. Too easy for a single disgruntled employee to spill the beans. Word to the wise. If you run a large and secret cabal, try to keep your people as gruntled as possible.