"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, December 12, 2016

Figuring Out What’s What–Why So Many Of Us Fall For The Most Cockamamie Stories

A history teacher once said that the easiest way to eliminate fake news was, not surprisingly, to teach history.  Such a study, he said, requires sifting through various accounts, interpretations, and versions of ‘the facts’ to determine not what actually happened but what probably happened.  This process of reading, reflection, comparison, and analysis to arrive at reasonable assumptions of reality should be applied universally.

He went on to lament the fact that fewer and fewer students are graduating with these critical skills, and most enter the world hopelessly unprepared to make sense out of anything, let alone history.  The emphasis on multiple intelligences, self-esteem, and personal worth have given logic, discipline, and rigor a pass.  It is more important, today's educators say, to send a child into the world thinking positively about himself than with intellectual skills reserved for the elite.  A good person – a kind, generous, loving, and compassionate person – need not have mastered Kant, Bohr, or Wittgenstein to make the world a better place.

Critical thinking, however, is not just a matter of sorting out the what’s what of quantum theory or rationalism, but sorting fact from fiction, nonsense from likelihood, the plausible from the far-fetched.   In a country defined by hucksterism,  revivalist religion, Hollywood fantasy, carnival fakery,  political fol-de-rol, and Madison Avenue legerdemain  how is anyone who never learned the art of rational, disciplined thinking ever to choose anything wisely?

A lack of critical faculties is, of course, just what the hucksters and carny barkers want.   “There’s a sucker born every minute”, said P.T. Barnum, and he welcomed them into his Big Top with open arms. 

Abraham Lincoln did not exactly praise his countrymen when he said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time”.  Fooling people, in other words, is pretty darn easy.

What makes rational adult choice even more difficult is the nature of the Internet and social media.  Already ill-prepared to sift through information and make logical conclusions, the graduating student is faced with a bewildering environment of increasingly unverifiable facts.  There is an elegance to viral sweeps of unsubstantiated, undocumented, and unproven theories, allegations, and criticisms.   Once a cockamamie idea – attractive because of its outrageousness but possibility – gets traction, currency, and numbers, Facebook hits rise into the tens of millions.  Not only has the idea gained instant popularity but its possibility has been transformed into probability and then quickly into certainty.  If so many people believe it, says the new reader, then it must be true.

Yet even those with finely-honed critical skills fall into this same truth-in-numbers fallacy.  Tolstoy spent the better part of five decades searching for the meaning of life and the nature of God.  He studied philosophy, mathematics, history, theology, earth sciences, religion, and literature to try to glean some clue about the answer to life.  Finally, exhausted and depleted of all intellectual energy, he looked around and realized that hundreds of millions of people alive believed in God and billions had before him.  They must be on to something, he concluded, and, breathing a sigh of relief, believed.

It is in all of to believe convenient truths or especially conveniently attractive and alluring untruths; and no one is immune.

The nature of human perception and subjectivity are both natural inhibitors to the truth.  Everyone has an armoire full of conclusions assumed to have been made logically, but improbably so.  Every conclusion, no matter how rigorously arrived at, has been influenced by at least some degree of subjectivity – some personal preference or bias that has polluted  pure logic irretrievably.
Not only that, recent psychological studies have debunked the veracity of eye-witness accounts.  In experiment after experiment, different observers of the same event perceive it differently. 

Browning, Durrell, and Kurosawa all depicted the impossibility of veracity in their artistic works.  A big family Christmas dinner is the best example.  The exploits of Uncle Harry are told and retold, but never the same way twice.  Each relative remembers the incidents differently, and after the telling of many versions, Uncle Harry’s adventures are far from what he ever even imagined doing.

So the cards are stacked against the truth.  In school we never acquire the critical skills needed to sort fact from fiction.  We are  genetically programmed to have trouble with perceptual accuracy.  We live in a country which puts more of a premium on image, fantasy, and unreality than on hard, cold, facts; we spend hours of the day in a virtual universe where viral truths replace real ones; and we are surrounded by smart, savvy snake-oil salesmen, preachers, and politicians ready to bilk us out of our hard-earned money at every turn.

It gets worse.  Not only have we not been schooled in critical thinking; and not only do we roll over when we hear the first tempting claim; but  illogical thinking is confounded by darker, psychological and social factors which give irrationality an ugly and often dangerous turn. 

Conspiracy theories are borne out of the same inadequate education, faulty perceptual framework, and competitive illusoriness of American society that act on on all of us; but are fueled by anger, frustration, hostility, and perceived alienation.   Not only do conspiracy theorists believe the most implausible untruths – the Trilateral Commission, the World Jewish Cabal, the psycho-active powers of fluoridation, government plots to spread AIDS among restive minorities, and the complicity of the United States in 9/11.

There are just as many Americans who believe in aliens, the coming of Armageddon within their lifetimes, the incineration of Earth by rogue asteroids, an imminent invasion of lizard people, the extraterrestrial nature of Adam and Eve, and the faked moon landings.   These beliefs, although arising from the same determining factors as any other, are amusing but benign.  When fueled by virulent hatred, abuse, and psychological torment political and social conspiracy theories become dangerous. 

In other words, the current attention paid to fake news is just a media party.  We are a whole country of fake everything and are programmed by both nature and nurture to see things the way we want to see them, not the way we are.

So, logic, discipline, and the intellectual rigor of Max Planck, Allan Turing, or Heisenberg can help to dispel some untruths, lies, and fabrications but never all of them.  Heisenberg himself posited that although one can predict the location of a subatomic particle, one can never know its speed; and vice-versa.  There was no such thing as absolute reality, only probability.

The moral of the story? Sort through what you can but accept that half of what you conclude is wrong, misleading, untruthful, or at best confusingly inaccurate, and feel no guilt about your errors.  We humans can’t help falling for the wrong women, aphrodisiacs, fast cars, and the uniqueness of our children.  Worst – or best – of all, we are convinced that we are right in our choices.

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