So the Problem is Social Media?

I had an interesting discussion last night about what has driven our fact free world or more specifically alternate realities depending on how you pick your facts. The gist of my protagonist’s argument was that being awash in media, and especially social media is driving the spread of false narratives and fake news, and once it is out there it spreads so fast that you can’t put it back in the bottle with real facts and data. Now that is certainly true, but I think it is an effect, not a cause, multiplied by technology. I have all kinds of technology, I get news 24/7, yet I seemed to be able to navigate the junk just fine.

I think in some ways this is generational. I was raised in a time when science and accepted research were respected. There were, certainly, a lot fewer narratives to choose from, and I did not think my teachers, whether they taught science, history, or English were just given their opinion on things. Now everything can be questioned and good grammar apparently is in the eye of the beholder? Questioning things is good, but I think we have unleashed a monster in those that neither understand the psychology of the self, or true critical thinking.

Let’s start with the psychology of the self as I like to call it. That is our tendency to decide things from the gut, and pick and choose facts/stories based upon what we want to believe. When I was a young boy, I learned the scientific method. It was based upon removing those biases from the analysis through a systematic application of rules. As I became a young man, I learned what it meant to really know something, not just a feeling or a wish, but to know it. The second part of this and probably closely related is critical thinking. I hear something I want to believe, that supports some wacky idea I have, but is it true? What is the source? What are other interpretations of events.

Let’s take my insistence that President DFF colluded with the Russians, tried to suppress the investigation, and is an ignorant racist. Start with racist. Define what that means because if you are going to have an argument about whether he is, both of you better have the same definition. My definition is simple, he stereotypes various groups, and he favors white people (or discriminates in policy and actions against people of color). I believe based upon his own word and actions, it is quite clear he is a racist. But the argument you might have with someone who disagreed would be around do we have facts or data so support that definition. And we have tons of it.

Ignorant is easy to prove once you understand it means lack of knowledge. He is clueless as he has demonstrated with his myriad of false statements about any number of things, including immigrants, white racists, guns, etc. His interpretation of history boggles historical fact. Next up, has he tried to obstruct the investigation into the Russia incursion? Again the data is overwhelming and the argument that this is just what he was used to in his real estate world falls apart a year later and he is still at it. Did he collude? On that one we simply don’t know yet. Somebody did. One can make a reasonable assumption based upon his actions that he is covering up something, but right now that is just an opinion. See the difference? I cannot connect the dots on the last one, except the number of dots left to connect are getting fewer. Mueller will do that one and probably find that the hold on President DFF is his money laundering of Russian money that his whole family was involved in. Again I am simply connecting dots we have, but I don’t know it yet.

So in this world of massive information, how do you pick out fact and fantasy and how do you avoid labeling things you don’t want to believe fake news? In the end, I don’t think anything has changed really other than if you want to create an echo chamber of your beliefs it is certainly easy to do these days because you can pick a million sources of information and close out those that are not convenient. But man used to believe amazing nonsense about gods and magic and when it turned out not be an effective way to survive in the world, we got science, so too will this happen now. More on that in a minute.

Certainly we need to do a better job of teaching critical thinking in schools. That is an up hill battle because it challenges a lot of local religious beliefs (if you apply it to religion which schools scrupulously avoid, but spill over is unavoidable, you start questioning faith, Heresy!). Religious thinking in and of itself lends to the whole psychology of believing something you want to believe without critical examination. It is called faith. In the modern world we tried to separate religious thinking from secular rationalism (The Enlightenment), but as you can see in today’s Republicans, faith-based ideology (markets are always best, flow down works, tax cuts are always good, to solve gun violence we need more guns, and big government is always bad) has taken over rational analysis. Certainly we need to teach what it is to really know something (models, testing, and examining conflicting data) and that we are programmed to self-select what we want to believe. If we had that knowledge and tools, social media would be ineffective in swaying our opinion.

In the end what really changes people is when their ideas fail and they personally suffer for those beliefs. I would argue that conservatives have just about everything wrong, with a small element of truth buried in there somewhere (like self-discipline is good and we do need to hold people accountable, but only if it is a level playing field). The people in the rust belt who are all gung-ho right now on tariffs think they will get their jobs back. They won’t (See Trade, Tariffs, and North Korea). The tax cut won’t bring rising wages or a fair share in profits earned because of their increase in productivity. Building a wall and making America unfriendly to immigrants will stifle our economy. Cutting regulations will stimulate some business, but we may find that the world we then inhabit is uninhabitable (think about the Lesser Depression in 2008). Believing global warming is a hoax will leave us unprepared for the future. There is a ton of data out there to show these are all fool’s errands.

I think this is starting play out. While Democrats (myself included) salivate for Mueller to save us, what will really save us is to examine the world we live in, the changes that are happening, and come up with a plan based upon a rational analysis of the best way forward. So far, except for Bernie and Elizabeth Warren, Democrats are floundering. But there is hope all around the country as new young people challenge the status quo that Republicans represent, and Democrats fail to challenge. The old ways are failing, we all know it, and that was the impetus to the last election. It will also be the impetus to the next one and maybe this time we have learned our lesson about an ignorant, racist, nativist approach to our future. Maybe those basic values that established the Constitution and what made us exceptional (diversity and an equal chance to succeed) will rise again. Maybe.

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