Our national scourge of misinformation
WASHINGTON — Impulse control is unfashionable as well as unpresidential, but perhaps you should resist the urge to trip people who stride briskly down the sidewalk fixated on their phone screens, absorbed in texting and feeling entitled to expect others to make way. New technologies are shaping behaviors and dissolving civilities.
In 2005, Lynne Truss, in her book “Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door,” presciently said we were slouching into “an age of social autism” with a “Universal Eff-off Reflex.” Long before progress, understood as streaming, brought us binge watching, she foresaw people entertaining themselves into inanition with portable technologies that enable “limitless self-absorption,” making people solipsistic and unmannerly. Truss foresaw an age of “hair-trigger sensitivity” and “lazy moral relativism combined with aggressive social insolence.” This was 12 years before some Wellesley College professors said, last month, that inviting controversial, aka conservative, speakers to campus injures students by forcing them to “invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments.”
In the latest issue of The American Interest, the Hudson Institute’s Carolyn Stewart, revisiting Truss’ book, wonders, “What is it about social media that compels us to throw off the gloves?” Stewart notes that, as Truss anticipated, people “have taken an expectation that previously applied to the private sphere — control over our environment — and are increasingly applying it to the public sphere.” Social media’s “self-affirming feedback loop” encourages “expectations for a custom-made reality” and indignation about anything “that deviates from our preferences.”
The consequences of what Stewart calls “our growing intolerance of an unedited reality” are enumerated in Tom Nichols’ new book “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.” Our devices and social media are, he says, producing people who confuse “internet grazing” with research and this faux research with higher education, defined by a wit as “those magical seven years between high school and your first warehouse job.” Years when students demand to run institutions that the students insist should treat them as fragile children.
“It is,” Nichols writes, “a new Declaration of Independence: No longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other.” In the movie “Animal House,” when the epically unruly fraternity is hauled before the student court, the fraternity’s member who is going to defend it, when asked by a fellow member if he knows what he is doing, replies, “Take it easy, I’m pre-law.” When someone says, “I thought you were pre-med,” he replies, “What’s the difference?” What indeed.
In today’s therapeutic culture, which seems designed to validate every opinion and feeling, there will rarely be disagreement without anger between thin-skinned people who cannot distinguish the phrase “you’re wrong” from “you’re stupid.” Equating “critical thinking” with “relentless criticism” results in worse than the indiscriminate rejection not merely of this or that expert. Nichols says this equation produces “a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden” disdain for even the ideal of expertise. This ideal becomes an affront in a culture that “cannot endure even the slightest hint of inequality of any kind.” Unfortunately, Nichols tartly notes, “specialization is necessarily exclusive.”
And aren’t we glad: “When you take an elevator to the top of a tall building, the certificate in the elevator does not say ‘good luck up there’; it says that a civic authority, relying on engineers educated and examined by other engineers, have looked at that box and know, with as much certainty as anyone can, that you’ll be safe.”
The “spreading epidemic of misinformation,” nowadays known as “alternative facts,” gives rise to a corollary to Gresham’s Law (“bad money drives out good”): “misinformation pushes aside knowledge.” Everyone with a smartphone has in his or her pocket, Nichols says, more information “than ever existed in the entire Library of Alexandria,” which can produce a self-deluding veneer of erudition.
Nichols recounts an old joke about a British Foreign Office official who retired after 40 years: “Every morning I went to the prime minister and assured him there would be no world war today. And I am pleased to note that in a career of 40 years, I was only wrong twice.” This official deserved an A grade, like everyone else.