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 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, 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.”

“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 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.”

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.”

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.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Opinion

Letters: District wrong to ban charter schools from showcase
Letters: District wrong to ban charter schools from showcase

The Palm Beach County School District’s war on charter schools took a shameful turn when the school district banned charter schools from their annual “Showcase of Schools.” (District Bans Charter School From Showcase, Wednesday) Being prevented from participating in the event, which highlights a variety of specialized classes available...
Editorial: Throngs, snarls attest to economic disparities around us
Editorial: Throngs, snarls attest to economic disparities around us

Like the way that winds can blow off a roof to expose the contents of a house, a disaster like Hurricane Irma can rip through a community and show us what’s within. We got such a peeled-back view over the last few days as thousands upon thousands of people lined up at three designated parks in Palm Beach County to receive short-term food assistance...
POINT OF VIEW: Protect Florida from illegal hotel operators

All Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association lodging members must register with the state, collect taxes, and protect Florida consumers through adequate insurance — rules that prevent substandard operators from exposing travelers and residents to senseless risk and gaining unfair advantages in the marketplace. Unfortunately, the same does not...
Commentary: Focus on real issue behind NFL protests: racial injustice
Commentary: Focus on real issue behind NFL protests: racial injustice

Editor’s note: A version of this column originally appeared in The Palm Beach Post’s Opinion Zone blog on Sept. 28. UPDATE: In the weeks following the blog post, discussion has increasingly returned to the original reason for the anthem protests — calling attention to racial injustice, and a rash police shootings of unarmed black...
Palm Beach Post editorial cartoon: Oct. 22
Palm Beach Post editorial cartoon: Oct. 22

CARTOON VIEW DAVID HORSEY
More Stories