Tag Archives: misinformation

A Theory of the Flourishing of Ignorance

“When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!”            –Alice in Wonderland

Any thoughtful person looking at our peculiar times can’t help but wonder why the willful acceptance of misinformation is so pervasive. In an era when the ease of researching anything is easy, and credible news sources are just a click away, it is a puzzle to understand why so many are flying blind with their own preferred fantasies.  Most of us know the common markers of self deception heard all around us: covid vaccines are very dangerous; “the government” is using them to take away our freedoms; progressives are Nazis or “communists;” there is a concerted “war on Christmas;” voter fraud is widespread; university teachers indoctrinate their students; and that was just a “party” in the Capitol on January 6, not an insurrection.  These kinds of fictions keep surfacing. Nearly all of these claims are provably false, using accepted means for verifying facts and applying common tests of source credibility.  How do people stay in their own bubble?

It’s Now Easy to Live in an Information Desert 

An admittedly oversimplified but compelling explanation hints at part of the cause.  In a nutshell, we no longer give sufficient time to comprehensive news sources that were common even fifteen years ago. Instead, we cherry-pick news about just a few stories, choosing sources more for conformation than information.  A result is that we are poorly informed or unaware of what the best evidence shows in a given instance.

The reason this is so easily was made clear to me on a recent trip where, for days, my only source of news was television. None of the three hotels where I stayed had a newspaper available.  And their WI-FI access was predictably spotty. Typically, even good television news shows cover only a few stories.  Frequently, as with the collapse of the condominium on Collins Avenue in South Florida, one story dominates. Cable news especially has a hard time juggling a complex news agenda, even though they have capable reporters that are ready for calls from producers that often never come. A single story formula tagged as “breaking news” seems to be a ratings winner.

A good newspaper forces closed minds to open, at least a little.

This matters, because cable and internet news has largely replaced much more diverse city newspapers that still existed until a few years ago. Newspapers carried various stories from the AP, perhaps Reuters or and AFP, as well as the paper’s local reporters and other specialized news services.  Even a middling city paper offered a daily window on the world.  And a very good one, like the New York Times, forces closed minds to open.  For example, on the day I started writing this, just the first page of the Times featured 18 different news items, including a photo story of an ICU staff trying out a new treatment to save a dying covid patient. The image of medical staff hovering over a patient suggested a valiant effort to find a medical off-ramp just short of death. True, readers still chose what they wanted to read. But its hard to miss conclusive and myth-busing headlines.  What would that front-page picture say to an anti-vaxxer?

In addition, news consumers are not tied to the linear and and narrower stories of cable and broadcast news outlets. Video edits for the viewer, one story doled out at a time at the pathetic oral rate of about 200 words a minute. By contrast, print lets the reader decide from a much broader palette of stories. In addition, Americans were once better informed partly because news services and many newspapers had a financial interest in doing straight news.  Commentary may work for the increasing tribal cable networks, but not for a news service like the Associated Press, which needs neutrality to satisfy its very different subscribers.

Misinformation by the Truckload

It’s now an old and sad story that news readership is on life support.  Some papers have survived, but with far fewer reporters.  Whether it is the Allentown Daily Call or the New York Daily News, staffs that remain now sit in a sea of empty desks.  The rationale of the earnings-driven owners is that younger Americans aren’t newspaper readers, which is sadly true. But it is a mistake to assume that younger Americans have thrown in the towel on credible news stories.  And yet the major internet giants like Google aren’t much help. They aren’t journalists, and they aren’t very good at aggregating stories for the collective good. Their selections are mostly governed by algorithms rather than solid reporting.  In truth, neither CNN’s Jeff Zucker or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg would cut it in the journalistic worlds once occupied by Fred Friendly, David Halberstam, Janet Malcolm, David Carr or Ben Bradlee.  These latter-day giants would have seen through the charade of one-note news, as well as the price it exacts from an increasingly distracted public.

Defiantly Out of Touch

[This 2016 post seems as relevant today as when it was written. Even with a few updates, it is still true that willful ignorance has become a form of political life.]

In his sobering 1989 study, Democracy Without Citizens, Robert Entman dwelt on the irony of living in an information-rich age with huge numbers of badly informed citizens.  There is a rich paradox to a culture where most have a virtual library available on any digital device, and yet would struggle to pass a third grade civics test.  According to the Annenberg Policy Center only one in three Americans can name our three branches of government. And only the same lone third could identify the party that controls each of the two houses of Congress.  Fully a fifth of their sample thought that close decisions in the Supreme Court were sent to Congress to be settled.

Add in the dismal results of map literacy tests of high school and college students (“Where is Africa?,”  “Identify your city on this map”), and we have just a few markers of a failed information society.

Many seem comfortable living without even an elementary understanding of the world they “know.” 

As Entman notes, “computer and communication technology has enhanced the ability to obtain and transmit information rapidly and accurately,” but “the public’s knowledge of facts or reality have actually deteriorated.”  The result is “more political fantasy and myth transmitted by the very same news media.” We seem to live comfortably without even elementary understandings of the complex world we live in.

This condition is sometimes identified as a feature of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a peculiarly distressing form of functional ignorance  observed by two Cornell psychologists.  Many of us seem not to be bothered by what we don’t know, overestimating our knowledge.  Dunning and Kruger found that “incompetent” individuals (those falling into the lowest quarter of knowledge on a subject) often failed to recognize their own lack of skill, failed to recognize the extent to which they were misinformed, and did not to accurately gauge the skills of others.  If you have an Uncle Fred who is certain that the President Obama was a Muslim who was born in Kenya, you have an idea of what kind of willful ignorance this represents.

Circumferance of the unknownThink of this pattern in an inverted sense: from the perspective of individuals who truly know what they are talking about.  For even the well-informed, the more they know about a subject, the larger the circumference of the borderlands that delineate the unknown.  That’s why those who have mastered a subject area are often the most humble about their expertise: their expanded understanding of a field gives them a sense of what they still don’t know.

The key factor here is our distraction by all forms of media—everything from texting to empty-headed television programming—that leaves us with little available time to be contributing members of the community.   When the norm is checking our phones over 200 times a day, we have perhaps reached a tipping point where we have no time left to notice our own informational black holes.

With regard to the basics of membership in a society, the idea of citizenship should mean more.  In most elections cycles easily half of eligible voters will not bother to vote.  And even more will have no interest in learning about the candidates who want to represent them in Congress or their local legislatures.  Worst still, this has happened at a time when a President and many others have been captured by a reality-show logic that substitutes melodrama for more sober discussions of policy and governing best practices.  Put It altogether and too many of us don’t want notice that we have been captured by fantasies rather than truths.