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Monday, December 28, 2020

Review: Post-Truth

 Mike Sojka recommended Post-Truth as a quick short read that explains the Trump era. It is indeed a quick read and covers many topics of interest to current events, tying them together in ways that I've never seen before.

The book was published in 2018, so it covers the events of the 2016 election, but predates the existence of COVID19. McIntyre points out that the era of news being supposed to be accurate is actually an anamoly:

for most of its history the news media has been partisan. Pamphlets were political. Newspapers had owners with business interests and other biases. Indeed, has this ever really changed? Yet we feel entitled to objectivity and are shocked when our news sources do not provide it. But have we been supporting this expectation of fact-based nonpartisan coverage with our dollars? Or really—before the election woke us up—even paid close attention to what was being lost? It is easy to blame technology and claim that “these days it is different.” But technology has always had a role in fake news. (Kindle Loc 1540)

 He points out that the blatant lies being told by the Republican side isn't about misinformation per se:

the goal of propaganda is to build allegiance.42 The point is not to communicate information but to get us to “pick a team.”43 To the extent that Trump is using some of the classic techniques of propaganda (stirring up emotions, denigrating critics, scapegoating, seeking division, and fabricating), Stanley warns that we may be headed down the path of authoritarian politics. The goal of propaganda is not to convince someone that you are right, but to demonstrate that you have authority over the truth itself. When a political leader is really powerful, he or she can defy reality. This may sound incredible, but it is not the first time we have heard echoes of this even within American politics. Remember when Karl Rove dismissed critics of the George W. Bush administration as part of the “reality-based community”? Rove then followed up with the memorable (and chilling) observation that “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. (Kinde Loc. 1639)

McIntyre also traces the history of how the media fell into the trap set by the conservatives, by  giving equal time on the air to both sides as though there's any legitimacy to the anti-science movement (intelligent design, anti-vax, and now public health):

it serves the interest of those who are engaging in deception to succumb to the idea of false equivalence. When we say “a pox on all your houses” we are playing right into the hands of those who would have us believe that there is no such thing as truth. (Kindle loc 1693)

He even tracks back the post-truth era to the post-modernist attack on science in the form of science wars. Now, my personal belief is that the scientists won a resounding victory in the science wars after Alan Sokal definitively showed that post-modernist criticism is intellectual garbage, but the techniques used by the post-modernists were then quickly adopted by the right wing in its approach to confusing the public about "Intelligent Design" and then later on, the Anti-Vax movement.

Is there any hope of exiting the post-Truth era back to an environment in which truth is valued and there's a shared understanding of facts? McIntyre offers some hope:

The media stopped telling “both sides of the story” about vaccines and autism once there was a measles outbreak in fourteen states in 2015. All of a sudden, the facts of Wakefield’s fraud made better copy. One could almost see the TV hosts’ anxiety over their earlier complicity. Overnight, there were no more split-screen TV debates between experts and skeptics. False equivalence no longer seemed like such a good idea once people started getting hurt. (Kindle Loc 2436)

 empirical evidence suggests that the repetition of true facts does eventually have an effect. Recall here the research of David Redlawsk et al., which we briefly discussed in chapter 3.8 In the subtitle of their paper, they ask the pertinent question, “do motivated reasoners ever get it?” They acknowledge the work of Nyhan, Reifler, and others who have shown that those in the grips of partisan bias are strongly motivated to reject evidence that is dissonant with their beliefs, sometimes even leading to a “backfire effect.” But are there any limits to this?...although misinformed beliefs can be quite stubborn, it is possible to change partisans’ minds when one “hits them between the eyes” over and over with factually correct information.11 It may not be easy to convince people with inconvenient facts, but it is apparently possible. (Kindle Loc 2452-2465)

Unfortunately, as noted above, this book was written pre-COVID.  In the light of recent news reports about how COVID19 patients deny the existence of the coronovirus right until death, I'm not nearly as optimistic as McIntyre is. But at the very least, McIntyre points out that you cannot allow a lie to persist unchallenged, and that's something we need to do more of. It seems that Randall  Munroe was right after all:

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