Tag Archives: Facts

A Different Kind Of Weapon

A story about the recent Santa Fe school shooting highlighted what worries me most of all about America’s future–not to mention humanity’s–and our ability to engage in fact-based, rational discussion and debate.

In the first hours after the Texas school shooting that left at least 10 dead Friday, online hoaxers moved quickly to spread a viral lie, creating fake Facebook accounts with the suspected shooter’s name and a doctored photo showing him wearing a “Hillary 2016” hat.

Several were swiftly flagged by users and deleted by the social network. But others rose rapidly in their place: Chris Sampson, a disinformation analyst for a counterterrorism think tank, saidhe could see new fakes as they were being created and filled out with false information, including images linking the suspect to the anti-fascist group Antifa.

The immediacy and reach of the disinformation about gun violence are nothing new, nor is this tactic limited to the gun debate–and that’s the problem.

Thanks to technology, we are marinating in propaganda and falsehood–weapons that are ultimately far more powerful than assault rifles.

There have always been efforts to mislead the gullible, to confirm the suspicions of cynics and the certainties of ideologues. No matter how diligently we try not to indulge in confirmation bias, most of us are susceptible to the “facts” that have been slanted in a direction we’re predisposed to accept. But we have never seen anything like the onslaught of utter fabrication that has been made possible by our new communication mediums, and the result is beginning to emerge: Americans are increasingly distrustful of all information.

We don’t know who or what to believe, so we suspend belief altogether.

When people occupy incommensurate realities, they can’t communicate with each other. The one thing Donald Trump does understand–and unfortunately, it is the only thing he appears to understand–is that lies and “alternate” facts undermine citizens’ ability to make decisions based in reality. Thus his attacks on the “fake” news media and his assertions of “achievements” that exist only in the precincts of his grandiose imagining.

The effectiveness of this technique of cultivating uncertainty was prominently displayed during the so-called “tobacco wars,” when flacks for the tobacco industry realized that a frontal attack on medical reports linking smoking to cancer were doomed, but that efforts to muddy the waters–to suggest that the “jury was still out”–could be very effective. If the attack was on the reliability of science, the public would discount it, but if the message was “scientists still aren’t sure,” people who wanted to be fair–and those who wanted to keep smoking– would withhold judgment.

That same tactic has been used–very effectively–by fossil fuel interests to undermine settled science on the reality and causes of climate change.

The problem is that people of good will–and, of course, those who are not so well-intentioned–no longer know what to believe. What is factual, and what is self-serving bullshit? And how do we tell the difference?

 Unless we can address this issue–unless we can reclaim the ability to determine what is fact and what is fiction, what is credible evidence and what is “disinformation”– humanity is in a world of hurt.

Why Trust Matters

In 2009, I wrote a book titled Distrust, American Style. In it, I looked at the issue of trust through the lens of social capital scholarship. Trust and reciprocity are essential to social capital–and especially to the creation of “bridging” social capital, the relationships that allow us to connect with and value people different from ourselves.

I didn’t address an issue that I now see as critical: the intentional production of distrust.

Today’s propagandists learned a valuable tactic from Big Tobacco. For many years, as health professionals insisted that smoking was harmful, Big Tobacco responded brilliantly. Rather than flatly disputing the validity of the claim, a response that would have invited people to take sides and decide who they trusted, their doctors or tobacco manufacturers,  they trotted out their own well-paid “scientists” to claim that the research was still inconclusive, that “we just don’t know what medical science will ultimately conclude.”

In other words, they sowed confusion–while giving people who didn’t want to believe that smoking was harmful something to hang their hat on. If “we don’t really know…,” then why  stop smoking? Just wait for a definitive answer.

It is a tactic that has since been adopted by several interest groups, most notably the fossil fuel industry. Recognizing that– as ice shelves melted and oceans rose– few would believe a flat denial that climate change is real and occurring, they focused their disinformation efforts on creating confusion about what was causing the globe to warm. Thus their insistence that the scientific “jury” was still out, that the changes visible to everyone might be part of natural historical cycles, and especially that there wasn’t really consensus among climate scientists. (Ninety-seven percent isn’t everyone!)

The goal was to sow doubt among all us non-scientists. Who and what should we believe?

Now, as information about Russia’s interference with the 2016 election is emerging, it is becoming apparent that Russian operatives, too, made effective use of that strategy. In addition to exacerbating American racial and religious divisions, Russian bots relentlessly cast doubt on the accuracy of traditional media reporting. Taking a cue from Sarah Palin and her ilk, they portrayed the “lamestream” media as a cesspool of liberal bias.

In fact, the GOP’s right wing has been employing this tactic for years–through Fox, Hannity, Limbaugh and a variety of others, the Republican party has engaged in a steady attack on the very notion of objective fact. That attack reached its apogee with Donald Trump’s insistence that any reporting he doesn’t like is “Fake News.”

Both the Republican and Democratic bases have embraced the belief that inconvenient facts are simply untrue, that reality is whatever they choose to believe. (Granted, this is far more prevalent on the Right, but there’s plenty of evidence that the fringe Left does the same thing.)

The rest of us are left in an uncomfortable gray area, increasingly unsure of the veracity of the items that fill our Facebook and Twitter feeds. It’s bad enough that years of Republican propaganda have convinced the GOP base that credible outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post have “libtard agendas,” but thanks to the explosion of new media outlets made possible by the Internet, even those of us who are trying to access accurate, objective reporting are inundated with “news” from unfamiliar sources, many of which are reliable and many of which are not. The result is insecurity–is this true? Has that been report verified? By whom? What should I believe? Who can I trust?

Zealots don’t worry about the accuracy of the information they act on, but rational people who distrust their facts tend to be paralyzed.

And that, of course, is the goal.

 

 

 

When Evidence Isn’t Reliable

How do we know what we know? Who can we trust?

It’s bad enough that an American President constantly attacks reputable sources of information; when Trump asserts that reports unflattering to him are “fake news,” those assertions join–and bolster– widely-held doubts about the reliability of contemporary media. Those doubts are understandable; it is increasingly difficult to separate out the conspiracy-theory websites from legitimate digital newcomers, to recognize and discount sources trafficking in spin and outright propaganda, and even to distinguish between objective reporting and satire.

The unremitting assault on fact, on objective reality, makes the reliability of the information we get from government agencies more important than ever. When Scott Pruitt scrubs accurate science from the EPA website, he does more than degrade our efforts to protect the environment–he adds to the Alice-In-Wonderland nature of our shared reality.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just Scott Pruitt. The problem isn’t even limited to the Trump cabinet.

According to the Guardian (a very reputable source)

Over half of all police killings in 2015 were wrongly classified as not having been the result of interactions with officers, a new Harvard study based on Guardian data has found.

The finding is just the latest to show government databases seriously undercounting the number of people killed by police.

“Right now the data quality is bad and unacceptable,” said lead researcher Justin Feldman. “To effectively address the problem of law enforcement-related deaths, the public needs better data about who is being killed, where, and under what circumstances.”

This article underscores the importance of good journalism–the Harvard study used data compiled in the Guardian’s investigative reporting. It also illustrates the consequences of relying upon bad data.

Feldman used data from the Guardian’s 2015 investigation into police killings, The Counted, and compared it with data from the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS). That dataset, which is kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was found to have misclassified 55.2% of all police killings, with the errors occurring disproportionately in low-income jurisdictions.

“As with any public health outcome or exposure, the only way to understand the magnitude of the problem, and whether it is getting better or worse, requires that data be uniformly, validly, and reliably obtained throughout the US,” said Nancy Krieger, professor of social epidemiology at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health and senior author of the study. “Our results show our country is falling short of accurately monitoring deaths due to law enforcement and work is needed to remedy this problem.”

Interestingly, the researchers found that the accuracy of the data varied wildly by state, “with just 17.6% misclassification in Washington, but a startling 100% in Oklahoma.”

In 2015 the Guardian launched The Counted, an interactive, crowdsourced database attempting to track police killings throughout the US. The project was intended to help remedy the lack of reliable data on police killings, a lack that became especially visible after the 2014 unrest in Ferguson put policing in the national spotlight.

Other federal databases, including the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) arrest-related death count and the FBI’s supplementary homicide reports were similarly criticised for severely undercounting police-related deaths. Both programs have been dramatically reworked since The Counted and similar media/open source databases forced officials such as the former FBI director James Comey to admit that newspapers had more accurate data than the government on police violence.

To state the obvious, policymakers cannot craft good laws or regulations in the absence of sound data. Citizens confronted with experiences at odds with government’s descriptions lose confidence in that government. Discrepancies between reality and government reporting feed conspiracy theories.

When we don’t know what we know, we cannot act.

Other than patronizing news sites we know to be trustworthy, there’s not much we can do about the proliferating media wannabes spouting fantasies and disinformation. But we should be able to insist that government agencies charged with compiling and disseminating factual data do so accurately. We aren’t likely to get that done in the Age of Trumpian Fantasy, but when the time comes to clean up the incredible chaos he is creating, a commitment to accurate data collection by government should be high on our cleanup list.

Confirmation Bias on Steroids

Ralph Reed is currently chairman and founder of the aggressively Christian Faith and Freedom Coalition. He says the 11-year-old recordings of Trump bragging that as a “star,” he could engage in sexual assaults with impunity are “ancient,” and do not change his view of the businessman.”Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson, who also backs Trump, said evangelical leaders frustrated with Trump’s controversies need to “lighten up.”

I guess boys will be boys. (Even when they’re 59, as Trump was at the time the tape was recorded.)

Although a number of Republicans have distanced themselves–once again–from Trump’s language and behavior, only a few have withdrawn their endorsements, and he and his most ardent supporters have retreated to the time-honored tactic of 12-year-olds everywhere: “The Clintons are worse!”

Will this latest eruption by the real Donald Trump be enough to cut into Trump’s base of support? Probably not. They live in cocoons impervious to unwanted facts.

I’ll admit to visiting 538.com–Nate Silver’s blog–on a more than daily basis during this nerve-wracking and bizarre Presidential campaign. On a recent visit, a post by Carl Bialik discussed a new study about how and where Americans get our information — and how  our political beliefs affect whether we believe what we read.

Among the findings: About 6 in 10 report being better informed than they were five years ago. One possibility, though, is that our fractured media environment means more Americans are convinced that they are more informed while at the same time retreating into their silos.

Short version: what people believe they know may or may not be accurate. The post reminded me of similar, sobering conclusions reached by Aaron Dusso, a young colleague who is part of the academic “team” at the Center for Civic Literacy.

“While the goal of better education is laudable, as a remedy to the problem of civic ignorance it presupposes that the cause of this problem is a lack of exposure to information. In other words, if people only knew the facts, they would think and behave differently. The problem with this belief is that, at best, it is only partially true. Research in psychology has routinely shown that people do not engage the world with an open mind. They actively avoid information that may contradict what they already believe, interpret ambiguous information so as to fit with their existing beliefs; rationalize and actively reject disconfirming information; are biased when retrieving information from memory; overestimate how much others agree with them; and assume others are more influenced by media than they are.”

A recent post by Juanita Jean provides a perfect–and incredibly depressing– example of the phenomenon.

I have an acquaintance who is a Facebook Republican. She is a sweet woman and claims to be a Christian, but this is what the cult of Donald Trump is doing to people. I sent her a note this morning that I was going to turn off her feed on my Facebook page until after the election because this crap is unforgivable.

That paragraph was followed by screen shots of tweets sent by the “sweet woman,” a Trump supporter. The first one purported to be a story about Senator Tim Kaine’s “open marriage” and how his “creepiness” was scaring women voters away from Hillary and to Trump. When Juanita responded with a link to Snopes, confirming that the information was false, the “sweet woman” responded with “He looks like a perv. And I just read that Snopes is run by Hillary supporters.”

Translation: if reputable sources–fact-checkers, mainstream media, scientists, experts in a field– provide information inconsistent with my preferred beliefs, they can’t really be reputable.

We’re doomed.

Faux History For God

I’ve often repeated Pat Moynahan’s famous adage: we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.

I stand corrected.

In Texas (where else?), “educators” unsatisfied with actual American history have responded by creating their own. Because God.

Did you have any idea that our first President believed that government required God and the Bible in order to function? And are you familiar with the following quote from President Ronald Reagan? “Within the covers of the Bible are the answers for all the problems men face.”  Chances are you haven’t heard of either of these – because they’re both fiction. George Washington is better categorized as a Deist (rather than a traditional Christian), and Reagan never made such a statement about the Bible.

It’s part of a strange indoctrination strategy at a small school district in eastern Texas. On the walls of the school hallways and classrooms are many such alleged “passages” from the Bible and “statements” attributed to prominent figures in American history that all are inaccurate, misquoted, taken out of context, and even made up out of whole cloth.

The school’s practice of inventing “suitably” pious quotations with which to indoctrinate children came to light after a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation challenged the quotations.  According to the organization’s attorney Samuel Grover:

“The district cannot even fall back on the argument that these quotes have educational merit, given the many examples of misquotes, misattributions, and entirely fraudulent quotes displayed on its walls…The district sets a poor example for its students if it cannot be bothered to fact check the messages it chooses to endorse.”

With all due respect, I don’t think the problem was “failure to fact check.” I think the problem was the readiness of dishonest people to invent a history that would be more consistent with their religious preferences than that pesky thing called reality….

I guess they missed that place in the Ten Commandments about “bearing false witness.”