Isn’t Receptivity for Fake News in Our Genes?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 29, 2016

When we are very young our parents convince us to believe in Santa Claus, The Tooth Fairy and The Easter Bunny. We grow up believing in Super Heroes, Harry Potter like magic, and far out science fictional ideas. We are taken to churches and taught to believe in Jesus, God, angels, heaven, hell and eternal life. All of these beliefs are easily disproved with a good education. And when we want to keep these fantasies rather than accept reality, we learn denialism. Even our favorite adult art forms – television, movies and novels depend on us suspending rational thinking to enjoy.

Orson WellesWe are conditioned to believe in fantasies. Most people aren’t atheists because they can’t throw off their childhood brainwashing even when there’s amble evidence. And all the fantastic ideas we embrace are so much more appealing than the cold facts of reality. Is it any wonder we find it easier to rationalize what we want than to be rational thinkers able to discern fake news from validated facts? Homo sapiens aren’t rational creatures, but rationalizing ones.

Strangely, fake news is in the news like its something new. The Onion and Saturday Night Live have been doing fake news for decades (1988, 1975). Tabloids go back much further, but even the earliest of newspapers played fast and loose in their reporting. It’s also well established that first person testimony is unreliable. We all live in a sea of lies, so is it such a surprise we can’t tell shit from Shinola?

The Bible is promoted as the literal word of God by many, yet it only takes reading the book itself to reveal it was written by all too human people, expressing widely divergent opinions and philosophies, using different writing styles and points-of-views, and often showing contradictions and inconsistencies. And scholars of history, who study The Bible in-depth, have found parts of it to be fake history. Many books of The Old Testament appear to have been written to pre-date land claims in building of an ancient nation. And books in the New Testament were forged to shape Christian theology based on personal bias. To compound the many false aspects of The Bible, many thousands of books have been written to rationalize those falsities. Anyone who reads The Bible should at least get a scholarly study Bible, like The New Oxford Annotated Bible, and read what experts have to say along with the currently best translation of the oldest biblical texts we have. It would also help to read books about the history of The Bible before starting any serious Bible study, such as The Bible Unearthed or Who Wrote the Bible? to give a historical context why the The Bible was originally written, and by who. But we don’t do that, do we? We just embrace the good bits, using them to justify our current beliefs and wants, claiming “God” an an authority.

And remember that saying, “History is written by the victors,” that’s just the start of the distortion. Anyone who wants to shape current thought can write a history book. And the news media can say anything about history, as well as artists. Just look at JFK by Oliver Stone. Everyone thinks they know the truth. But reality is Rashomon 24×7. Truth is extremely elusive, unless you understand science, math and statistics, and only then it’s the best truth we can find at the moment.

How to deal with fake news is the talking-head topic of the month. Most discussions are about how to ban fake news, yet I can’t imagine a world where we can trust what we read, hear and see. Will we ban satire? Obviously we won’t ban lying politicians. Should churches have to prove the existence of eternal life before collecting tithes? Shouldn’t fantasy fiction come with the warning “Magic Does Not Exist” printed on the spine?

Fake news isn’t just those weird stories you see on Facebook. Fake news is any information you use to understand reality. I include religion because gospel means the good news. We assume its true, but isn’t it fake news too? Gossip can also be considered fake news, since it’s usually distorted. When it comes to spotting fake news, we’re piss-poor judges, and it’s everywhere.

To abolish fake news would require programming our kids to become hyperaware of lying, to think skeptically, distrust the media, history books, social institutions and other people, and carefully evaluate everything they read, see, or hear. We need to educate them about science, logic, philosophy, ethics, authority, evidence, scholarship and statistics. We’d have a wiser society if folks studied statistics and data mining every Sunday instead of going to church.

But will any of this ever happen? Didn’t Donald Trump win because of anti-intellectualism, denialism, fake news, unethicality, and mob rule social media? Doesn’t his success endorse its efficacy? Isn’t fake news an effective tool in the fight against science and enlightenment politics? Didn’t orthodox Christianity suppress liberal Christianity in the first three centuries of the common era with the same tactics? George Orwell’s classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four illustrated perfectly the value controlling the news. Aren’t the institutions of news always the first things revolutionaries take over in revolutions? Haven’t conservatives succeeded amazingly well with Fox News? Fake news is too effective to give up, especially if your objective is to get votes, change laws, or demolish reputations.

I’d like to believe we could change things for the better, but when I read history I’m not sure I see any signs of progress. I’d like to believe the pendulum swings back and forth between conservative and liberal eras, and overall we’re becoming more liberal over time. But that might be like climate change deniers taking tiny segments of temperature histories to claim a cooling trend, while ignoring the larger trend on the graph. Reading books like Collapsed by Jared Diamond suggests we don’t change. Our species has been extremely stable for a couple hundred thousand years. Evolution produces species that adapt to their environment, and we have adapted very well. But we have adapted because of the selfishness of individuals. We have not adapted because of liberal ideals. Fake news benefits the survival of the fittest individuals, not groups.


Can You Call Yourself an Expert in Any Subject?

I would think most people could call themselves master in the subject of themselves.  But do you have any topics that you feel you are an expert?  Think small when considering this unless you’re really the leading authority in a bigger subject.  For example, I might be an authority on Lady Dorothy Mills, a forgotten writer from the 1920s. 

I’ve kept a web site about Lady Mills for years trying to find anyone still interested in her work.  About once a year I get an email from someone who has run across her name and wants to know more, or has a tidbit of information for me.  I recently learned that Lady Mills has a sister in her 90s living in New Zealand, so I’m going to consider her the Master of the Topic.

Also, I’ve maintain a web site on the classics of science fiction – but there are many people interested in this topic, so maybe I’m only a scholar.  Topics are relative.  Some topics are too big to rank their specialists, like astronomy, but it might be possible to rank astronomers on a narrower topic, like studying cosmic background radiation.

From reading this essay I hope the next time you meet a person that asks you what you’re in to you can be a bit more specific than “I like music and movies.”  Think about what you like to read.  What topics perk up your ears when the television is on.  What do you like to argue about at parties.  Maybe once you think about this idea of ranking specialists you might like to specialize in a topic.

For the purposes of this essay I created a rough way to rank the levels knowledge on any topic.

Membership Levels in Knowledge of a Topic
Master 1
Authority 2 – 9
Expert 10 – 99
Scholar 100 – 999
Student 1,000 – 9,999
Amateur 10,000 – 100,000
Fan 100,001 – 1,000,000

For big academic subjects a person needs to have a Ph.D. and written widely on a particular subfield to call themselves an authority or expert.  But it’s possible to narrow your focus, say pick a dead person, or work of art, and master the topic.  For example, we might consider David McCullough the master of the topic of John Adams. 

Or I would guess Bill Patterson is the master on the topic of the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, but he might have rivals.  We have to wait and read Patterson’s first volume of Heinlein’s biography when comes out in August.  In the tempest in a teapot world of Heinlein knowledge there’s a contentious society fighting to claim authority turf.  If the going is tough at the top, it’s easier to claim a smaller peak, like Joseph T. Major did by mastering the topic of Heinlein’s juveniles with his book Heinlein’s Children.

At 58 I’m rather old to be thinking about what I want to be when I grow up, but I don’t think I’m too old to become ambitious about studying a specialized topic and trying to master it.  After my last post, Xmind Mapping LibraryThing Tags, I’ve been inspired to discover what subjects I’m the most interested in and start systematically studying them.  Hell, I could become a specialist in online library cataloging programs with not too much work. 

Everyone should have twelve topics they love at the moment.  These topics should be subjects that would thoroughly delight you to discuss at parties and around the water cooler at work.  I’m actively studying all the topics I’m interest in and want to pick twelve to consciously pursue.  The trouble is I need to narrow down my specialties.  I can say I like to read books about artificial intelligence (AI) and robots, but that’s way to big a topic other than just being a general fan. 

The other day I saw a video of a robot that solves a Rubik’s Cube in 12 seconds or less.  I wonder if the guy who built this robot is the absolute master of the topic, or if there are other robots that can do the Rubik’s Cube.  As a fantasy, I’d love to program a computer to read science fiction novels and write scholarly papers about any SF story I fed it, but that’s way too ambitious.  I might could become a scholar of robot characters in science fiction, maybe even an expert.  

Right now I’m just having fun contemplating this idea and what topics I want to pursue.  I hope to come up with a list soon.

JWH – 2/22/10

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