Yes, this long-awaited post is going to be split into two parts, and in Part I I’m going to tell you that I’m not actually going to do what I’m announcing, when it’s something I’ve already demonstrated. More on that later.
Lo, many months ago I was in a Barnes and Noble thinking about burning off a ridiculous collection of gift cards I had built up, mostly so I could enlighten myself on an issue I’ll be talking about later in the fall. I was struck by several books in the store not directly related to the topic I was looking for. In particular, I was intrigued by Farhad Manjoo’s True Enough, and impulse-bought it, and it turned out that I didn’t have as much on my gift cards (and I didn’t have as many gift cards) as I thought and I ended up actually having to spend some money that I wouldn’t have needed to spend if I’d just picked up the other three books. Oh well.
I brought up True Enough earlier in the summer in a different context, but now I want to go a little more in depth. True Enough‘s thesis is that new technologies, which are supposed (by their supporters) to make it easier to find out what the truth really is, also allow falsehoods to propagate more easily, allowing our very notion of what “the truth” is to splinter into mutually exclusive segments. If you’re a conservative blog, for example, you can link to all manner of sources (no matter how specious) that prove your points, and conveniently censor all those that prove those durn libruls’ points.
Much of what True Enough says seems rather obvious, and just restating a lot of conventional wisdom in a concise form. And it’s easy to dismiss much of what Manjoo says once you discover his background, and decide “oh, he’s just covering for the mainstream media”, especially since his longest chapter is on the media and accusations from both sides that it’s somehow biased towards the other side. (As I explain in Part II, though, having someone try to defend the mainstream media is not a bad thing.) But it’s also accompanied by the results of studies in sociology and psychology that put a lot of the American political debate in a new light and does much to explain why we are where we are.
If I had to isolate one part of it, though, that I would consider a weak spot, I would point to its ending. After six chapters of exposing how easily falsehoods can propagate in culture, and how our very perceptions of reality can splinter, after showing time and time again that there really is an objective truth that people continually ignore because it doesn’t fit their preconceptions, and showing how this creeping “truthiness” can have results ranging from insidious to disasterous, Manjoo doesn’t really offer any way to solve anything. Rather, he seems to take this as the norm, the status quo, the way things are. His epilogue says little other than “we’ve got a choice about which reality to believe” and telling us to be careful about who we trust. The book’s last words, in the context of all that has come before, are rather chilling: “Choosing means trusting some people and distrusting the rest. Choose wisely.” Nothing about how to actually solve these problems and get technology to work for us instead of against us? Nothing to streamline the path through which truth can beat out all the falsehoods running around? We just have to pick and choose who we trust, when any of them could be spreading inaccuracies at any time?
I don’t believe we have to settle. Even before I actually started reading it, True Enough had me thinking about the issues it raised, and I started thinking I would start a truth court, which would sort through all the evidence on all sides and come to a conclusion as to what the real truth was. It wouldn’t attempt to solve matters of opinion, only matters of fact. If anything, Manjoo’s book actually dissuaded me from this project by showing me just how much work it would involve. I think, however, that such a project would be important for democracy, especially if it addressed Manjoo’s issues in (among others) the following ways:
- Manjoo identifies the idea of selective exposure, the idea that we only expose ourselves to news sources that we agree with. If you’re a liberal, you’re likely to tune out when Fox News comes on, but you might be listening with rapt attention when Keith Olbermann’s show is on. Truth Court would make sure it’s part of the solution, not part of the problem, by being even-handed and authoritative enough with its verdicts, at least early on, to attract an audience on both sides of the political divide. Also, it would accept all evidence presented to it, would not hesitate to reopen a case, and generally would lay down the law hard enough and convincingly enough that you would have to be a complete fool not to accept its verdicts.
- Also on Manjoo’s list is the idea of selective perception, that we only see what we want to see even when looking at the same piece of evidence. All audio and visual evidence will be presented directly to all interested parties and will also be presented to experts who are particularly well positioned to explain any anomalies one way or the other.
- Manjoo notes that “experts” may come from questionably relevant fields, or their expertise may simply be questionable (more on this in a bit). Truth Court makes sure it will bring in as many experts from as many relevant fields as possible to analyze the evidence, and will also identify where their expertise comes from and any potential biases.
- As part of showing that some people may credibly claim to be experts with no relevant knowledge whatsoever, Manjoo shows how presenting a warm demeanor and a jokey style is better than a dry, boring professor. To ensure maximum audience appeal, Truth Court would attempt a similar fun-loving style. We don’t want you to fall asleep while you’re reading.
- Manjoo presents results supporting the idea of biased assimilation, the idea that we look more critically at findings that say something we disagree with, and are more likely to take at face value the findings we agree with. Truth Court will scrutinize all evidence for potential biases or shortcomings and will take seriously all subsequent requests to review the evidence, but we’ll also scrutinize the requests themselves for fallacies.
- Attached to biased assimiliation is naive realism, the idea that you take your worldview as objective truth, which helps explain why left and right attack the media for being biased, seizing on any example of supporting their enemies and attacking themselves while ignoring evidence sympathetic to their side as simply unbiased reporting. (In a variant and possible admission of this, Arianna Huffington has a book of her own, Right is Wrong, which claims that the media should be liberally biased because the left is so right.) Manjoo documents how this leaves the smart play for media to actually become biased, as in the Fox News model; if you’re going to be attacked anyway, you might as well go all the way and appease one side by making the other side’s attacks actually true. Truth Court will end every case by opening things up for feedback where you can point out any biases you see, and we can respond to your charges by getting better one way or the other, or by pointing out for all to see how we were unbiased after all.
If you’re reading all this, you’re probably thinking this is a lot of work, and you can understand why I’m probably not going to do much in Truth Court. While I leave it open for anyone to take up and I consider it an important project, I also recognize that it might be a bit much for some people.
Which is why this announcement is in two parts, because I also have a lighter-duty idea for anyone willing to take up the charge, one more focused on the ongoing battles over which way, if any, the media is biased. That second part may be coming as soon as tomorrow. Stay tuned.