American The Credulous

A man in Austin, Texas tweeted during the election campaign that he saw loads of anti-Trump protesters being bused in by George Soros to skew the election. It went vital, fueling the suspicions that were already being stoked by Trump fantasies.

It turns out the man saw busloads of people bound for a business data software convention that had nothing to do with politics. He saw what he already believed and passed it on without pausing to check the facts. Thousands believed it and passed it on, without checking the facts.

Who needs evidence in the twitterverse? Well, in an era of fake news and viral mendacity, conspiracy theories, malicious hacking, fraud and media manipulation, we all do. But in the absence of an FCC or FDA or other cop on the beat, it is up to the viewer, listener, reader to beware.

But most Americans lack the time, the logical tools, the habitual cynicism and the gimlet-eyed suspicion needed to subject every purported fact to analysis or even a rudimentary smell test. So, like the Austin idiot, if something comports with our pre-existing prejudices, we believe it, no matter how absurd on its face.

Such naiveté can be dangerous and expensive. Phony calls or emails from purported IRS agents, Nigerian princes, and other con artists bilk the unwary out of millions, billions in the case of Madoff.

How many Americans still believe Barack Obama to be a Kenyan-Muslim usurper? Embarrassingly, a lot. How many in the last election bought the myth of Trump’s business genius and his pie-in-the-sky promises to bring back the vanished industries of the 1950s? Too many. About 60 million at last count. When you are suckered by the midway barker at the freak show, you don’t lose much. But giving the country over to the safe-keeping of carnies is more consequential.

A Stanford University study found that 82% of middle schoolers couldn’t distinguish between actual news and sponsored content — that is, self-serving propaganda or advertisements. Large percentages of high school and college students also lacked the ability to reliably distinguish truth from fiction or wishful thinking.

Stanford is offering a social studies curriculum that teaches how to assess the trustworthiness of sources. It has been downloaded 3.5 million times. That’s swell, but it still leaves 316,500,000 more Americans to go.

Most schools do little to teach critical thinking and media literacy. Logical fallacies, rhetoric, and reasoning aren’t on the curriculum. In part because public schools are timid purveyors of the conventional wisdom. The texts they use are approved by politicized state school boards that promote the status quo and in some cases a frankly partisan view of the world. They don’t welcome alternative views, don’t tolerate dissent or discouraging words. Climate change, evolution, and the darker chapters of American history are often too controversial to make the cut.

In such an environment most teachers are expected to color within the lines rather than rock the boat. Private schools may offer somewhat more latitude, but they too aim to provide the sort of education expected by those who are paying the bills. So, most students most of the time are taught by Dr. Pangloss. So students don’t learn that all is not for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Besides, most Americans don’t get their information from teachers, books or reliable news sources that check facts, but rather from the intellectual mosh pit of TV and the internet, including propaganda mills like Breitbart where people like Trump shop for their views of immigrants or global warming. The Stanford study suggests that middle schoolers spend 71/2 hours a day online where truth, lies and videotape commingle promiscuously.

Facebook, Twitter, and Google have belatedly realized that the fake news and fraudulent claims that are on their platforms pose a danger to consumers and may even have skewed the results of the 2016 elections. They are taking steps to police their cyberspace, but ultimately the answer is still going to boil down to caveat emptor in most cases.

That is, we all need to be our own thought police, and the watchdogs of the media we consume and the schools we pay to educate our citizens. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” Except, the internet says maybe it was actually James Schlesinger in 1973 who said it. Unless it was Bernard Baruch in 1950.

Nobody said telling fact from fantasy was going to be easy. But the alternative is to become the Queen in Alice who could believe six impossible things before breakfast. We need to try harder to observe a few rules of the information seeker’s road.

Read and listen critically. Trust no one. Or at least, as the often credulous Reagan said, trust but verify. Pause to consider whether something is really plausible. Insist on a source for ideas and opinions, and then consider the source, as your mother should have warned you. What have they got to gain by selling you a load of codswallop? Would you trust that salesman, teacher, preacher, candidate with your car keys, bank account or your daughter?

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