Junk News, Fake Facts and How to Find Them
by Thomas Hauder, PGM
The recent election cycle has brought a new focus on the issue of “junk” or “fake” news. Wild claims that seem just close enough to real or align with our own ignorance so well that we take them as fact. Because of this recent focus, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at how “junk” or “fake” news works and what we can do to avoid being sucked in by this type of “news.” Plus as Masons we have been and continue to be assailed by purveyors of this kind of dross in an attempt to further some agenda of the supposed expert. So we need to recognize it and how to fight back.
The first question that will come to everyone’s mind is “Is there really more junk or fake new and facts than in some time past?” And this is a valid question for we would hate to waste effort on combating something that is just a passing fad. But a quick look at history tells us that this has always been an issue. From the earliest days of our Western culture that have been myths, legends and oral tradition stories that have often stretched the bounds of credulity but somehow can stick in the public’s mind and become a “truth”.
Some of you might recall the famous War of the Worlds hysteria in 1938 that took place when Orson Welles and his radio players, put on a broadcast that sounded very much like an actual news report that we were being invaded by Mars! Despite disclaimers at the beginning and throughout the show that it was just a dramatization of a fiction story, the American public went berserk! This was probably one of the first true demonstrations of the power of the media and the lack of training in rhetoric and logic!
As PT Barnum said “There’s a sucker born every minute!” Look at the trash National Inquirer stuff at the check out stand, the near endless “secrets revealed” programs on TV and the always reliable…”But I saw it on the Internet / Facebook!” excuse.
The bottom line is that this sort of problem has always existed but it seems to have accelerated due to the ease of mass communication, access to what used to be hard to acquire technology and a massive shift in the education standards of the general public. It is just so much easier today to reach a massive amount of people with little effort. Give me a subject and a couple of hours and I can put up a website and be on social media with nearly any story you can dream up.
If you’d like to know more about how what amounts to anti-rationalism has affected our culture, pick up a copy of the book The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby (revised and updated / 2008). This book is a real eye opener as to how far we’ve managed to drift from being rational thinkers!
So why is this a Masonic issue? Masonry is built on the foundation of education, seeking the truth and improving ourselves above the normal level. The Fellowcraft degree, which used to be the final degree, is entirely about education and the need for it in a well-balanced man. We are taught that this education will make us wiser and consequently happier.
The Trivium or first three of the seven liberal arts are the beginning of being able to understand what we are being exposed to through the multitude of information streams that we have access to every day.
Trivium literally means the “meeting of three roads” and is used to describe the three essential skills of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic.
These are described as follows (Wikipedia):
Grammar teaches the mechanics of language to the student. This is the step where the student “comes to terms”, i.e. defining the objects and information perceived by the five senses. Hence, the Law of Identity: a tree is a tree, and not a cat.
Logic (also dialectic) is the “mechanics” of thought and of analysis; the process of identifying fallacious arguments and statements, and so systematically removing contradictions, thereby producing factual knowledge that can be trusted.
Rhetoric is the application of language in order to instruct and to persuade the listener and the reader. It is the knowledge (grammar) now understood (logic) being transmitted outwards, as wisdom (rhetoric).
These subjects were considered essential for any thinking man to master in ancient Greek and that idea carried forward through Western thought. In the middle ages the Shield of the Trinity was repurposed to show the relationship between these three skills. Only with the use of all three can we reach the truth of any subject.
So by arming ourselves with the proper tools and methods we too can master these three skills and bring a balance to our understanding of the world and the endless stream of so-called information that bombards us every day.
To do so, we must learn to be skeptical thinkers not in a negative way but in a way that helps us to systematically remove the contradictions and find the trusted information within.
So now it is with great pleasure that I introduce you to the SBDK! Or the Sagan Baloney Detection Kit!
Many of you probably remember Dr. Carl Sagan. He was one of the foremost astronomers and scientists of his time and had a knack for explaining heavy science at a level most of us could understand. In 1995, he wrote a book entitled “The Demon-Haunted World” as he was quite concerned that the general publics lack of science training or emphasis and our seeming heavy reliance on superstition and wishful thinking was going to doom our society. (Yes, he was an atheist but the book is not just a denial of Deity or religion in general). One of the chapters of this book was entitled The Fine Art of Baloney Detection. This is where he laid out his suggestions for how to sift fact from fiction and how to avoid being taken in by those would try to deceive.
First we look at this list of things we have to actively do in order to be a good skeptical thinker:
- Where possible there must be independent confirmation of the “Facts”
- Self-explanatory. If you can’t find confirmation in other trusted sources, it’s probably baloney.
- Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of ALL points of view.
- This seems to be the hardest part and the one we most seldom practice. How many of use only read or listen to the news that supports our particular worldview? (MSNBC vs. Fox News)
- Arguments from “Authorities” carry little weight.
- Authorities have made mistakes in the past and will do so again. At best someone might be an expert but they are not flawless.
- Spin more than one hypothesis
- Think of all the different ways in which it could be explained and then test each alternative. Think Darwinian survival.
- Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours
- This is a tough one. Ask yourself why you like the idea and then compare it fairly to the alternatives. If you don’t, others will do this for you!
- If it can be measured, then do so this will help eliminate other competing hypothesis.
- If there is a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work including the premise, not just most of them.
- Happens all too often that you don’t think all the steps through.
- Occam’s Razor
- If 2 explanations seem to explain the data equally well, choose the simpler one
- Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. You must be able to check assertions out.
- Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Example, we are all just living on a small particle (electron?) of something larger in the Cosmos. But we can never gather enough information from outside our universe to prove or disprove this hypothesis. Thus double blind studies for drugs, the required repeatability of experimental outcomes.
Now we turn to the things we must not do in order to be good skeptical thinkers. You might notice that the majority of these things are being used all the time to appeal to the consumer. In fact, in the recent election cycle, both sides gave a Master Class in how to use and abuse these tools.
- Ad hominem attacks
- Latin for “to the man”. Attacking the arguer and not the argument.
- Argument from authority
- The argument amounts to trusting someone because of their position e.g. the President has a secrete plan…
- Argument from adverse consequences
- If you do/don’t do this terrible things will happen. E.g. God will smote you, others will be encouraged to break this law.
- Appeal to ignorance
- The claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true and vice versa. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
- Special pleading
- Often used to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble. E.g. you don’t understand the mysterious ways of God.
- Begging the question / Assuming the answer
- The Stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment…but is ;there an independent evidence for the causal role of “Adjustment” and have we learned anything from this purported explanation?
- Observational selection / Enumeration of favorable circumstances
- Francis Bacon: Counting the hits and forgetting misses.
- A state boasts of the Presidents it has produced but is silent on its serial killers (Masonry does this a lot!)
- Statistics of small numbers
- 1 in 5 people are Chinese or the gambler who thinks that since they’ve won the last 3 hands, the next is a shoo in too.
- Story from Bosch days of too small a sample of alarm dealers to make any difference
- Misunderstanding of the nature of statistics
- The President was shocked to discover that half of all Americans have below average intelligence.
- Consider it reasonable for the possibility for the Universe to continue to exist forever into the future but judge absurd the possibility that it has infinite duration into the past.
- Non Sequitur
- Latin for “It doesn’t follow”
- Our cause will prevail because God is with us but everyone thinks that.
- It’s a failure to recognize other alternatives
- Post hoc, ergo propter hoc
- Latin for “It happened after, so it was caused by”
- Getting cause and effect backwards
- We didn’t have nuclear weapons before women had the vote!
- Meaningless questions
- What happens when an irresistible object meets and immovable force? Well, it can’t be both!
- Excluded middle or false dichotomy
- Considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities.
- If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem!
- Short-term vs. Long –term
- A subset of excluded middle
- Why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?
- Slippery slope
- Related to excluded middle
- If we do X then Y will shortly follow
- Confusion of correlation and causation
- Andean earthquakes are correlated with closet approaches of the planet Uranus; therefore despite the absence of any such correlation for the nearer, more massive planet Jupiter the latter causes the former
- Used heavily in advertising and marketing
- Straw Man
- Caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack
- Environmentalist care more for snail darters and spotted owls that they do for people
- Suppressed evidence or half-truths
- An amazingly accurate and widely quoted “prophecy” of the assassination attempt on President Reagan is show on television; but —an important detail—was it recorded before or after the event?
- Weasel Words
- Using words to give something a new name that softens the connotation of that thing or allows you to get around some rule or law
- It’s not a war, it’s a police action / pacification / safeguarding American interests.
- Talleyrand: An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions, which under old names have become odious to the public.
Keep in mind that just knowing of these tools of rhetoric and logic are not enough. These tools can also be used for good or evil, you still have to use your own mind and evaluate carefully both your own arguments and those of others.
So, again, how does this affect us as Masons? We are supposed to be lovers of the seven arts and constantly trying to seek the truth. With these sorts of tools we can more easily or at least reliably, separate the truth from the obfuscation that seems to characterize our news. As citizens of society, it is incumbent upon us to be as well informed as possible and form our opinions and actions based on the best version of the facts we can obtain. This means that some work has to be done on your part. Do not just accept what shows up in your Facebook feed or blares from the TV or Radio by some alleged “unbiased authority”. Use your mind…THINK!
Here’s a fun exercise to get you in the habit of using these tools. Each week (or day if you have the time) pick a news story and run it through the tools listed above and see if it can pass all the tests. If it doesn’t, which one did it fail and why do you think it was presented in that manner?
Here’s a link to a printable version of the SBDK: FakeNewsHandoutv2.5
Soon, you’ll be doing this automatically and be a much better informed person!