We’re living in a time I call “the age of misinformation” or “the era of erroneous thinking.” It’s been building for a while now. A recent “discussion” I experienced on Facebook — where else? — illustrates this new reality.
The topic was the film “Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19.” Viewed online last week by tens of millions of people, Facebook and YouTube ultimately removed the conspiracy-laden video for violating standards of accuracy. “Plandemic” appeared on my feed by way of a Facebook friend.
I watched the entire 26-minute video before it was taken down. Suffice to say, I was skeptical. So l responded to the Facebook post by linking an article from the website “Big Think” that scrutinized the film systematically. It included corroborating sources that were linked and easily reviewed — as if anyone bothers with that anymore.
The response I received was immediate: “Sounds like you just invented your own politically biased conspiracy theory.”
I countered by calling the respondent’s logic — not the individual — “simplistic” and “lazy.” Then I added: “Try again. I didn’t invent anything. I posted an article that includes 7 carefully and logically argued counterpoints to the film. So now it’s your turn. Debunk each one of the 7 points outlined in the article by using critical-thinking skills. I’ll wait.”
That prompted a third person’s contribution: “Ah son, you’re so superior. Keep believing in your sanctimonious self.”
I was taken aback because these were educated people whom I know personally. It made me wonder if I had, in fact, come off as too overbearing and “sanctimonious.”
I reviewed my rhetoric and decided that while my tone was a bit brusque — a concession I made in a subsequent comment — my message was relevant and reasonable. In short, if people post provocative items on Facebook for their “friends” to see, they should not only expect rational debate; they should welcome it.
How foolish of me. We obviously lost the ability — nay, the willingness — to sensibly discuss controversial issues a while ago. The main cause? Intellectual arrogance.
University of Connecticut philosophy professor Michael Patrick Lynch addresses this concept in his recent book “Know-It-All-Society” He explains how Michel de Montaigne, the famous Renaissance essayist from sixteenth-century France, cloistered himself from public life with books as his only companion because he had lost faith in humanity’s ability to seek truth.
“Arrogance was Montaigne’s watchword,” writes Lynch, “and his warning: our desire for certainty, for thinking we’ve figured everything out, that our reasons are the best reasons, is what gets us into trouble, both in politics and in life.”
History, clearly, is repeating itself. Only this time, it’s getting help from an increasingly intractable force: the internet.
Consider Google. We now can “Google-know” anything, notes Lynch, with a simple search. However, “our reliance on Google-knowing turns out to feed our natural tendency to overinflate what we know.” This “Dunning-Kruger Effect” happens when people don’t really know what they think they know — the ultimate in intellectual arrogance, you might say.
Social-media platforms add to the problem, of course, by enabling us to congregate in “tribes” where we develop “tribal arrogance” that “causes us to put loyalty before truth,” writes Lynch. Where better to find our own tribes than on Facebook or Twitter?
Neil Postman, a pioneer in the study of media, predicted this digital dysfunction almost 30 years ago in his book “Technopoly.”
“We are a culture consuming itself with information, and many of us do not even wonder how to control the process,” wrote Postman. “We proceed under the assumption that information is our friend, believing that cultures may suffer grievously from a lack of information, which, of course, they do. It is only now beginning to be understood that cultures may also suffer grievously from information glut, information without meaning, information without control mechanisms.”
Postman wrote that in 1992. The question is, what now?
Some introspection would help. Let’s start with honestly contemplating our beliefs, biases, and personal associations. Then we can move beyond them and form opinions using reason and prudence rather than selective information and confirmation bias. In other words, we must control our use of Google and Facebook, not the other way around.
Some might say this truth-seeking exercise is now virtually impossible, given the virtual worlds in which many people live. If that’s the case, we’ve already lost.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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