Thursday, July 18, 2019

Learning from Fake News

Cory Doctorow's latest LOCUS column explores what "fake news," conspiracy theories, and hoaxes can reveal about our culture:

Fake News Is an Oracle

He begins by discussing the mistaken idea that science fiction predicts the future. Instead, SF "can serve as a warning or an inspiration, influencing the actions that people take and thus the future that they choose." A second function of SF, where the analogy with fake news comes in, is to expose "our societal fears and aspirations for the future" somewhat the way a Ouija board planchette reveals the fears and desires of the users by responding to unconscious movements of their hands. As Doctorow points out, even the most innovative spec-fic creators must choose their material from an existing array of tropes that resonate with their audience. Authors write "stories about the futures they fear and rel­ish." The fiction that gets published, achieves bestseller status, and captures the imaginations of readers reflects hopes and fears dominant in the current popular culture: "The warning in the tale is a warning that resonates with our current anxieties; the tale’s inspiration thrums with our own aspirations for the future."

Similarly, a hoax, conspiracy theory, or false or deceptive news item that gets believed by enough people to make it socially significant "tells you an awful lot about the world we live in and how our fellow humans perceive that world." As an example, Doctorow analyzes the anti-vaccine movement and why its position on the alleged dangers of vaccination seems plausible to so many people. Asking what makes people vulnerable to conspiracy theories and false beliefs, he speculates, "I think it’s the trauma of living in a world where there is ample evidence that our truth-seeking exer­cises can’t be trusted." While the first step in fighting fake news is "replacing untrue statements with true ones," a deeper solution that addresses the roots of the problem is also needed.

Speaking of true and false beliefs, and harking back to the topic of my post of the week before last, I was boggled by a widely quoted comment from a certain junior congresscritter: "I think that there's a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right." Say WHAT? As one article about this remark is quick to point out, using precise language and accurate facts isn't mutually exclusive with being morally right. Ideally, we should aspire to do both:


The article summarizes the attitude behind the Congresswoman's remark this way, noting that it's not exclusive to her: "My specific fact may be wrong, but the broader point I was making still holds. The problem with that thinking is that it says that the underlying facts don't matter as long as the bigger-picture argument still coheres." This attitude is said (correctly, in my opinion) to lead to a moral "slippery slope."

I would go further, though. I'd call having the correct facts one of the essential preconditions to being morally right. How can we make moral judgments if we aren't certain of the objective materials we're working with? If a speaker's statements about concrete, verifiable facts can't be trusted, should we trust that speaker's version of truth on more complex, abstract matters?

As writers, we in particular should place a high value on accuracy of language. Referring again to C. S. Lewis (as I frequently tend to do), his book THE ABOLITION OF MAN, first published way back in 1947, begins with an analysis of a couple of secondary-school English textbooks sent to him for review. From certain passages in those texts implying that all value is subjective, Lewis expands the discussion to wider philosophical issues and constructs a detailed argument in defense of the real existence of objective values, "the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. . . . And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason. . . or out of harmony with reason." And how can we recognize which values are "true" or "false" in this higher sense without verifiable knowledge of "the kind of thing the universe is"?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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