The Spread of Ignorance

A friend shared this article with me today (http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160105-the-man-who-studies-the-spread-of-ignorance) and I figured I had a few thoughts to share on the topic. The article is a good read and I think there are a few really good points made there. It does seem to slanted slightly leftward, but the discerning reader can recognize that and move past it. There are examples of this sort of thing going both ways.

One point I thought to be worth making is that another factor that appears to contribute to the spread of ignorance, but isn’t ignorance so much as a general mistrust of disseminated information. This factor is that organizations have agendas, even if they’re organizations you’re inclined to agree with. As an I recall a conversation in college about global warming where I told the other party that I was willing to accept information about global warming if I could be convinced it was true, but it was too hard to trust any information I got because both sides manipulate the public. I’m willing to be convinced, but I don’t want to be manipulated. Manipulation of information is such a fruitful endeavor that it’s not enough to have truth on your side of an argument, even people with correct information have to spin it to get traction. I’m still a skeptic on several parts of the global warming debate, and it’s largely because I’m a libertarian. I have my own views, and it seems that everyone who is wound up about saving the earth from global warming only proposes big government solutions that adds further regulatory/legal/tax burdens on people and gives more power to the government. That seems like a conflict of interest to me. That wouldn’t be enough on its own, but when it’s added to a lack of good answers to some questions I have along with general political manipulation, I just can’t buy into the whole thing. It reminds me of a blog post by Scott Adams about feminism and fair pay (http://blog.dilbert.com/post/114055529676/my-verdict-on-gender-bias-in-the-workplace). He determined in his post that women are treated more or less equally in the situations he discusses, but this is largely because feminists have stretched the truth. By exaggerating the actual inequality, activists have gotten peoples’ attention and gotten things changed. He concluded that therefore, although women are fairly treated in most of the categories he examined, he said it was acceptable for activists to lie about the truth of the matter because that led to an acceptable outcome that otherwise probably wouldn’t have been reached for a long time. It’s a very complicated problem to deal with.

Another complication is missed in the article, which gives the great example of Obama’s birth certificate. Many people speculated that Obama withheld his birth certificate for such a long time because it got some of his detractors to spread the rumor that he was not born in the US. Nobody switched sides to oppose Obama over the birth certificate issue, so he really lost nothing by not releasing it. When he finally got around to releasing his birth certificate, everybody who had latched onto this thing and made a bunch of noise about it for years looked stupid and was called a racist conspiracy theorist. This flip side of the spread of bad information makes things complicated as well, it can actually benefit both parties in a conflict.

The spread of some ignorance is intentional and strategic, but other times, it’s just a general mistrust of institutions or people we’ve already been given reason not to trust or whose values and interests don’t align with our own. There isn’t a clear-cut solution to this, and it’s difficult to tell what is false information and what is legitimate skepticism or conflicting information. We can’t simply assume trust in any party on an issue, because then we’re just favoring our pre-established bias and assuming the false narrative is on the other side. This is all rather vexing.

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