Sunday, November 20, 2016

What happens when facts no longer matter?

This electoral cycle is certainly a unique and unsettling one in the sheer amount of false information has spread beyond the fringes and into the mainstream. I've made note earlier of the problem of fake "news" and click bait sites that polluted social media, especially late in the electoral cycle. I've also noted at least one tentative solution that although will do us no good this year may be of some value going forward.

I suspect that we've been trending towards a "fact-free" media culture for some time, and there have been efforts by extremists (both left and right) for as long as I have been aware to cultivate a cynical dismissal and suspicion of our nation's institutions and experts. That cultivation was certainly going on in earnest in talk radio in the 1980s and 1990s, and increasingly in cable news channels as the 1990s and early years of this century came and went. The development of the world wide web and various emerging media (such as social networking sites) merely accelerated a long-term trend. As time permits, I will provide some links to back up this particular assertion, but suffice it to say, I am relying a good deal on an analysis put forth by George Gerbner and to an extent sociologist Barry Glassner. The problem with this trend is that it ultimately threatens the very fabric of our democratic institutions upon which our particular form of government depends upon for its survival.

Although the following is from an economics blogger, I think his commentary speaks very much to the issue at hand. Barry Ritholz mainly focuses on how this post-truth phenomenon has played out with regard to such data as unemployment rates. In it, Ritholz examines Trump's campaign distortions of the Department of Labor's unemployment statistics (Bureau of Labor Statistics' U-3 unemployment estimates), making wild claims about the so-called "real" unemployment rate, and all while providing no evidence to back up his claims. The problem is that these fabricated claims go viral and become extremely difficult to counter. Add to that the problem that those most receptive to such false messaging are eager to believe it, and we have an enormous confirmation bias problem on our hands. Let me offer a few clips from Ritholz summarizing things as he lays it out nicely:
Catherine Rampell wrote an excellent piece in the Washington Post about the virtual impossibility of running a democracy if the facts don’t matter:

“You know those unemployment rates, inflation numbers, household spending figures, health insurance coverage rates, gross domestic product growth and other stats that companies and consumers rely on when making financial decisions? Nearly half of Americans, and a supermajority of Trump voters, believe the books are cooked.”

What’s interesting here is that it seems folks are all too eager to distrust and dismiss Obama-friendly numbers (job creation, the unemployment rate), but apparently have no problem whatsoever believing the Obama-unfriendly numbers (the low labor force participation rate, the low home ownership rate). So, apparently, the agencies are cooking some numbers, but not others, which is absolutely fascinating.


Once again to Ms. Rampell:

“The problem with elevating yourself by tearing down the existing authoritative institutions is that once you succeed, you’ve established a road map for others to tear you down, too. There will always be someone waiting in the wings with an even juicier conspiracy theory, an even zanier hidden truth, an even more intricate data-unskewing method — and there’s no longer any authority left to debunk any of it.

This is how a democracy crumbles: not with a bang, but with data trutherism.” 

We have crossed the rubicon
If I can offer anything of value on this blog it is simply be a voice for the experts and institutions that have served us well over the the decades. With regard to economic data, one great feature to the institutions that generate that data is that they are independent of whatever partisan shenanigans are going on at any given time. Sometimes their findings are ones that Presidents and Congressional members like and sometimes their findings are ones that are unappealing to Presidents and legislators alike. We can argue about how we proceed once we have the objective data at hand, but we cannot simply dismissively argue away objectivity altogether and expect to function as a healthy democratic society. I agree with Ritholz that we have crossed the proverbial rubicon. Whether or not we can cross back is an open question, and one for which at the moment I possess no answer.

I can advocate that we who are experts in our various areas do what we can to push back against a "fact free" media environment, and the cultural consequences that come along with that media environment. We can certainly do so in the classroom. I use my methodology classes to train students to examine data and to accept what the data are telling them, rather than to make stuff up. In other content courses, I've pointed out where conflicts of interest have led to potential data fabrication or poorly conducted research, and the consequences that have ensued. As it turns out I have a wealth of examples I can use at any given point. As a social psychologist, I make the case for combating confirmation bias when consuming mass media by instead reading from a variety of reliable news sources (note that I also tend to advocate turning off the television and tuning out the noise on social media), and to follow up by utilizing known and reliable fact checking sites. I do so in higher ed. My colleagues in the K-12 systems across the US can do something quite similar. Our objective is not to tell our students and the public what to think, but rather guide them through the process of learning how to think and drawing their own conclusions in as reality-based a manner as is humanly possible.

Where we do have media figures who are willing to advocate for objective examination of the truth, we should make certain that they are reinforced for their efforts. I loved the series Mythbusters over the course of its run precisely because its hosts were excellent at modeling scientific reasoning and accepting the evidence they found. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye the Science Guy both serve a very similar function as public mass media figures. They all undoubtedly deserve more praise than they get.

Please note that what I am advocating is for a sense of healthy skepticism. We should certainly expect that our institutions and our experts are transparent in their methodology for collecting and analyzing their findings. At this point, that is precisely what our various institutions do, and generally what our experts in the various sciences do. A healthy respect for our experts and a healthy degree of skepticism are both essential to our society's well-being. We can witness now the consequences of losing both of those very necessary qualities.

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