Friday, September 3, 2010

Truth in the Information Age

What happened to truth in the Information Age?

This entry on was very interesting. It almost seemed like a cry for help, or perhaps a cry of desperation. After years of trying to debunk Internet and other rumors, scams, falsehoods, and Urban Legends, it seems that Snopes is ready to throw in the towel. No matter how you research an issue or try to explain things to people, they continue to believe what they want to believe.

I coulda told you that.

Long before the Internet, people liked to believe Urban Legends, lies, deceits, and outright bullshit. The oil companies are "suppressing" the 100-mpg carburetor, friends told me, in all earnestness. People fell for Nigerian Scams via mail or fax. Invention Brokers made millions promising inventors riches beyond their dreams.

But with the advent of the "information age" surely all that would be a thing of the past, right? After all, once information is freely available to everyone, everyone will be properly informed. Rumors will die away. Truth will triumph over falsehood. Con artists will slink away into the crevices they emerged from.

Hardly the case, it seems. In fact, quite the contrary. It seems today that people are more willing than ever to believe what they want to believe, and that the Internet has become a means of validating their own ideas, not debunking them. Lies, Rumors, and outright Bullshit have taken on a new currency in this information age.

Why is this? And why do people like to spread such rumors and believe such nonsense? The reasons are the same today as they were before the Internet:
1. People want to feel important by being "in the know": You get a forwarded e-mail from a friend with some Internet rumor or bullshit. They think they are clever because they know secret inside information, and they can tell YOU all about it. It is no different from the idiot who holds forth about how the oil companies are suppressing the "100 mpg carburetor". They want to feel important and smart.

And not surprisingly, most of the people who spread nonsense like this are stupid and poorly educated, or both. They are not necessarily bad people, but they want to feel important, and they are constantly made to feel inferior by folks who actually spent years learning a trade or a skill or knowledge.

So a fellow e-mails me and tries to convince me, an Engineer who worked for GM, that my former company "suppressed the 100 mpg carburetor". This from a guy who can't even change a tire on his car. But you see, he KNOWS, and all that Engineering bullshit I learned, well, that doesn't count for bubkis.

The Urban Legend has leveled the playing field for him. Suddenly, he is no longer the stupid kid who sat in the back of class, confused by what was going on. He knows now all the good information - stuff his "smart" friends are ignorant about.

2. People want to feel part of a group: This is particularly true of these new political movements like the so-called Tea Party. People want to feel that they are banded together in an "us versus them" scenario. It is "US" versus those idiots in Washington, the career politicians, the "elitists" or whatever.

By sharing Urban Legends, Lies, and Bullshit - and BELIEVING it, you are part of a pointy-hat club - the tinfoil helmet brigade. And people just love to join clubs.

The fact that so many decry their beliefs as utter nonsense only serves to reinforce the feeling of camaraderie among the group. A similar thing exists in religious cults. The more you try to "correct" their thinking, the more they cling to their beliefs. You can only set out factual information and hope they read it. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water....

3. People believe what they want to believe: A recent article about online behavior that I read noted that people who believe in far-out conspiracy theories, left- or right- wing politics or the like, tend to only visit websites that reinforce their existing beliefs. Liberals don't watch Fox News or listen to Rush Limbaugh. Conservatives don't read the Huffington Post.

So rather than proving a "fair and balanced" view of the world, the Internet tends to polarize views further. People's views of issues are not expanded, but rather narrowed.

And this is not hard to do, as people, by their nature, want to be told what they want to hear. The fellow who believes that the "100 mpg carburetor" was "suppressed by the oil companies" wants to believe that his current economic condition has nothing to do with his own actions. "But for" the actions of the "evil oil corporations" he would be a millionaire and could drive his Hummer down the street for mere pennies a day.

Con Artists and scammers have known this for a long, long time. The invention brokers tell inventors that after professional scientific evaluation, their invention is a sure thing! You will never, ever go broke telling someone what they want to hear.

And it is interesting, isn't it, that Urban Legends, Conspiracy Theories, and the like, never paint the average Joe Schmuck as the culprit. You will never hear or get a forwarded e-mail that says "Our current economic downturn was due to the greed and laziness of the Average American - it was all a big conspiracy by 330 million people!"

No, rather the blame goes to "fat cat Wall Street Bankers" or political figures or anyone that is basically a caricature of power, wealth, and prestige.

The working stiff wants to believe that all of his woes are the fault of the corporations. BP is responsible for the oil spill in the Gulf, right? Because America's insatiable demand for energy has no bearing on it? In other words, the actions of 330 million people driving four-wheel-drive SUVs to work every day has no impact in the world. It was all that "greedy corporation" trying to make "evil profits". And of course, as shareholders, we are innocent of that "greed" - right? After all, we don't demand profits on a quarterly basis, right?

Wrong, of course. Reality is more complicated and nuanced that a forwarded e-mail or conspiracy theory. We all interact with one another, and "blame" for many things cannot be easily pinned on one or two individuals or institutions. Americans went nuts in the 2000's and bought homes at skyrocketing prices, even as an army of scribes denounced it as a bubble. We all fell in love with the car and made our entire economy reliant on fossil fuels as a result.

Too late, we find ourselves screwed, and we want to blame the "others" for it. Presidents, companies, Wall Street, the Trilateral Commission, the Federal Reserve, or whatever. In many cases, the people making the case for these arguments have little clue what they are talking about - only vague ideas that some other guy made out with all the dough and they got screwed.

So what is the answer then? How do we stop the spread of lies in the information age? As the example from the Snopes link above shows, you really can't - at least in the short term. People want to believe something, they will. You can document something all you want, and they will not bother to look at the documentation or even click on the links or understand what they are reading. Sarah Kagan "suppressed" the Obama citizenship cases, they believe. Never mind that the Supreme Court decides what cases to hear - not the Solicitor General.

And part of the problem, of course, is that there are always forces out there that will spread lies, willingly, trying to get people stirred up over things, for economic or political advantage. I can't tell you how many low-level computer programmers have lectured me on the "evil" of software patents. They believe that if software is patentable, Bill Gates will end up owning our souls.

But of course, software has been patentable for decades, and the net result has been that "little guys" in start-up companies end up suing Bill Gates (and winning) far more often than the inverse. In other words, software patents PROTECT the small programmer from the big company stealing their ideas.

So who is pushing this movement against software patents - on internet blog sites and elsewhere? Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out - follow the money. Big companies don't want to pay royalties to small inventors. So they have created this mythology that software patents are bad, and not surprisingly, have gotten a lot of people to buy into it. Any narrative that paints the "big bad evil corporations" as benefiting is likely to sell with nerdy introverted schmucks like programmers.

Similarly, who benefits from paranoid websites that say Sarah Kagan "suppressed" the issue of Obama's citizenship? Well, duh, the conservatives. If you can get some hillbilly all riled up over that, he might actually get off his computer and go down and vote.

And of course, it is more politically correct to be against Obama for that reason than for the obvious one. Yea, most of this nonsense is just a smokescreen for folks who would like to say "We hate [N-word]" but find that politically incorrect in this era (the Tea Party folks have quite a time of it, trying to rein-in the more obvious elements of their groups).

And speaking of which, hatred of minorities is really the same thing. The average white trash Joe is broke and poor because he is uneducated, not very bright, and lazy as all get out. But he would never admit to that. No, no, the reason for his plight is that minorities are getting all the benefits for free - and taking all the jobs. If we just patrolled the borders better and cut back on welfare, hillbillies would be millionaires.

And who spreads those sort of rumors? Well the wealthy people in the South before and after the Civil War certainly relied on fear of Blacks to rouse the poor whites to fight and work for their cause. Wealthy plantation owners, who could send their sons to West Point, would lead the troops into battle to save their economic interests. But the poor white trash who died in droves were not bright enough to realize that their economic interests were more aligned with the black slaves they were fighting to keep in bondage than with the rich plantation owner, resplendent on his horse in his Colonel's uniform.

Racism works as a means of manipulating people to do things against their own self interest. If you can take two or three racial groups and get them to fight each other, you can rob them blind and never worry about them actually attacking YOU.

But I digress...

The point is, truth has been, and always will be, bent to serve the interests of different groups. And people will willingly believe all sorts of nonsense if it fits their world view and tells them what they want to hear - i.e., that they are not at fault for their own circumstances.

"Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth, that is all you need know" - Keat's Ode to a Grecian Urn stated. Put the truth out there for people to find. If they find it, fine. But if they refuse to believe, you can't act surprised or upset. Very few people want to know the truth - they'd rather hear sweet lies that fall upon their ears like a warm soft gentle summer rain.

And therein lies an opportunity for you. Since so few people know the truth or want to know the truth about anything, a person who can perceive truth through lies can often clean up financially. If you saw the housing bubble for what it was, for example, you could make a million dollars by selling out in time.  That does not mean, of course, that you believe in conspiracy theories as "truth" - because they are all lies.  And no, this is not up for discussion.  If you can't see through conspiracy theories, you are destined to be poor the rest of  your life - in spirit and bank account.

Like I did. Truth IS beauty. And a boatload of money, too

People who wanted the believe the lies - that housing would continue to increase in value exponentially forever (people who sat in the back in Math class, convinced it was "not relevant in real life") ended up losing their shirts. Should we feel sorry for idiots who believe lies?

I don't.