Saturday, November 06, 2021

Formulas for Spreading Misinformation About Nature

This coming week, on Nov. 9, I've been invited to make a presentation about books, articles, and opinion pieces that have sought over the years to deny the danger of invasive species. There's lots of denial out there: denial of problems like climate change, and more recently denial of solutions like vaccines. It was a surprise, though, as someone who has long witnessed how human impacts have thrown nature out of balance, to discover a whole genre of literature that not only denied the problem of invasive species but also attacked people like me who were working to mend nature. 

Through detailed critiques of many of the books, articles and opinion pieces, I was able to uncover the manipulations and skewed logic that made these readings so compelling for an uninformed audience. They all provided readers an applecart to spill and an "Other" to dislike. They portrayed the despised "Other"--mainstream scientists, conservationists, habitat restorationists, i.e. people like me--as narrow-minded, emotional, sentimental, even xenophobic, as we haplessly sought to counter a tidal wave of nonnative species that the writers claimed were actually doing good. By exaggerating our goals, they were able to dismiss those goals as unattainable. They flattered readers by making them feel smarter than the deluded "Other", and reassured readers that a big problem wasn't a problem at all, and that therefor nothing need be done to solve it. Letting people off the hook--promising freedom without responsibility--is one of the most appealing aspects of denial, whether it be of invasive species, climate change, a pandemic, or any other collectively created problem. 

It was therefore with a sense of recognition that I watched a recent John Oliver episode entitled "Misinformation," about how vulnerable people are to misinformation that propagates on social media sites. Oftentimes, the victims, who are also victimizers as they unwittingly pass along misinformation to their friends, are people who speak other languages for which there are few fact-checking sites to counter the misinformation. 

Like the formula for invasive species denial (provide an applecart to spill, an "Other" to dislike, etc) the video offers a recipe for making misinformation appealing:
  • claim that a "Harvard scientist helped confirm ancient wisdom"
  • "mention some chemicals"
  • insult western medicine and culture
  • cite your sources
The bit about "cite your sources" could offer hope, but oftentimes it is just another piece of the facade that lends a false sense of legitimacy to the misinformation.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Afghanistan: the Triumph and Tragedy of Misinformation

 "Biden administration stunned by speed of Taliban’s takeover" -- Associated Press

As twenty years and trillions of dollars of U.S. effort in Afghanistan get erased in a matter of a few weeks, the stunning speed of the Taliban takeover is only one example of how we have remained largely uninformed about reality in Afghanistan. "We" in this case seems to extend from us minions up to the highest ranks of the government. The misinformation ranges from intentional deception to self-delusion, along with the usual failure of information to migrate vertically from the ground to the upper echelons--a weakness to which all large organizations are prone.

As the news media seeks explanations for what went wrong, there are interviews with troops who could see that the war effort was doomed to failure early on, articles that explain that Biden was in a bind, limited by the Trump agreement with the Taliban, and not having wanted to signal, through an early and rapid exit, a lack of trust in the Afghan government and its military. 

Gazing back across the full breadth of the 20 year long debacle reminds me of a visit long ago to the Grand Canyon, but the awe is generated not by vast radiant beauty but by the sheer scale of human folly. To better understand the full arc of American dishonesty and misjudgement in Afghanistan, I delved into Chapter One of a book by a CIA insider, Bruce Riedel, entitled The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future

His account suggests that over that 20 year span, many of us have suffered from a combination of indifference and lingering fallacies. Once misinformation takes hold, it is very difficult to correct. The American mind, like Afghanistan itself, has proven very difficult to change. We are finally leaving Afghanistan, but we are still stuck with the tendency of people to remain uninformed or actively misinformed here at home.

Quoting generously, here is what I learned. (click on "read more")

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Maintaining the "Other"--How Clear Solutions Threaten Those Who Need Enemies

This short essay about people who define themselves through opposition to others was prompted by an insightful Krugman column that contrasts climate denial and covid denial.

I'm experimenting with dividing the world into people who need an enemy and those who see problems as the enemy and wish to work together to solve them. The anti-vax movement is an example of how artificial polarization increases as solutions become more clear. In other words, solutions to threats like climate change and the coronavirus are themselves seen as a threat, not only because they might make a Democratic president look good, but also because they strip people of the enemy--the "Other" they need in order to maintain a sense of identity. From McCarthy's communists and Reagan's welfare queen, to Gingrich's liberals and Trump's immigrants, the rightwing has needed to conjure an enemy in order to rationalize its existence, reduce scrutiny of its own failings, and rally its followers.

(click on "read more")

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Rush Limbaugh and the Poisoned Heartland

How to write about Rush Limbaugh after his death? It is a time to learn more about his life, and tally the damage done by a misdirected talent. In reading descriptions in the NY Times, a few things jumped out. One was how closely his rise coincided with the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which had "required stations to provide free airtime for responses to controversial opinions they broadcast." After the law was repealed in 1987 under the Reagan administration, a "liberated" Limbaugh moved to NY the next year to start his syndicated radio show.

Freed from legal constraints that had limited the use of public airwaves to spread falsehoods, Limbaugh was further liberated by his growing legion of fans, who "developed a capacity to excuse almost anything he did and deflect, saying liberals were merely being hysterical or hateful." This failure to take responsibility for his own errors, and instead deploy a "right back at ya" redirection of blame, is one of the classic narcissistic traits that, enabled and indulged by a loyal audience, laid the groundwork for the rise of Donald Trump.

(click on "read more")