Sunday, January 1, 2012

Sunday Reading

Truth, Lies, and the Internet — Rebecca J. Rosen at The Atlantic looks at how lies and misinformation persist even in the age of instant knowledge.

Sure, there is bad information all over the Internet, and because of the Internet, it can spread more rapidly. But it’s also clear that the Internet is making fact-checking easier and more widespread than ever. Lucas Graves, a doctoral candidate at Columbia, notes that fact-checking is on the rise; mentions of “fact check” more than doubled in Nexis between 2004 and 2010. And, as one Slashdotter writes, any wrong Slashdot piece will be disproved in the comments, voted up in the site’s unique commenting system. The good information is out there, whether it’s provided by institutions like or the denizens of sites such as Wikipedia or Slashdot. And when the fact-checking shop Politifact royally screws up its Lie of the Year, the rebuttals are everywhere.

A more interesting question is why, in this age of Google and Snopes, does misinformation persist? As a few of the Slashdot commenters note, plenty of urban legends that have been eminently checkable on Snopes for years continue to circulate. I suspect this can at least be partially explained by an intriguing theory of how the mind works, advanced last spring by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, two cognitive scientists.

There is a belief — a myth, really — that the human mind takes in information, and then reasons through it to produce ideas and opinions. But humans are notoriously poor at reasoning as it is conventionally understood, predictably falling into known traps, such as the confirmation bias (the tendency to absorb information that supports what one already thinks). Mercier and Sperber argued that the explanation for why human reasoning is so poor isn’t because it’s deficient, but because we’ve measured it against the wrong standard. Human reason doesn’t exist to provide us with a more accurate picture of the world; it exists to structure and promote discourse, or what Mercier and Sperber term “argument.” The human mind is better at spotting the flaws in someone else’s argument than its own, and in groups or pairs can do much better on a variety of tests than when flying solo.

As much as we like to think otherwise, facts, at least according to this schema, aren’t at the core of how we understand the world, but they sure are useful for rebutting the way other people do.

Cartoon by XKCD.

Why We Need PBS — Harold Pollack at Washington Monthly says the proposal by Mitt Romney to sell ads on PBS is a very bad idea.

Romney’s suggestion provides an obvious dog whistle to cultural conservatives, who seem to harbor an amazing hatred for public broadcasting. They harbor similar hatreds for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and (increasingly) efforts to support science education that touch on icky subjects such as evolution, human sexuality, or climate change.

The irony here is that PBS and the national endowments are profoundly conservative enterprises. I don’t mean that Sesame Street or school educational programs outside Texas specifically promote issue positions favored by Fox News. These efforts conserve and communicate our cultural, artistic, and scientific heritage within a broader popular culture that would not otherwise attend to these tasks.

PBS provides a rare safe haven from the crude and cruddy world of commercial television, which is such a destructive force in so many ways in American life. One does not have to go all Tipper Gore to be dismayed at the sight of media conglomerates hawking sugar cereal and burgers to children, and use sex and violence and clunky product placements to sell whatever to everyone else.

There’s also the simple fact that most commercial television is relentlessly and depressingly bad. True, the affluent can get high-quality dramas such as the Wire through the concierge-care option of pay cable. That’s hardly adequate. And is there any free or non-free cable show to match the quality of Frontline, American Experience, POV, or Nova? If so, I haven’t seen it. The public broadcasting option is incredibly important.

So Much For Those — Andy Borowitz’s New Years resolutions didn’t work out.

Resolution No. 1: I Will Quit Smoking

On New Year’s Day, I started using nicotine patches, nicotine gum, and nicotine lozenges but stopped when I began to hallucinate that I was a Lucky Strike. January 2nd brought a new, less arrogant resolution: “I will smoke only cigarettes I did not pay for.” Unfortunately, I hadn’t anticipated how easy it would be to steal them at the 7-Eleven, especially when the girl behind the counter was on her cell phone trying to cast a vote for “American Idol.” Seven months later, I’m actually smoking slightly more than I did last year, but that may be because I’m more focussed on trying to quit stealing.

Resolution No. 2: I Will Lose Thirty Pounds

Successful dieters say it’s not what you eat but how much you eat that counts, which is why, back in January, I resolved to eat only while driving. After all, there’s only so much you can shove into your mouth when one hand is on the wheel and the other is holding a cigarette. I guess we’ll never know whether my diet would have worked, since on January 3rd I drove my Sentra into the display window of a roofing-supply store in Long Island City. Since then, I’ve actually gained about five pounds, most of which I chalk up to the nervous eating I’ve been doing while awaiting my trial. On the positive side, now that I have to walk everywhere it’s only a matter of time before my unsightly love handles are ancient history.

Doonesbury — Character counts.