Fool Me Once

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Most folks, I think, are familiar with this self-admonition: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.  There is some truth to it, insofar as we should definitely be more wary of being conned or scammed by the same person a second time around.

But there is another caution to which we might well pay heed, this one written by Mark Twain: It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.

I’ve been fooled a few times in my life by refusing to acknowledge something later shown to be right.  But such situations were usually the result of my own miscalculation, not a nefarious attempt by another to deceive me.  On many of those occasions, it was harder to admit my mistake, as Twain suggests, than to concede that I had misled myself.  Over the years, I’ve learned that I ofttimes find it easy to believe the things I think.

 More sinister, however, are those times I’ve been bamboozled into accepting something that ultimately proved false, the victim of a deliberate attempt by malicious actors to mislead me.  I console myself that, in the grand scheme of things, those turned out not to be life-altering mistakes, and those same people didn’t fool me twice.  But on every occasion, it took me a good long while to admit I’d been duped.

Today, we—all of us—are subjected non-stop to claims we either believe or not, assertions on abortion rights, censorship, climate change, education and schools, freedom, gun control, healthcare, pandemic disease, political corruption, widespread war, and what can seem like a zillion other matters.  And where, we might well wonder, lies the truth in all of these assertions?

Are we being fooled?  More than once?  And if so, by whom?  For what purpose?  How will we know if it is so?  And will we ever be able to admit it?

The World Health Organization has stated we are living in an info-demic world, defined as: an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for us to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when we need them.

We are constantly subjected to a sweep of mis-information—the spreading of false information, such as rumours, insults, and pranks—and its more dangerous subset, dis-information—the creation and distribution of intentionally-false information designed to fool us, usually for political ends, such as scams, hoaxes, and forgeries.

Sander van der Linden,  professor in social psychology at Cambridge University, has identified six degrees of manipulation commonly used by purveyors of falsehoods—impersonation, conspiracy, emotion, polarization, discrediting, and trolling—to spread misinformation and disinformation.  For instance, a false news source may quote a fake expert, use emotional language, or propose a conspiracy theory in order to manipulate its intended audience.

Norbert Schwarz, professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, has established five filters people use to decide whether information is true: compatibility with other known information, credibility of the source, whether others believe it, whether the information is internally consistent, and whether there is supporting evidence.

Thanks to the work of these men and others in the field, there are ways we can try to cut through the morass of conflicting claims, to ascertain the truth.  One effective way is to identify the sources from which information emanates, and to examine their credibility.  Do those sources provide authoritative citations or evidence to back up their claims?  Have those sources been accurate in the past with respect to other claims they’ve made?  Who owns or financially supports them?

Another way to cut through the miasma of misinformation is to help people learn to think analytically and critically about what they see and hear.  Help them learn how to question things, not belligerently or ideologically, but clearly and with a view to illuminating the issues central to the claims being made.  This could mean providing people with valid questions to ask about particular issues being debated in the public square, so as not to send them unarmed into the fray.

It is not unwise to question everything.  As Rudyard Kipling wrote long ago: I have six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who…

Yet another way to get at the truth is to apply one’s common sense to what is being presented, the personal smell-test.  If it walks like a skunk and stinks like a skunk, it’s most likely not a striped pussycat.  Common sense, alas, is not standardized across our random population, not universally reliable, so some caution is required.

A more controversial way to deal with mis- and dis-information is more fraught with the potential for abuse, and would need to be addressed carefully.  Perhaps we need to consider attacking the propagation of falsehoods at their points of origin, act pre-emptively, to prevent the sowing of mistruths.  Critics will claim, of course, that such censorship must never be tolerated, that it would contravene the very notion of free speech so enshrined in our history and culture.

I’ve long upheld that view, too.  But recently, ‘midst the plethora of damaging information that inundates us, I’ve begun to consider the wisdom of somehow regulating the relentless spewing of falsehoods, particularly from online sources.  Our minds are being poisoned, and those of our more malleable young people.  There is nothing included in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protects free speech of a sort deemed anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, hate-filled, Islamophobic, life-threatening, misogynistic, racist, treasonous, or in any other manner harmful to our collective notion of peace, order, and good government.

Would intelligent regulation, impartially applied within the context of our national ethos, amount to unjustified censorship?

There are two other maxims I finish with.  The first is lightly-edited from Thomas Friedman, an American journalist: When widely followed public [sources] feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, it becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues.

The second is a tenet often attributed to Edmund Burke (but now thought to be a distillation of ideas from John Stuart Mill): The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.

Fool me once…

Our Own Worst Enemies

In the early seventeenth century, the poet John Donne wrote: No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…

Almost two hundred years after he wrote that, I have just finished reading a book loaned to me by a friend, which warns of and laments the decline of democratic society in the USA, which has long proclaimed itself as the world’s greatest democracy.  Written by Tom Nichols, the book is titled, Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within On Modern Democracy.

On the one hand, the book agrees with Donne’s assertion—in effect ascribing the success of US democratic institutions thus far to the truism that each of us must be part of the greater whole.  Sadly, however, the book asserts that the nation is currently experiencing a rise of individualism that is tearing at the fabric of democracy.

Nichols is a professor at the US Naval War College, a columnist for USA Today, and a contributing writer at The Atlantic.  He is also the author of several other books, a former aide in the US Senate, and has been a Fellow of the International Security Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  In short, he knows whereof he speaks.

As I read the book, I fond myself wondering how closely my own country, Canada—and, indeed, other democracies around the world—might be following in the direction of our neighbour to the south.

Three of the chapter headings give a hint as to what lies inside the book’s covers: a) When Good Neighbors Are Bad Citizens; b) Democracy in an Age of Rage and Resentment; and c) How Hyper-Connection Is Destroying Democracy.

That last one is a central thesis in the book.  It seems, even as we become more and more connected virtually through our electronic devices, we are becoming less and less bonded in person.  Our communications, therefore, are untempered by any intimate knowledge we have of each other’s personalities and proclivities, or by any affection or consideration of each other’s feelings and opinions.  We have almost unfettered freedom to say anything online, to make whatever outlandish claims we want, with very little fear of repercussion or consequence.

The noted American writer, Isaac Asimov, wrote, There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

Of course, he wrote that long before the proliferation of the internet and the hyper-connectivity it has brought us, which has only exacerbated the trend—and not only in that country.  Everywhere, it seems, ignorant people are now free to spew their venom and disinformation on a worldwide platform unavailable to previous generations.

An unfortunate by-product of this trend is the propensity for each of us to believe everything we think—surely a dangerous practice—and to assume that what we think is always right.  It thus follows that, if I disagree with you on any issue of significance, you believe I must be wrong.

On a grand scale, where no one believes anything espoused by others holding different opinions or political affiliations, the very notion of democracy is threatened.  Democracy flourishes, after all, on a free exchange of contradictory and opposing ideas, and an earnest consideration of the merits of all, eventually leading to a consensus as to how best to proceed.

The Economist Intelligence Unit publishes an annual democracy index, ranking the nations of the world on their adherence to democratic principles.  The scores are based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, and political culture. Based on their scores on sixty indicators within these categories, each country is then itself classified as one of four types of regime: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime or authoritarian regime.

The USA of which Nichols writes in his book was ranked as a ‘flawed democracy’ in 2020, riven by acrimonious, partisan proselytizing, with no attempt to listen to or understand others’ points of view.  As Nichol’s title attests, Americans have become their own worst enemies.

By contrast, Canada—with all its own warts and blemishes—was ranked at # 5 in the ‘full democracy’ category, behind Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and New Zealand.

Those five nations are small by superpower standards, however, and thus able to exert only minimal influence on world affairs.  The USA, perhaps the most powerful nation the world has known, continues to influence global affairs on a massive scale.  If it were to drift from democracy to autocracy or dictatorship, it would surely draw along many others, some of whom—Brazil, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey—are already embarked on that path.

Plato wrote, Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.

After my reading of Nichol’s book, I wonder if I am seeing the beginning of that before my very eyes, where the islands of democracy are slowly shredding.  And if so, I hope we may yet resist, that we, with all our individual freedoms, will choose to remain a piece of the continent, a part of the main…

When the worst of us triumph, they get the government they want; when the best of us sit back, we get the government we deserve.