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…

Things Happen

Things happen.

We don’t always know about them, of course—not right when they occur, and sometimes not ever.

Trees topple loudly in the forest all the time when no one is present, waves smash spectacularly on solitary shorelines, birds plummet exhausted from the sky to die on uninhabited barrens.  And nobody is there to bear witness.


It has ever been that way, from the first appearance of our human species until the present day.  Things happen, even when we do not know.

But that truth has become increasingly hard for many folk to accept.  In this age in which we live—one of marvellous, instantly-accessible, graphic, digital reality—it has become easy instead to believe that, unless we are told something happened, or see it on our screens, or experience it first-hand, it did not occur.

If it’s not up and viral on the web, if we aren’t personally in the loop, it cannot have happened.

How foolish we have become!


And there is another problem.  Much of the information we avidly soak up from our handheld devices is misleading—sometimes inadvertently, sometimes deliberately so.  Too many users, alas, are ill-equipped to assimilate the plethora of information assailing us, to differentiate, to assess, to form coherent conclusions about it all.

Today, many of us assume if it is up and viral on the web, bringing us personally into the loop, it must certainly have happened.

So, what is real and what is fake?  Hemingway wrote, …there is no one thing that’s true.  It’s all true.  And, in many ways, his observation has proven accurate—at least in the sense that it’s all there in front of us, waiting for us to choose from it.

There is a problem with that, though—one associated with our all-too-human tendency to embrace those opinions we are already in agreement with, and to reject those to which we have a preconceived aversion.

Don’t bother me with facts! we seem to say.

Unfortunately, even so-called facts can be fabricated by malevolent purveyors of misinformation, leaving us even more confused and more susceptible to manipulation.  That may not be overly-problematic if we’re being influenced to buy one brand of toilet tissue over another, for example; as an aside, a friend once told me, “On the (w)hole, they’re all pretty good!”

But it might be calamitous if we are being callously misled about the relative merits of one political leader over another.


Which of these two imaginary politicos would be more palatable to the average voters, do you suppose?  The one who tells them exactly what they want to hear, who panders to their fears and prejudices, even if (s)he has no intention of fulfilling the empty promises?  Or the one who dares speak about the looming climate crisis, for instance, despite knowing the warnings might fall on deaf ears among the electorate?

Which of the two would be more favoured to win, the one who croons the siren-song of making things better—the way they used to be—or the one who tells of the hard slog ahead to deal with climate change, the existential crisis of our time?

The answer, I suspect, is the person who most-closely approximates the baked-in attitudes and ideas of us who are the voters.  Or the majority of us, anyway.  The relative merits of the candidates’ positions come secondary to that.

Facts no longer seem to matter because, while they used to be considered unassailable, almost sacrosanct, they are today viewed as permeable and malleable.  Where they used to be built on a rock foundation, they stand today on shifting sand.

Facts are, in this worldwide web of deceit and falsity, whatever any shill or charlatan wants us to believe they are.

But in a way, none of this matters for the planet.  Not really.  For, in spite of what we are told about this critical issue of our time—whether it’s the truth or a lie, whether we heed or ignore it—there is one fundamental reality that does not change.

Things happen.  Whether we choose to know about them or not.

Glaciers shrink and shed meltwater all the time when no one is present, permafrost thaws in the isolated, wind-swept tundra, animals disappear from our planetary menagerie, never to be seen again.  And too many of us choose to look away, refuse to listen to those who are compelled to bear witness.

The planet will go on, regardless.  But what of us, wrapped in our imperious cloak of superiority?  Will humankind survive?

Things happen.