Lisa Harris (lrph) Thu 26 Jun 08 07:30
Way up there murffy mentioned that the "moon orbits the earth" and this is true. We have pictures. We have science that can prove it. But so did Galileo, and he was villified. Al Gore has been touting the science of Global Warming for over a decade, but people still undercut his science. So whose science do we believe? I believe Gore because I am a believer in his science. But what about my neighbor, Tina, who doesn't believe that science and math have anything to do with nature - nature is G-d's domain, according to her, and if there is global warming it's because G-d planned it that way. And she thinks I'm crazy for believing in science. So who's truth is real? And how can we come to any concensus about truth when we hold such different beliefs on where truth can be found? I don't think this is new with our new technologies. It's as old or older than Galileo. And Abraham.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Thu 26 Jun 08 09:13
<< the loss of faith of the Boomers as opposed to the post-modern ennui of the D and X generations >> Yes, and I think you point out the key generational difference. The portion of our Boomer generation that was disaffected with the mainstream of old, also believed that "We Can Change the World." The subsequent generations are adapting to a system/establishment/ reconfigured mainstream that they have no hope of changing. While there is often a rite-of-passage neo-bohemian phase that many young will go through that seems similar to the hippie counterculture of old, I think you are absolutely correct that their ennui is related to knowing that they are playing on the fringes of the "machine" that they must adapt to in the end. Those in the boomer counterculture, are called utopian idealists in retrospect, but there was a sense that a new order could be fashioned. The most commoditized aspects of the alternative initiatives did change the establishment, but not in the manner envisioned.
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Thu 26 Jun 08 09:17
Just to clarify, I selected the example of "the moon orbits the earth" because it doesn't take a lot of convincing to get people to accept it. We can see it arcing across the sky. But the sun also arcs across the sky so it takes some convincing to get people to accept the idea that the earth orbits the sun. Unless you're prepared to make the observations and do the calculations yourself, you have to accept the authority of Galileo and the astronomical community. As (lrph) alludes to, how do you sift through the various, often conflicting, authorities? Or, as in the case of my born-again Christian brother, how do you convince him that these beliefs he's so heavily invested in are largely untrue?
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Thu 26 Jun 08 09:42
That's one of the things I wish would be more widely acknowledged: since we can't do most experiments ourselves, science usually does, in practice, depend on trust in others and respect for authority, even if at a fundamental level it doesn't, if you're willing to get your hands dirty. And if that's the case, respect for scientific work seems like a good thing to encourage.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 26 Jun 08 10:15
I have an off-topic question. With this good a book, and this close a topic to discuss, why havn't you been on the Colbert Report yet, Farhad, and what can any of us do to get you there? Or would that descend into a fractal hell of meta-truthiness?
descend into a fractal hell of meta-truthiness (jmcarlin) Thu 26 Jun 08 10:17
> descend into a fractal hell of meta-truthiness TFTP as we say (thanks for the pseudonym).
Cupido, Ergo Denego (robertflink) Thu 26 Jun 08 12:51
One approach to dealing with those who point out the shortcomings of ones scientific theories is to write them off as religious nuts or oil company shills or members of the rival party. Science is wonderful because its knowledge is provisional. As such, it presents room to explore, re-examine, enlarge, doubt, etc. Science is terrible for the same reasons, particularly for those responsible to supply certitude to the masses such as politics and religion.
Bob Rossney (rbr) Thu 26 Jun 08 15:44
> If it wasn't new technology that broke up the mainstream, what was it? > What do you finger as the primary cause of the end of "the idea that > *there was such a thing* as authority"? Authority as an idea got rolled up because the people who had it misused it. The three major American conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s - the civil rights movement, the generational movement, and the feminist movement - were challenges to authority, and across the board authority responded by overreaching. Whatever the Ohio National Guard and Hoover's FBI thought they were doing by murdering people, what they actually accomplished was delegitimizing the power structure they were supposed to protect. I think that the discovery that authority was simply flat-out *wrong* was thrilling. It meant that anything was possible. This was a very seductive idea. You can read _The Whole Earth Catalog_, for instance, entirely as a manifesto of optimists surveying the wreckage of authority, declaring that they can make their own tools and grow their own vegetables and do pretty much anything they set their minds to, because they don't have to do what they're told anymore, and what they've been told about the way the world works isn't true. For a somewhat sadder and darker version of the same intellectual journey, consider the women that Joan Didion describes in "The Feminist Movement" (in _The White Album_): women whose lives had been canalized by authority to the point of infantilization, and who, freed from authority, constructed ideas about what they were going to do next that Didion found disturbing in their lack of contact with the real world of adult concerns. You can still see a reflexive and active distrust of authority in people of that generation. The next generation doesn't have that: they came of age in a world where authority was already broken, and they tend to view authority with a certain detachment. The emperor has been naked for their entire lives, and so they don't find the fact of his nudity quite so compelling.
phil (philg25) Thu 26 Jun 08 16:38
Both <lrph> and <murffy> make a very clear point and perfect sense, but where does this leave us? "Truth", whether it be scientific, historic or whatever, becomes just another item of Faith. Unless each of us is able to prove something empirically, we are resigned to ultimately believe an outside source. Regardless of our level of Trust (another of the capitalized aspirations), we are relying upon belief. PC or Mac, Coke or Pepsi, Linux vs. Windows, Democrat vs. Republican. It seems that nearly everything becomes belief-based or a religion, if you will. Subjectivity has always been the rule of the day. I wonder if we haven't been fooling ourselves all along with our assertions of Truth. Mr. Manjoo brings us back to the crux - our reliance on belief systems separates us into "us versus them" societal structures. This makes it very easy to trust those that believe as we do and distrust those that don't. After all, if they can't see what we see as so clearly True, there must be something wrong with them. The more we hear that confirms what we believe, the more "right" we are. If we are "right", they must be wrong. I do my utmost to violate my basic humanity and not judge others. Unfortunately, I do find myself to one of the contemporary Americans Mr. Manjoo refers to in his epilogue. I once trusted as my first response and now I am much less likely to do so. I believe it is now appropriate to take a defensive posture. As much as I have always believed in Peace, Love and nonviolence, I no longer feel we are evolved enough yet to make it become our reality. I am now as likely to prepare to protect myself. I admit it saddens me a great deal, but Reality has a way of doing that.
phil (philg25) Thu 26 Jun 08 16:42
<rbr>, well said. Despite my personal misgivings with human frailties and failure, I am happy to see so many of our immediate community get a firm grasp of the topic and the issues related.
Andrew Alden (alden) Thu 26 Jun 08 21:58
I have to speak up for technology here, which has given all of us so many more outlets of expression and sources of opinion that everyone can find a reinforcing voice out there, no matter how nuts they are. To me it's like the old science fiction story in which everyone becomes telepathic and is horrified by the thoughts they begin to hear in their fellow humans. I think that today it's not just the emperor who's naked; we all are.
Bob Rossney (rbr) Fri 27 Jun 08 00:14
I think another reason to not get so enamored by technology is that technological determinism usually misses every boat that's sailing. Was it the technology of aviation that brought us 9/11, or was it the technology of the box-cutter? Well, neither; what brought us 9/11 was a group of dedicated fanatics willing to use every tool at their disposal to wreak their vengeance irrespective of any other consideration. Am I comparing the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth with Mohammed Atta and his crew? Sure. What the Swift folks did was like what Kurtz admires so about the Montagnards in _Apocalypse Now_: they were willing to abandon sentimental attachments. The difference between lying and mass murder (or hacking off the arms of schoolgirls) is nontrivial, so don't take the comparison too far. But still: the foremost obstacle that the Swifties overcame was not being able to get their word out, it was being able to persuade themselves that their lies were serving a greater truth.
uber-muso hipster hyperbole (pjm) Fri 27 Jun 08 10:26
"it was being able to persuade themselves that their lies were serving a greater truth" The basis of most of the great lies of history.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Fri 27 Jun 08 11:04
Farhad, is there a reliable source of news out there? I mean, I'm partial to NPR, and I'm pretty damn sure they're reliable, but should I question their reliability? If I did question it, where instead should I look for more truthy truth?
Farhad Manjoo (fmanjoo) Fri 27 Jun 08 12:04
This is a fascinating discussion. When you spend years writing a book -- intermittently watching a lot of TV and YouTube -- you often wonder the point of it: Are people going to read this thing? Will anyone engage with my ideas? Should I buy the 50" plasma or the 42" LCD? And so I feel enormously grateful that you're all taking on my ideas with such gusto. A couple people have touched on one of the ideas I spend much time on, the difficulty of determining which of the many "experts" we encounter in the news is the real deal. As some people note, it's become harder than ever to distinguish true authorities from phonies. The news media is enormously invested in expertise: Turn on the TV at any time of day and you'll see scientists, economists, home designers, cooks, firemen, architects, doctors or any number of other specialists commenting on the big stories of the day. Indeed, in some ways presenting expertise is the primary function of journalism. Reporters, the ultimate generalists, aim to dig in to any relevant specialty, unearth its essence, and disseminate it over the genpop. Two trends make this process more difficult. First, specialization is constantly getting more special. As I write in the book, in the modern economy there is no butcher, baker, candlestick maker. Now it's the organic butcher, the gluten-free baker, the beeswax candlestick maker, each of us familiar with just a vanishingly small section of society. The problem's especially acute in academia. Naomi Orsekes, a historian of science, pointed out to me that there's no such thing as "climate change expert," a label we often see in the news. "We might expect that scientific experts are able to speak on all aspects of global warming, but the reality is that the person who studies the ice-albedo effect might know relatively little about, say, paleoclimate research," she explained. There's another problem with experts: There are now too many of them. The explosion in the number and kind of media sources -- online, on TV, on the radio -- has demanded an equal number of new experts. But because many of the new sources are deliberately partisan, the experts they choose are also partisan. So you turn on Fox News, these days, and you see the "climatologist" who argues that global warming is a bluff. He can prove it, he says, because, after all, *he's an expert.* Meanwhile just one or two channels away, the climatologist on CNN is saying exactly the opposite. So whom should you believe? In the book I go over a lot of research showing that mere vestments of authority -- a white lab coat, credentials from a prestigious university, simply speaking in a tone that suggests you are smart -- can fool people into thinking you really are an expert. We like to think of ourselves as sophisticated spotters of intellect, as folks who can readily tell a B.S. artist when we're presented with one, but that's not often the case. In most situations, especially on subjects we don't know much about -- in other words, the areas in which we most need the help of experts -- we're very bad at separating true experts from poseurs. So what we do often is go with a gut feeling. You tend to trust the experts who appeal to your pre-conceived beliefs. If you see a pair of climate change experts dueling on TV, you're unlikely to really listen to what each is saying, because, face it, you've got no idea whether the planet really is warming due to human activity. Every single thing you know about climate change comes from experts you've chosen to trust. And you've chosen to trust them for a number of factors unrelated to the subject (whether other experts say the same thing, whether other people whom you trust -- Al Gore, or Michael Crichton, whomever -- says the same thing, etc.) Which brings us to Murffy's question: "Or, as in the case of my born-again Christian brother, how do you convince him that these beliefs he's so heavily invested in are largely untrue?" I don't know your brother, but I bet it'll be a hard case. Non-religious people often think that religious people have abandoned empiricism for faith, that religious people are shunning evidence in favor of blind belief. What I'm arguing is that we empiricists are often just going on another kind of faith -- faith in the authority of science, in the scientific method. It's a faith I happen to share, but I won't pretend that it isn't often blind belief. In other words, I'm not prepared to do the calculations, and so I "accept the authority of Galileo and the astronomical community," as Murffy puts it. But if we're all going on faith, obviously convincing people takes much more effort. Evidence isn't going to help your brother: he's beyond that. But in many areas, now, we're all in the same boat. On Gail's question regarding Colbert: I agree! I did speak with a booker there a couple months ago. She said they'd keep me in mind, but that, obviously, these are themes that have come up often on the show, so she isn't sure they'd be able to get to them again. Here's hoping.
Farhad Manjoo (fmanjoo) Fri 27 Jun 08 12:07
Lisa: I'm an unabashed NPR addict, but I'd say, sure, you should seek out other media. It helps, these days, to investigate everything that's important to you. Question everything. Fortunately that's easier to do than ever before -- the Web is a vast resource!
descend into a fractal hell of meta-truthiness (jmcarlin) Fri 27 Jun 08 13:09
> another kind of faith That is a critical point. The root of much of this discussion if faith: who do you have faith in? When reading a new story, do you have faith that the story is being reported accurately? When the latest medical study comes out contradicting an earlier one, which do you have enough faith in to guide your behavior. I've read many stories about physicists speculating that some things I thought had been proven might indeed be not proven, at least under some conditions. And when we get to other realms such as politics, the problem gets much, much worse. How much faith should we put in what a candidate says before he or she gets elected: zero or almost zero? And given the axe-grinding and lack of balance in the media, how does one determine what is really going on? Who do you believe is reporting the truth? > we empiricists The distinction between conventional religion and the spiritual path can be said to be the difference between blind belief and empiricism. Spiritual empiricists say that to follow a specific path leads to a specific result and this can be tested (and falsified) by all who are interested.
Ludo, Ergo Sum (robertflink) Fri 27 Jun 08 13:20
>What I'm arguing is that we empiricists are often just going on another kind of faith -- faith in the authority of science, in the scientific method.< Very good point except modern science tends to see knowledge as provisional. Thus, "scientific authority" is a bit of an oxymoron. I like the scientific method and provisional knowledge simply because it is open-ended and fruitful. Traditional authority and dogma is attempting to end inquiry at least in certain directions. Politics likes action or the appearance of action and consequently dislikes inquiry (e.g "where is the sky falling?" "what size are the pieces?", "Is most of the sky still up there?" "Is someone selling sky falling insurance" "Is someone selling underground housing", etc. )
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Fri 27 Jun 08 13:56
This expert expertise on the challenges of expert expertise in the information age is also part of the new postmodern mainstream where the claim of authority is fragmented, but very specific interests are, nonetheless, being served. I always wonder about motive as I read or watch anything purporting to be "news" or "analysis" or "documentary." Why is this person or show being presented in this way? What angle is being sold? Whose interests are being served? Who is controlling this medium of access to me? Things have the appearance of being fragmented. Pseudo-truths are being promulgated, but, too often, I can suss who or what interests are behind the message and approach. Despite the fragmentation, there is still a mainstream plutocracy pulling most of the significant strings in this postmodern society of ours. Globalized capitalism is fueled by multinational and state capitalists with very specific interests. I was a little disappointed that you haven't addressed this different approach you take to the idea of a "mainstream", Farhad. It seems to be an important contextual factor as we adapt to info-overload and a multiplicity of "truths."
Farhad Manjoo (fmanjoo) Fri 27 Jun 08 14:05
Scott: I'm not quite sure what you mean when you say "I was a little disappointed that you haven't addressed this different approach you take to the idea of a 'mainstream,' Farhad." Are you saying you're disappointed I'm not talking about the corporate role in this system? Much of the last chapter of my book is about this -- or are you saying something else?
"The Best for Your Health!" (rik) Fri 27 Jun 08 14:09
"What I'm arguing is that we empiricists are often just going on another kind of faith -- faith in the authority of science, in the scientific method. It's a faith I happen to share, but I won't pretend that it isn't often blind belief." I couldn't agree more. I share the same faith, but a lot of the other believers on this system get very angry when you try and make that point.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Fri 27 Jun 08 14:18
Farhad, see post #16. I spelled out a different perspective on Bob's point and your response: <<Bob, I see your argument about how "disappearance of the mainstream from American life" is the big story; I think I make much the same argument in the book. But as I see it, it's technology that's responsible for the disappearance of the mainstream.>> I have been very impressed with how you deal with "truthiness" in these discussions, and I plan to buy your book, but after taking the time and effort to question the idea that there is no "mainstream", I was a bit disappointed that you never addressed that alternative perspective in subsequent posts. I sincerely wanted to hear your thoughts on the idea of a postmodern mainstream as opposed to the notion that there is no mainstream.
Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Fri 27 Jun 08 15:40
The information stream is also really polluted by "experts" who are bought and paid for, who will tell you stories they don't necessarily believe or even know are completely false, because their livelihood depends on it. This tendency is a problem we all face, the urge to believe in what profits us (financially or emotionally or whatever), but it's much worse when, as with this Administration, there is a systematic campaign to lie, distract, and mislead even people who are honestly looking for good information.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Fri 27 Jun 08 16:32
In 2004, George Lakoff wrote a fascinating little book, "Don't Think of An Elephant," that talks about how, starting with the Reagan Administration, the Republican party became quite adept at "framing." One of the best examples was the use of the phrase "tax relief" to frame the issue of tax cuts for the ultra rich to the voting public. Lakoff is also behind the use of the word "progressive" to replace the discredited term "liberal." Bottom line, the oversimplification and packaging of public policy is part of the "truthiness" of contemporary society, and, after seeing the oxymoronic "Conservative Revolution" succeed so well at this, the "Progressives" are trying their best to follow suit. Lost in all of this is the substance of those public policies.
Bob Rossney (rbr) Fri 27 Jun 08 16:32
I once saw, on CNN, an interview with "Defense Analyst James Dunagain." I knew who he was - for "defense analyst", read "wargame designer" - and watched him with some interest as he answered question after question. At one point, the interviewer asked him, "Mr. Dunnagain, what makes you an expert?" He looked straight in the camera and said, "You do."
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