We need to change the way we think—which means we need the critical tools of the humanitiesby Linda Risso / June 21, 2017 / Leave a comment
A tweet by US-President Donald Trump, who is at the centre of today’s row over fake news. Photo: PA In January 2017, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee launched an inquiry into fake news and social media. The inquiry was supposed to look into the role of non-traditional news sources, which put out unverified items that are then picked up and magnified by mainstream media. Damian Collins, chairman of the committee, said the trend was “a threat to democracy”. Fake news wears down of the threads of our society. It exposes the public to manipulation in ways that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. Fake news is not simply lies. While lying presupposes an interest in what is true, fake news promotes a casual detachment from reality. Experts are dismissed as one of the main voices in the debate. Everything is equally possible and nothing is really true. This leads to a post-truth environment in which trust in institutions, governments and experts crumbles at incremental speed. The public is left exposed, confused and scared. The question is: what can we do about it? So far official advice has put pressure on the public to become wiser Internet users: get out of your bubble, check the source of the information you read, only rely on trustworthy, reputable sources. Fact checking seems to be the best answer. NATO and the EU were the first to set up fact checking task forces to counter information attacks coming from Russia. Germany has passed a law against spreading fake news. Pressure has also been put on Internet corporations to fight proactively against fake news by offering advice to their users and by removing swiftly any item that is false and misleading. The problem is that fact checking alone does not work. In fact, more often than not, it makes the problem more acute. The work of cognitive scientists on confirmation bias amply demonstrates that we are quite skilled in spotting the weaknesses in others’ arguments. The problem is that we are stubbornly blind about flaws in our own thinking. This is what Mercier and Dan Sperber call “myside bias.” The “illusion of explanatory depth” theory is equally helpful to understand the pervasiveness of fake news. Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach explain how we rely on one another’s expertise to such an extent that we can no longer tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins. As a result, we think we know more than we do. When it comes to sharing technical knowledge, incomplete understanding is empowering. The problem comes when we adopt the same attitude to our social and political environment, in which the implications of not knowing enough have long-term effects on our society and our lives. While we can flush a toilet without understanding the plumbing behind the wall, we cannot think of doing the same about, let’s say, climate change. Paradoxically, fact checking ends up feeding the post-truth environment. We pick and chose among the wealth of evidence thrown at us. We dismiss anything that does not confirm what we already think and we rely excessively on what confirms what we believe. Those who think differently are shrugged off as gullible, misguided simpletons. Search engines’ algorithms reinforce the trend by exposing us to information that confirms our ideas and push any inconvenient truth at the bottom of our search page. Fact checking is also time-consuming and it takes up a lot of resources. Those who attempt to debunk a myth like, let’s say, that vaccinations cause autism are doomed to failure. First of all, in trying to challenge the myth they end up repeating it, thus drawing more attention to it. Then, they cannot avoid going through statistical evidence and scientific findings. Soon, it all becomes rather boring and technical. At best, the public feels that it remains an open question and that there is reason for doubt. Fact checking keeps the controversy alive. It feeds the beast. Even in the case of a sudden event or emergency, the value of fact checking is limited. In January 2017, the right-wing site Breitbart published a story about a 1,000-muslim mob attack against a church in Dortmund. Within a few hours, it became clear that the news had been fabricated. Disclaimers and alerts were duly published on the major news outlets. But it was too late. In the meantime, the piece had been shared hundreds of thousands of times and quoted in other alt-right sites. It is, of course, essential to have evidence to challenge untruths and misleading information but fact checking is not the answer. Professor Bill Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute argues that we need “to educate users about the need to critically assess information they are sent or see.” It could be argued that users must become equally aware of what they do not see and of what they do not read. The new information environment builds on our mental habit of reducing complex issues to one-dimensional easy-to-handle topics that can either be taken on board or dismissed. Hence, we must change the way in which we think. This can be done in two ways: invest in further education and support the humanities. Further education, whatever the subject, supports the idea that there is always more to know and to understand. It prevents thinking that we now ‘know enough’ and that we can judge ourselves if something is right or wrong. It promotes scientific curiosity at all stages of life. According to Tim Harford, scientific curiosity is the ability to experience the pleasure of contemplating new insights into the big themes our world: health, migration, education, economy, human rights and institutions. Further education must become part of our society and way of life. Over the past decades, humanities have been under sustained attack. They allegedly do not prepare students for the job market as effectively as STEM subjects and they do not contribute to the economy as much. Many see the humanities as little more than vanity projects. Yet, history, literature, art, languages, and philosophy equip the public with critical tools that make them better-informed internet users and more open and tolerant people. Humanities train the mind to handle contrasting points of view. They teach about different ways of weighing evidence and sources. They open readers to cultural and political differences and to diverging ways of thinking. Crucially, humanities are grounded on the idea that things are never as easy as they seem and that human consciousness and knowledge is multi-layered. They support the view that there are always multiple factors that come into play at any given time and there is always something more that needs to be researched and understood. The tools that are acquired through the study of the humanities are invaluable in today’s information environment and they contribute effectively to the fight against the simplification of complex issues. Our societies are delicate ecosystems and they require rounded, confident citizens who can think critically about what they see. We need to bring humanities at the centre of a life-long journey of learning and discovering.