Sunday 14 February 2021

Stop the Hokum

Posted by Allister Marran

It is said that all things are related to all things. Mel Thompson, the author of Teach Yourself Philosophy, writes, ‘At any moment, we move within a seamless web of causality that goes forwards and backward in time and outwards in space.’ There is, however, a new kind of relatedness, which is not as sweet. It, too, goes forward and backward in time and outwards in space—yet the web that it weaves has no basis in the way that things truly lie—or worse, it is based on things which have no basis in reality at all. 

And so people start a ridiculous rumour, or a conspiracy theory which, fundamentally, has no basis in truth or fact. From there, they convince enough people in their orbit to like and share the post to make it go viral. Once it has enough support, they use the level of acceptance as the basis that it must be true. Surely, a post with a million likes and shares can only be right? It is the fallacy of the majority. A Chinese proverb, attributed to Pang Cong, has it, 'Three men make a tiger' (there is a tiger roaming in the market if three men say so).

Too often, to the recipient of rumour and conspiracy, their only verification of a fact or theory is the level of permeation and acceptance of said theory. Or put another way, I believe anything that the peers in my echo chamber tell me to believe if the echo is strong enough. An old Slavic proverb states (falsely attributed to Lenin in similar form), ‘Repeated one-hundred times, a lie becomes true.’

The best defence against hokum is critical thinking—a lost art in the age of information. Be critical, and aggressively interrogate everything you read or see. Don't just accept it as gospel because it furthers your own narrow perception of life or an argument. Don't accept it because it comes from a source you trust or are fond of. Attack the information in the post and see if it stands up to logical and scientific scrutiny. If it does, share away. If it does not, reply and resist the source of the hogwash until they stop spreading lies.

In an age of conspiracy theories, fake news, and deep fakes, among many other things, the only defence may be independent, impartial, robust thinking to discern those ‘seamless webs of causality’ which are sound and those which are not. In fact it often enough goes back to common sense that many of us knew from childhood: Did that movie ring true? or was it far-fetched? A lot of truth either validates or invalidates itself, to those who discern. And just like the movies, those who fall for a stupid plot look stupid and contemptible themselves—to all but themselves.

When one starts reading everything with an open mind, one begins to see that the world is not as black and white as one thinks it is, but has many colours and shades, a field of popping blooms that are beautiful to see and soft on the eyes. Next time you read something that makes a statement that might be prejudicial or controversial, I summon you to read it, then dissect it into a series of facts that the poster wants you to accept as truth. Then argue the opposite point of view with as much vigor as you can muster, and see how many holes, lies, or contradictions you can find in the post. If you are able to win the argument, then be honest with yourself and adjust your world view slightly to integrate this new information into your thinking.

Happily, there is a scientific way to do this, too. It is the analysis of oppositions, or opposites. In semantics, we find oppositions of various kinds: antonyms, directional opposites, complementaries, heteronyms, and converses. Imagine, for example, that we read that a certain politician is ‘influential’. Antonyms: they may be spineless instead, or may not bring about much change. A directional opposite: influence aside, this politician may be impressionable, too. Heteronyms: others may be influencing their situation—or force of circumstance, even divine will. Having now identified some oppositions to the description ‘influential’, we may ask whether any of these apply to them.

This might reveal that the politician did not bring about the change that we thought they did, or that they faced strong opposition. Or indeed, it might reveal that they proved to be influential or inspiring in ways we had not imagined. We begin to think more expansively and holistically.

The one sure way to identify false thinking is to test it for balance. If nothing offsets it—if those who propound their views can speak of nothing to the contrary, or worse, nothing by way of nuance or subtlety to off-set it or balance it, one is surely dealing with extremism, if not lunacy of some sort. This in itself should warn us that something has gone deeply wrong.

The only way to stop the lies of the social media hype-train from ruining a modern cyberspace-infused social media driven existence is to educate people on how to spot and call out falsehood and stop sharing it. Stop being the link. If nobody shares hokum, people will stop posting it.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I like the Chinese proverb which is quoted, "Three men make a tiger." Which is to say, there is a tiger roaming in the market if three men say so. Yet if three men saw a tiger roaming in the market, there wasn't a market anyway!

When I started at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, the very first lecture was on critical openness, by Prof. Rich Erickson. This contained each of the elements listening, thinking, responding, for all those involved, who should be 'unperturbed'.

Keith said...

I think we have to look at the deeper sociological underpinnings of conspiracy theories (or ‘hokum’), and who’s inspired to propagate them: belonging, identity, tribalism, purpose, group-think, socioeconomics, racism … among other issues, like ‘autopilot’ thinking. I suspect that teaching critical-thinking skills and education in general will, unfortunately, barely brush against the profusion of conspiracy theories. That is, our better understand who’s ‘conspiring’ and what are the ‘theories’, and to more effectually judge veracity or, conversely, inauthenticity. Social media needs to be better held to account for curating and vetting content. After all, they, not their customers, are the responsible parties that have access to the sophisticated algorithms to analyse their own content’s provenance and genuineness. Of course, that discussion and those decisions will inevitably bump into the briar patch of free speech, bias, and disputes over whose truth is true. We’re still far from figuring all that out in any definitive way. Expect more hokum.

docmartincohen said...

Yes, timely post, thanks Allister. I too like the Chinese saying, which certainly points to a deeper truth. However, my own feeling is the the blog is too quick to assume the problem lies with the masses, with their perpetual flaws of prejudice and ignorance - and NOT with the slick, sophisticated manipulators of opinion. I rather think that it is in this statue that the real dangers lie…

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