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Truth or Alternative Truth

Coen Van Wyk

Posted on January 29, 2021 08:12

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In a time of pandemic disruption of our society, and of technological changes that destabilize checks and balances in information flow, we need to investigate the distinction between truth and fake news, reality and propaganda. Freedom of choice must construct, not become anarchy.

Terry Pratchett, creator of the SciFi Diskworld series, in a 1995 interview with Bill Gates warned that the internet would propagate and legitimize fake news. Gates disagreed.

For perspective: at the time of the Black Death pandemic, Gutenberg’s printing press disrupted established structures of communication. No longer were the Catholic Church and the feudal aristocracy the sole controllers of truth and heresy.

Galileo could propose that the earth moves around the sun, the Renaissance could begin to create the modern society we know now, democracy as we know it could flourish. But wars, persecution, a global reduction of life expectancy and of quality of life were the immediate result.

The society we knew back in 1995 had academic structures that certified research results through peer review mechanisms. Newspapers developed systems of fact checking, editors were gatekeepers of information, as described by Karl Deutsch, who developed quantitative methods to analyze political interactions in and between nations. 

The internet changed all that. Not only is brick and mortar academe something of the past, traditional printed newspapers and their electronic alternatives are history as well. Facts and alternative facts, fake news and social destabilizing trolling is common practice. Epistemology, the philosophy of how we know what we know, once the realm of academic ivory towers, now has to come down to the user of electronic media.

We tend to equate quantity with quality – if there are hundreds of ads pushing a certain product as the best and greatest, consumers are programmed to believe the claims. Social media algorithms based on search preferences tend to reinforce our pattern recognition mechanisms and make us believe what we are already thinking – an echo chamber effect.

This feeds into group creation, association with ‘true believers’ in the same conspiracy theories. And conspiracy theories tend to make people surrender power and control, making them less likely to vote or to vaccinate, for instance.

Our political thinking these days is colored in terms of ‘left’ and ‘right’ -- a nice bit of fake thinking that prevents us from thinking clearly about our political choices. What has been developed since Gutenberg, what is wonderful about the internet and the free market system, is the ability of the individual to choose. Its antithesis is surrendering our decision-making power to big corporations, box stores, governments, bureaucrats, great leaders.

The conflict is between China- and Soviet-style lockstep government, where left and right politburos are solely there to applaud leadership decisions on one hand, and disorganized, untidy, inefficient politics based on the choices of millions of recalcitrant individuals.

While homogenization of entire nations may be comfortable, tidy, and enable nations to react swiftly to the COVID crisis, open democracies and economies create disruption, new ideas, innovation, and growth. While central decision making, left- or right-wing fascism, decisions made for us by religious leaders may be seductive, that is a step back to the Dark Ages. 

Sentenced by the Inquisition to recant, Galileo is claimed to have said: "And yet it moves."

 

Coen Van Wyk

Posted on January 29, 2021 08:12

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