Maybe debunkers aren't quite doing what they think
Speculations on debunking and censorship as strategies to embed a right-think narrative culture
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Debunking often looks more like an expression of superiority than sincerely independent establishment of truths.
When it doesn't work, censorship is the natural next step.
Perhaps these approaches do as much to divide people into unproductive opposing tribes as the misinformation they seek to eradicate.
You have no hope of understanding our present political and media culture without looking inside yourself.
Maybe calling disputed claims 'mistaken information' could be a more effective than deeming it 'misinformation', if we want people to understand rather than just tell them what to think.
Some problems with debunking and fact-checking as a strategy in general
First off, there's that whole mess of a paradox covered last time, which is that reliably deciding which experts to trust requires having sufficient expertise to qualify them. Read that piece first, if you're new here.
If you're truly new to the idea that debunking is often a waste of effort I wrote a basic primer on that argument ages back, which you could read first. It argued that it's a mistake to teat false or misleading information as a supply-side problem when really it's a demand-side problem.
So debunking butts up against a structural problem, to do with why we are attracted to certain positions in the first place and how we tend to react when our beliefs are challenged. These features of human nature now seem less interesting to me than when I first learned of ideas like the backfire effect (which seems not to have been successfully replicated since the phrase became fashionable) and motivated reasoning (essentially cherry picking data and assigning them relevance scores that best support your belief end goal).
Lots of people talk about that stuff all the time and you'll find no end of articles and books covering it in detail.
There are interesting facets to it, though, for discussion in future pieces. Such as evidence that the more highly educated one is, the more closed-minded to other relevant and well-evidenced perspectives we can be. Which is why it does my head in when people refer to the Dunning-Kruger effect as if it somehow only ever manifests among their opponents.
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Debunking isn't always as brilliant as the initial impression you get from it
When the pandemic opened up a new front in the information and culture war I noticed the claim and counter-claim about Covid-19's severity and decided to tool up on the facts.
Being the type of person I am (I think I'm mostly rationally motivated on questions of fact) I headed over to a YouTube channel called Debunk The Funk, to fact check the wildest-seeming claims.
I liked what I saw, but as last week's piece confesses, I didn't really understand it. Eventually I came to rely on writers who I'd come to trust to look at the complicated stuff and make it more accessible for me. I'll mention them again; Zeynep Tufekci, Eric Topol and Tom Chivers.
After last week's piece about the expert problem I returned to Dr. Dan Wilson's channel. This time I looked at it through a different lens. Previously I'd previously fallen onto Debunk The Funk in that parched traveler way - desperate for something to imbibe.
This time I also tried something novel. I imagined being someone who believes things like Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine are efficacious Covid treatments, used extensively and successfully around the world but withheld from Americans, British, French and other people for nefarious reasons. It's quite hard to imagine believing things when you don't believe them, but possible with sufficient internal focus.
It's less of a stretch to imagine believing that the vaccines carry risk because ... show me something that doesn't, at least for a few unfortunate people. So I also imagined dialing that up to 'vaccines are really fucking dangerous and killing lots of people'. Not easy. But also not impossible.
Watching Dr. Wilson then became a subtly different experience.
As well as making me think about the expert problem (as described last time) it made me think about the problem with experts. Or, as I really think of it, a problem I sense with the expert class.
For sure, there is a class of people who are massively more capable than the rest of us in every field you can name. It makes perfect sense that they guide us. This shouldn't need saying.
But they often seem to lack something. Call it (maybe naively) humility, empathy and compassion.
There's a new use for a phrase I don't really like but which works quite well to describe a moment when trust evaporates; 'losing the room'. It is sometimes applied to people who get sacked for having a verboten opinion in tech companies. They lost the room.1 In this context it means when people turn against you for making some kind of misstep they didn't like.
Dr. Wilson loses the room, in the video below. He doesn't lose me. But I instantly see the moment he probably loses the audience he seems to be addressing. I check the comments and, sure enough, they've spotted it too. By 'they' I mean the people who think the whole of the pandemic and response to it is a massive scam designed to enrich and empower bad people and oppress them.
I don't doubt that Dr. Dan Wilson is academically correct in everything he says. But we don't need him to be academically correct. He's speaking as a self-described 'science communicator'. We need him to be effective. So when he skates across the nuance that anyone paying attention knows has emerged in discussion around virus shedding in the vaccinated population or the obvious relative pathogenicity of Omicron he's picking the wrong hills to die on.
Empathy probably matters more in these times than it once did. When everyone knew their place and reflexively deferred to their betters. But today we live in a moment when many people reflexively rebel and reject conventional expertise. To persuade people that they are mistaken now demands more than just telling them they're wrong. It requires more imagination. For example, it requires imagining how it is not to be an experienced microbiologist before one can effectively influence those who aren't, but are ambiently aware of being constantly spoken down to. And (in well documented cases) outright lied to by authorities.
I guess that where you land on the effectiveness of Dr. Wilson depends to a large extent on whether you're already disposed to trust him or not. I'm inclined to believe everything he says, but still find him infuriating at many moments in that film. Try it yourself. Imagine surfacing for a moment from the kind of information bubble that tells you never to trust experts, institutions and government and watch that film. Try to come at it without your priors about science being brilliant and governments generally wanting to keep their populations free from harm.
What's actually going on with all this?
It's fashionable among the alternative contrarian commentariat to speak of 'elites' scorning the 'little people' and I resisted this interpretation for the longest time. But two things changed.
First I began to notice the increasingly authoritarian nature of the dominant liberal (I can barely bring myself to use this word, but...) narrative. And the control it seeks to exert over everything, from permissible speech to our understanding of things that were considered uncontroversial facts until the arrival of 'concern culture' and its radical new framings of what may constitute harm to minorities and marginalised groups.
The other thing that happened is that I allowed myself to see into my own psyche. Or maybe it just happened as a result of formal mindfulness practice. Doesn't really matter. What I saw was this.
People like me are used to being at the top of the tree. I spent childhood and young adulthood very aware that me and my peers were unusual at that time in having education to degree level (and beyond - my lifelong best friend is a full on PhD level Doctor Something of a really complicated thing and my OH has law degrees from Britain, France and the US). When Brexit and Trump happened me and my peer group were horrified and angry that people inferior to us were suddenly deciding things that would inconvenience us.
That's how I saw it. I think it's how many of us see it. We think we are superior. Mostly in intelligence but also as a class in general.
We know what's best for us and what's best for us must also be best for everyone else.
People like us have done well out of the seismic changes that hurt many other people. No one offshored my best friend's work in academia or my OH's incredibly highly paid senior local government roles or my work in newspapers, TV and latterly niche content marketing. And we got to spend our money on fantastic white goods and consumer electronics offering massively better quality at half the price of those shitty fridges and washing machines we grew up with.
You think I'm conflating politics with epistemology but I think they're inextricably woven.
The sensibles and bien pensants of my tribe have got a lot to lose from pandering to uppity malcontents and we resent them for demanding a say in how things should be done. And we also resent them for not seeing what we see.
One of the ways we resist that balance shifting is by controlling the narrative. And that's playing out in activities like 'fact checking' and 'debunking' what those people think or want.
Note: this is not to say that there are no facts or truths and that everything in the class we call 'knowledge' is really a manifestation of power or privilege. That's postmodern relativism and as an instinctive materialist (leaning towards Marx, the more I learn of his philosophy) I think it's often internally incoherent anyway, for all its brilliant word salad sophistry.
Nor is it to say that 'populist' sentiment (aka what ordinary people think about some things) isn't exploited by nefarious actors. We can all list some of those actors. With any luck, the one I despise above all others will soon be moving out of 10 Downing Street.
And it certainly isn't to say that 'ordinary' people aren't capable of spectacular ignorance. I will never forget the vox pop in Barnsley featuring the man who wanted Britain out of the European Union because he didn't like Pakistani and Bengali people.
We've often got good reasons to resist these cold winds of change.
But once you see...
But once you allow yourself to see narrative control you'll see it everywhere.
So imho the rise of the fact-check is as much about control as it is about persuasion.
Expressed in the basest possible way I suspect that 'elites', ranging from my own middlebrow educated class upward, became so used to having the upper hand that we're reacting like babies to the news that not everybody sees the world as we do.
We think of those we encounter on our Twitters, Facebooks and LinkedIns:
They must be STUPID to think something other than what I think.
THEY MUST BE CONTROLLED
WE MUST REMOVE THEIR FALSE INFORMATION SOURCES
THIS IS A CRUSADE AND THE GOAL IS OUR NOBLE ESTABLISHMENT OF A SHARED TRUTH
I'm open to the idea that I may just be suckering for my own tendency to rebel against conformity. After all, there is a reason why I didn't retire from Twitter because of the 'actual fascists' there but because the normaltons all started emigrating to Wokeistan and telling me what to think.
As an amusing aside, here's what one of them said one time when I defended the notion that people who like to hear Jerusalem played at the Last Night of the Proms aren't necessarily 'Nazi-adjacent'.
It’s all about controlling what other people are exposed to. Whether it’s a tune from another era or an opinion from the present moment. When employees of Spotify threatened strike action over Joe Rogan uncritically exposing the views of a rogue scientist to his 15 million listeners they were effectively demanding control of a narrative. This is absolutely not the same as standing up for science, fact and truth.
Worth noting too is that it's entirely possible that my lifelong taste for remaining 'apart' from the dominant group is playing a part in this critique of conventional liberal attachments to a certain kind of order.
Being on the right side of an argument (whatever the 'right side' means) is one thing, but that's not what appears to be happening right now
I continue to believe that we're right about Covid definitely being a deadly disease that results in excess deaths, that vaccines work (brilliantly) and don't harm a significant proportion of recipients.
I am now persuadable that masks below N95 quality are theatre, that many mask regulations are now - and always were - a bit hokey and that future investigations may reveal that lockdowns did substantially more harm than good. And I'm instinctively against vaccine mandates.
This would outrage many in my tribe. I've fallen for misinformation, they'd say. The science proves it, they'd sagely intone.
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