I would like to piggyback on Jonathan’s recent post on why he chooses to dismiss claims from dubious sources, despite the risk of committing the Genetic Fallacy. In the piece, Jonathan mainly makes his case where he discusses inductive reasoning, which is necessary for navigating everyday life in any meaningful sense. Certain sources have continually failed at providing reliable information or data, while other sources have been far more fruitful.
I certainly agree that inductive reasoning helps us apply weights to certain sources over others, which is really useful. I thought I’d throw in a couple more cents regarding the pragmatism behind choosing some sources over others.
We happen to live in a time where information is at a surplus. As I’m told by my caveman ancestors who lived through the 50s and 60s, if they happened to have a question or wanted to find something out, they had to go to places called libraries, find a book that properly references the material, and pore through it until they found something akin to what they want. I can find the answer to the same question in less than 30 seconds with my phone most of the time. In fact, I can find multiple sources on the answer to that question in a fraction time than it took my Medieval parents when they were the same age.
Obviously, misinformation is nothing new, but with such a proliferation of instant information at our fingertips there is by consequence a surplus of misinformation as well. Any given bit of knowledge is bound to be more truthful than not, simply because nonsense is not bound by the constraints of truth and accuracy that valid information is subject to.
With such rapid access to the internet, we are provided with far more information and media than anyone could possibly dream to consume. I am sometimes overcome with an existentialist-like dismay that I will never be able to learn “all the things”, even though any one thing I would like to learn at any given time is usually within reach.
This is a good problem for us to have.We are by necessity forced to choose where we get our information from at some level. Why would we not want to curate our information sources such that we get a reliable input? It’s certainly good to look at sources we disagree with from time to time (I try to do it at least once a day, and it’s not hard), but across the political spectrum there are sources more reliable than others. If the person who emailed Jonathan wanted to make their case from a conservative point of view, would they not be better off than using a well-known propaganda source with poor vetting? Certainly they could find something supporting their case from somewhere else (even if they wanted to pull from sites with a more conservative bias).
With so many good sources available, giving a terrible source is doing little but putting more work on your debate opponent. If someone gives me a terrible source, I have to go through all the efforts of fact-checking it. It’s good to fact-check whenever we can regardless of whether the source has a good record or not, but for a terrible source it’s a necessity.
Jonathan alluded to some frustrations in his post in one sentence after going through multiple sources pointing out Conservapedia’s accuracy:
Seriously Jones, look at how much time you have made me waste.
This is probably not a sentence Jonathan put too much thought into, but I think it’s actually hugely relevant. If you are genuinely interested in the truth and you are in a disagreement, it behooves both parties to use the best sources possible. If something comes from Breitbart or InfoWars or any other such reactionary conspiracy site, I know I have to fact check the information discussed. Perhaps I can ask my opponent to provide a better source (which should be easily available if what they have to say is any merit). If they refuse, then my choices are to fact check the article (where it often turns out to be inaccurate), dispute the source on the grounds that it’s unreliable (which will lead to arguing sources instead of the topic of conversation, which is even more of a waste of time), or I can just stop engaging. Given the amount of time wasted with the first two options, the last one can seem pretty attractive.
If someone is more interested in wasting your time (or if they’re interested in “ownage” instead of dialogue), then they aren’t really engaging in good faith arguments. While providing poor sources is not the only technique designed to draw out an unnecessarily long dispute, it certainly signals an unwillingness to reach across the aisle. I’ve certainly stopped engaging with certain regular commenters of this blog, because it seems more like I am playing misinformation and fact-check whack-a-mole than actually having a discussion where both parties are interested in the truth.
A waste of time might seem like a trivial cost to fact checking, but I’d argue it’s more important to consider than at first glance. We all have limited time and energy, and instead of spending it on things that are likely to help us learn, we often focus on the opposite.
This blog is one of my platforms (I’m grateful Jonathan has shared his space), and I don’t have all the time in the world to address every single bit of nonsense that comes my way. I have an extensive Twitter and Facebook feed filled with things I disagree with, and if I had to fact check all of it I would be ignoring my day-to-day duties of my job and my everyday chores. I am forced to ignore nonsense or dismiss what I see regularly, and I am under no obligation to entertain every little thing that arrives at my proverbial doorstep. Likewise, it’s not cowardly to not use my platform to discuss certain things that I don’t agree with, because by necessity of limited time I have to ignore some things I disagree with. Ideally, I’d just focus on things where I think fruitful discussion could be held (which can still include things I disagree with).
Propaganda does take advantage of this time-wasting effect. I have noticed it myself in my series on Matt Walsh’s book. It has frequently been the case that Walsh makes some type of clear testable claim without backing it up with some sort of citation (you’re allowed to do that outside of a scientific paper, Matt!). Not only do I have to fact-check the claim, but I try to do my best to find the source that he’s using.
His posts at the Daily Wire and his book work so well at spreading misinformation, because his audience is already predisposed to believing what he says, and it’s so much easier for any given person to accept rather than question what he says. Facts and accuracy are at a disadvantage, because it takes work and effort to nail down the truth and nothing to let what he says slide. I’ve spent so much time fact checking his ludicrous claims and finding massively spun misinformation and downright falsehoods that when I see him tweet I’m simply more predisposed to disbelieving what he says rather than taking any of his writing seriously. If I want to find a conservative voice that gives a perspective I disagree with I’m much better off reading the tweets of David Frum or John McCain. These folks, while I still think they’re often drastically mistaken, are at least acting within the realm of reality.
Ultimately, bad sources simply waste our time, and it gets us focusing on abject nonsense. At best, it takes us away from what’s really important. At worst, nonsense is discussed on large platforms, and even if that nonsense is challenged it is elevated to what seems like “reasonable discussion”, giving absurd positions an unearned air of credibility. On a platform with a large enough reach, this shifts the Overton window, and this is taken advantage of by opportunistic propagandists to spread harmful misinformation.
We aren’t starved for information in this day and age, and we don’t need to scrape the bottom of the barrel to pull every ounce of information we can get out of everything. We have a surplus of information on our hands, and unfortunately, much of it isn’t that good. By necessity, we have to choose where we get our information from. There’s nothing wrong with being pragmatic and smart about what sources we take seriously and which things we don’t.