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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > May/Jun 17 > SURVIVING THE MIS INFORMATION AGE


For ourselves and our society, survival in the current era will require building our foundation on facts.

IN 2016 many in the mainstream media portentously declared we had entered the age of “post-truth politics” (Drezner 2016) and now live in a “post-factual democracy” (Barret 2016). With monetized “fake news” sites proliferating, tweets inconsistent with reality dominating political debate, and most citizens busily constructing echo chambers of their personal beliefs through their social media accounts, the hysteria may seem warranted. But as Alexios Mantzarlis of the Poynter Institute reminds us (Mantzarlis 2016), politicians, media commentators, and your next-door neighbor have been playing fast and loose with the “truth” for a long time.

Indeed, the classical scholar Edward M. Harris noted in his paper dissecting “Demosthenes Speech Against Medias” (Harris 1989) that 2,400 years ago in Athens, “although a witness who perjured himself could be prosecuted…an orator who spoke in court could indulge in as much fabrication as he wished without fear of punishment.” Harris went on to state: “In short, nothing aside from the knowledge of the audience and the limits of plausibility restrained the orator from inventing falsehoods and distorting the truth.”

Public prevarication, then, is nothing new. What is novel is the technology-saturated environment in which it is now embedded. It is the “knowledge of the audience” and the “limits of plausibility”—not the falsehoods and distortions—that have changed.

How has the “knowledge of the audience” evolved over the tenure of Homo sapiens on this Earth? For more than 95 percent of our history, knowledge was limited but was tested daily against reality. The hunter-gatherer who picked a basket of poisonous berries was soon eliminated from the gene pool, as was the youth who led his kin toward the hungry lions instead of the grazing gazelles. Those few who parsed the patterns of the stars and so could predict the wildebeests’ migration were accorded special veneration (we used to call them “experts”). There was also, no doubt, much misinformation abroad in those halcyon days—lightning evinced the anger of the gods, and neighboring kin groups were largely shunned as the hostile “other,” whether they were hostile or not. But with simple survival as the foremost concern, the “knowledge of the audience” in general comported well with reality.

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