I read Doug Belshaw’s article today on Lies and misinformation and it got me to musing on what could be termed the ‘necessary groundwork’ for people to fall prey to lies and misinformation. Namely, the ability to ignore.
In a sense, the issue is hard wired into us. Since the earliest days of our evolution on the savanna, our visual and aural senses have been attuned to ignore content. Sights and sounds which don’t represent a clear and present danger to our life can be ignored, to leave space to process that which might kill us.
In our slightly more civilised twenty-first century, this capacity to ignore has been refined to an art which is rigorously inculcated into us from birth. From our earliest days, we are taught the importance of belief. Be it the belief that we can eat the food our parents give us without being poisoned. The belief that if an adult tells us something it is most likely true. The belief that if it is printed in a book it is true.
There are some benefits to ignorance. On the savanna, simplification of focus, or the ability to ignore, allowed our genes to survive another day. In the modern age, our ability to ignore saves us reading a slew of articles which will provide no value. Or ignoring a host of pedestrians and cars allows us to focus on the pedestrians and vehicles to which we need to pay attention.
Ignorance in Belief
The challenge comes because in being wired and trained to ignore, we can end up missing that which is crucial. Something which happens when we get into the realm of belief.
This is because a belief system seeks to streamline our philosophical version of the world while purporting to retain everything necessary for optimal utility. In a sense, a system of belief is a filter, sifting incoming data for hits and discarding everything else.
Ignorance in Ideology
The twin of belief is ideology. Often, ideology is seen as synonymous with belief, or as some kind of subset. But it is better to think of it as a distinct system. A belief system seeks to sample across ‘reality’ and filter for hits or confirmations. An ideology by contrast seeks error, rather than confirmation, and then takes the additional step of attempting to destroy what has been filtered out as anomalous.
In an increasingly scientific world, dominated more and more by bits and bytes, this distinction presents something of a problem. For society raises the solving of problems to pride of place. We have a goal, we have problems which prevent us from reaching that goal, it is logical to solve for those problems and achieve the goal.
However, when belief descends to ideology and solving a problem shifts to destroying a problem, we have a crisis of system. At this point life tumbles down the helter-skelter as everyone races to exterminate the blockage.
Capacity for Philology
Nietzsche had prefigured the dystopia of ideology by observing humanities general ‘incapacity for philology.’ In this context, philology is to be understood in a very wide sense as the art of reading well. As Nietzsche put it, the ability to:
read off a fact without falsifying it by interpretation, without losing caution, patience, subtlety in the desire for understanding. Philology as ephexis [undecisiveness] in interpretation: whether it be a question of books, newspaper reports, fate or the weather.
The path out of this mire is to learn to avoid falsifying a fact by interpretation. At the risk of special pleading, it is something the humanities often does a better job of than other disciplines. For when taught well, humanities focus on challenging the received data, not on accepting face-value claims.
The challenge facing our age, is that in spite of the ability of the humanities to help buttress people against dangerous ideology, there is a veritable war against humanities.
Perhaps this shouldn’t come as surprise. After all, the ideologues will never totally destroy what is anomalous to them unless they can first destroy the capacity for critical thinking. To that end, read.
Read widely and deeply. Read the classical texts, read the modern thinkers. Read thinkers from the left and read thinkers from the right. Most importantly, read contrasting views.
For every article or book you read which supports your beliefs, read something which challenges them. Only then can you be sure you are holding beliefs and haven’t ended up with a blind ideology.
Good night and good luck.