Facts and Fiction
Recently, one of the contributors to Pub Sociology, the spiky-haired Tina, crafted an excellent post on the tremendous quantity of misinformation running rampant through the American electorate. I was struck by this post because I have been experiencing similar frustrating encounters with inexplicable ignorance, even among those who are intelligent, informed, and should otherwise know better. There is clearly a dearth of accurate information among the general public, and such a lack can only hamper efforts to craft foreign and domestic policy based on something other than flawed assumptions about the world.
However, much as I liked this post, I must take exception to one thing included in it. Tina commented that:
I don't know what works against a misinformation campaign, but facts don't seem to work, and that really scares me.
Now, I agree that the apparent disinterest in facts present among the general population is of concern, but I don't agree that facts are not helpful in a battle against misinformation. People, indeed, seem to be powerfully concerned about whether or not they are being lied to. If you ask a random person, "Do you mind being lied to," they will likely answer, "yes." The prevalence of sensationalist talk shows in which men and women take lie detector tests to uncover infidelity shows that there is a powerful public interest in what is fact, and what is fiction. A battle between misinformation and facts is tantamount to a battle between lies and truths.
There are problems, however, in our ongoing effort to spread facts, and these problems are two-fold. First, the truth is often less pleasant than the lie. We don't like to believe that powerful authority figures do bad things. Such preferences helped shield Catholic priests from prosecution for pedophilia (Woohoo! Check out that alliteration!) for many years, and still conceals the petty infidelities of men and women the world wide. The problem is that, all too often, accepting the truth means accepting that one has been wrong about something. This is difficult for people to accept and, as I have argued before, it can be difficult to make someone realize the truth without backing them into a corner.
The second problem is that many people regard science and academic pursuits as boring, dull, disconnected from their lives, and essentially irrelevant. I've had personal experience with this and will always treasure the look on my father's face when his epithet, "You sound like a goddamned academic!" was met with my earnest, "Thank you!" The problem, however, is that this perception of us weakens the impact of everything that we do. As I have said before we need to dispel the illusion that science is some kind of Virgin Mafia.
Both of these problems are significant issues that must be dealt with. It is, then, appropriate that the solution to this ornery misinformation problem is contained with Tina's original post. She comments that:
...my dad really likes Bill O'Reilly. "He's a jerk, but I like to watch him," he said.
Indeed! Bill O'Reilly is a jerk, but people watch him because he's entertaining. More importantly, he makes them feel like they're in on the joke. Our problem, we intelligent, enlightened academics, is that we make people feel as though the joke is on them. They feel like we are laughing at them, and never with them. This simply must stop if we are to reestablish the primacy of facts in the public sphere. We must make the act of learning facts more engaging, more entertaining and, most importantly, less insulting.
We are lucky, then, that the way has been pointed for us by none other than the comedy duo of Penn and Teller in their fantastic show, Bullshit! This program is dedicated to exposing misinformation and lies with the truth, and doing so in a way that is engaging and entertaining. Specifically, the show is described as follows:
By their own admission, Penn & Teller have been dying to do a show like this. Confirmed skeptics and pro-science atheists (they refer to God as "an imaginary friend"), these magicians are big fans of the art of debunking.
Whether demonstrating how history's most perplexing magic acts are performed in their sell-out Las Vegas show and TV specials, or producing their own series that pulls the wool off the public's eyes, Penn & Teller's mission is to expose the truth to an otherwise desperate and gullible public.
In Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, the crusaders utilize principles of magic and trickery, as well as good old fashioned "hidden camera" sting operations, to smoke out these nonsense peddlers and reveal how they operate.
They also call upon the scientific community for back-up. Penn & Teller have discovered that the evidence debunking bogus operatives exists in countless books, scientific papers and government-sponsored exposés - research that nobody else has presented to the public with such zeal, passion, and conviction.
As our increasingly anti-intellectual, anti-science culture moves on each day to new crackpot subject matters, Penn & Teller are there to aggressively shoot down whack-jobs and fuzzy thinkers, no matter where they originate.
Their attitude of serious, sober contemplation can be summed up in this quote about their current Las Vegas stage program: "We have been doing magic together for 25 years and are so sick of it we could spit. So, in the new show, we are moving into the field of religion and will be performing real miracles!"
No matter how popular a form of bullshit is - and regardless of what deep pockets or beloved figures support it - Penn & Teller are pit bulls for the truth, poised to tear down these myths in the most jaw-dropping fashion possible with their trademark wit and off-center comic sensibilities.
Beware faux miracle workers, yogis, dervishes, televangelists, zealots and cult leaders. Penn & Teller have you in their cross-hairs with a new series that strives to spark controversy, headlines and water cooler fisticuffs!
What we need is not despair, but facts. We need to learn to present facts in an engaging and compelling way. Will this be difficult? Of course. Will it be worthwhile? Without question. Penn and Teller are showing us the way.
It is up to us to follow.