Are You on a Low Fact Diet?

Most people don’t know very much. (Now tell me, if I had guessed that your reaction to that opening would be an initial nodding agreement quickly fading to the realization that it might include you, too, would I have been right?)

Photo credit: Wm Jas from Flickr

This is not to say we’re more clueless than in the past. The truth is that people in today’s world possess generalized knowledge about a far wider range of topics than at any other time in history. We are blanketed with data, with knowledge of what’s out there.

People who would in the past have remained completely illiterate can now whip out their cell phones and fling at least semi-coherent text messages across the world in milliseconds. The problem is that knowledge is not comprehension. In other words you might have heard that scientists are saying alcohol is good for you (or bad; it varies, so check the latest news) yet might not understand what led them to that conclusion. And that’s what makes today’s world so great: you can get online and get informed about pretty much anything you want, IF you want to.

In times past, the average Joe (let’s call him Joe Carpenter, for a neat combination of Republican and Christian symbolism) would have thought nothing strange of buying medical remedies in unmarked brown bottles from the local snake oil salesman. Our average Joe Carpenter’s only fact reference was word of mouth and communal wisdom. He’d trust the grapevine if, for example, his wife (let’s call her Mary) heard from all the other women in town that benzene made a great aftershave. Or that cod liver oil would help their children grow up healthy and stay that way.

In the latter case, she’d be entirely correct but wouldn’t have had any knowledge of why — Omega 3 hadn’t been discovered yet. In the former – and yes, benzene was used as an aftershave until its carcinogenic properties became evident – she would have been dangerously wrong. There was simply no way to find out the facts.

But that’s exactly the difference between now and then. We have the Internet, Wikipedia, WebMD, online databases covering every area of expertise known to man. Literally. We have all the information we could possibly ever want right there at our fingertips, all the real facts and plenty of fake ones. Somehow the enlightened, informed Internet world is host to a phenomenal number of falsehoods, bad facts, and scams whether criminal or just dumb (Is the $10 I’ll get for forwarding Bill Gates’ email any more real than your rich, dying uncle in Nigeria who’s going to leave me money if I simply call to claim it?).

Hearsay and superstition still rule the day, except now our misinformation comes from so many more sources than before. Fortunately we also have an expanded ability to check our facts before falling for any of it.

But you tell me: Do we?

This is a guest post by Daniel Greenberg. Daniel likes to ride small horses around big ponds on medium-sized estates, of which he may or may not have several.

Image courtesy of WM Jas on Flickr.

3 comments
Daniel Greenberg
Daniel Greenberg like.author.displayName 1 Like

Mr. Marten (since we're changing letters): As an idiot, I find that my linguistic and/or logical capacities are unfortunately inadequate to allow me to draw from your comment any semblance of a defined central argument, aside from that it was made from a soapbox, which is of course a descriptive rather than interpretive analysis. I am sorry you took my line about the Conservative/Christian right as a "shot." If you read it again, you'll see that it isn't one - it's a humorous reference, not an insult. That having been said, I will admit that I do not think Republicans (as a party) are idiots -- rather, I think they are jerks, and I think Democrats (again, as a party) are the idiots. Also for the record, I'm not an atheist, although some of my best friends are (case in point: the owner of this site). I would respond more specifically, and would do so on a point-by-point basis, if only I could figure out what yours were.

PS, I'm not really annoyed that you implied I'm an idiot, but if my ensuing snark has annoyed you, just go ahead and consider us even.

Ronald Martin
Ronald Martin

This is good illustration of what I would like people to understand - especially atheists. I couldn't help, but notice that the author took a shot at a political demographic, without countering it with some balance, as if to suggest that Democrats have a better sense of scientific paradigms and social eras than Republicans - you're an idiot, Mr. Greenburg, if you do. Atheists have dropped the ball on delivering to humanity the scientific social system that religions cannot deliver, because of their commitment to their traditions. The only argument atheists put forth is that when theism is dismantled then society can move towards economic stability - atheists are not proving that they can generate and perpetuate autonomous community dedicated to advancing technology and human experience.

It should not be that difficult for people who were taught that the United States was founded by unjust slave owners, to realize that a just constitution needs to be written. It should not be that difficult for elite intellectual secularists to recognize that corrupt politics is the result of inadequacies of the social contract system. It should not be that difficult for humble pragmatic conservatives to recognize that the government, like a business, needs to be reorganized, so as to deploy efficient techniques developed during the course of its evolution. It should not be that difficult for political pundits to recognize that "political gridlock" is the result of the politicians' need to be known doing something; otherwise, the constituents would realize that the politicians are over-compensated. It should not be that difficult for the sophisticated citizen to recognize that if the Founders of the United States were tasked with authoring a constitution enriched with the communications systems that we have today, that they would probably write it differently.

All that scientific information at your fingertips, but you cannot generate a plan for a scientific social system - a piece of the puzzle is missing, because your reasoning is flawed, just like the Christians'. By the way, Limbaugh is ahead of the curve - he coined, "low information voters," several months ago.

Justin
Justin

Why the need to have a generic that's a Republican/Christian combo? Why not just say "the average person" and avoid partisanship and sexism at once? Especially if you're "smarter than that."

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