Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Truthiness

Barack Obama is a muslim.

OK, it's not true. Let me repeat: IT'S NOT TRUE. But I just helped make it true, Or at least I just helped make it "true" for those folks who want to believe it's true.

Tom will have to tell us if we get a spike for today's post, from people who google "Obama is a muslim." They know what they are looking for. If you can find it on the internet, it must be true.

Farhad Manjoo, who writes the technology column for Salon, has a new book called True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. I haven't read the book, but I read bits of it in the New York Times Magazine (where he cites the "Obama is a muslim" phenomenon) and on Salon. One of his points is this: Repeating a claim, even if only to refute it, increases its apparent truthfulness. He cites psychological studies that show we often judge the veracity of a claim by society's assessment of it. "If something seems familiar, you must have head it before, and if you've heard it before, it must be true," writes Manjoo.

The internet certainly facilitates and globalizes the spread of phony baloney, but what Manjoo says about credulity isn't new. Humans have always lived in a post-fact society -- or rather I should say a pre-fact society. From the dawn of time people have looked to familiarity and tribal consensus for the validation of their beliefs. The closest we have come to creating a fact society is that body of assertions about the world we call science. Yes, consensus is part of it. But so is systematized doubt. So are quantitative data, mathematical theories, double-blind experiments, reproducible observations, peer review, and communication that makes no reference to an investigator's ethnicity, politics, or religion. Francis Bacon said long ago that what a person wants to be true, he preferentially believes. The whole point of science is to minimize personal and tribal bias.

The challenge is not learning to live in a post-fact society, but rather learning to live in a fact society. Mr. Obama would have fewer problems if more of us looked for empirical evidence to verify our beliefs.