Category: fake news

Coronavirus: A Rant

NIAID / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Crises tell you who people really are. How people react to danger, whether that be a bully looking for a fistfight or a pandemic, cuts through the bullshit of someone’s personality and defines, clearly, who they actually are in their heart, whether that be a cowardly or brave, selfish or selfless.

This coronavirus pandemic has shown a lot of people for who they are. And unfortunately, lots of those people are uninformed, selfish, and uncaring.

Most of the discourse I’ve seen floating around my social media, from people I grew up with and people I met relatively recently but consider friends, revolves around whether or not masks are an infringement on our rights and if social distancing and lockdown measures have been effective. To be honest, I’m making the arguments sound more intellectual than they are, because most of the people posting about not wanting to wear a mask or be locked down are simply whining. Some, though, have tried to rationalize their bitching with false equivalences, cherry-picked statistics, and stubborn ignorance.

I could spend hours doing research, arguing based on my understanding of the facts and statistics, but in reality the core dilemma is simple to me: Do you care about others or not? Because if you do, who gives a fuck if masks are even only 1% effective? That’s still a 1% better chance to protect someone else.

Therein lies the rub for most people. They’re not thinking about protecting others. To them, the cost-benefit analysis begins and ends with them. “A mask won’t protect me from getting the virus,” they say, “So I won’t wear one.” This thinking completely misses the point.

To live in a society (as we do), we all adhere to a social contract. Traditionally, this contract defines the agreement individuals have with the government, i.e. the trade-off between giving up some rights in order to protect other rights. It’s why we pay taxes that go toward police, schools, and hospitals that are available to everyone and not reserved for only certain subsets of society. (I recognize this is a point to quibble with, as these things are not equally distributed depending on your race and poverty level. Regardless, while access is unequal there is still some access for everyone, as per the social contract.)

However, I’d argue that this contract extends between everyone in order to afford us all greater protections. For society to function in a way that benefits the most people we all agree to give up minor freedoms or tolerate minor inconveniences for the greater good. We stand in lines at the grocery store because it’s more efficient for everyone to do so, than to constantly be jockeying for position and fighting for space. In major cities we stand on the right side of the escalator so people in a hurry can walk up the left. We make these small concessions (some might call them considerations) to make everyone’s lives a bit easier.

In 2017 an article written for the Huffington post went viral. Titled, “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People,” it was a reaction to the tax cuts proposed by the Trump Administration, but the core tenet of the piece is still applicable: If you don’t have the capacity for basic empathy, there is no sense in debating facts and figures.

Facemasks and social distancing are meant to protect others. Just as food stamps and universal healthcare protect others. Just as road maintenance and buses allows others to travel. Just because something exists in the world that isn’t meant solely for you doesn’t mean it’s without value.

To understand that, you must have empathy. You must be selfless. Most of us aren’t.

Bullshit Detection 101

IFLA infographic based on FactCheck.org’s 2016 article “How to Spot Fake News” in PDF format

With how easily misinformation is disseminated nowadays, there is a general sense that it’s easy to get duped. I see it all the time on my social media feeds: friends sharing things that sound like they could, maybe, possibly be true but often aren’t. Or, things that aren’t true but reflect their worldview. Or, things that are true but have a misleading headline they didn’t bother reading past.

There are lots of ways to avoid falling for the bullshit clogging up the tubes that Al Gore claims to have built*. I’m not going to link to lots of scholarly research about logical fallacies or anything like that because I don’t think it’s necessary. I have a pretty finely tuned bullshit detector (as described in my birthday post) that can be summed up in a few simple, common sense steps:

  1. How true does it sound? This is the first thing that goes through my head. I’m a naturally skeptical person, so when I read a headline on someone’s Facebook or am speaking to someone who is giving me information, I’m constantly gauging how true I find it. As I listen or read the information, I’m looking for logical slip-ups (“Wait, so while skydiving you were able to fly by flapping your arms? Seems like that violates physics.”), contradictions (“A minute ago you said flapping your arms was what made you fly, not swimming through the air by doing a breaststroke.”), or otherwise specious narrative.
  2. What is the source? This operates on multiple levels. First, who is the source telling me the information? Are they trustworthy? Do they have any actual expertise in the subject area (which isn’t the same as having expertise in a related but separate subject area–that’s an argument from authority and it’s something we fall for all the time)? Secondly, where are they getting their information? Is it a reputable source? Or did they read a headline on their aunt’s Facebook page that linked to an article that summarizes another article from someone who saw another headline about a study done as reported by an actually reputable news source?
  3. Do I know anything about the subject? If I do, is what I’m being told consistent with what I already know? If not, are there any questions I can ask now that can give me insight into how much the person I’m speaking with actually knows? Leaning on this requires being well-read and curious.

And that’s about it. Using this two-to-three step process will save you from over 90 percent of the bullshit floating around the interwebs**, guaranteed. It takes work to get to a point where you can confidently question the things you hear, but once you’ve primed yourself it becomes a reflex. When you’re ready to actually fact-check claims I recommend factcheck.org, snopes.com, and Politifact. Wikipedia is good to quickly get up to speed with a topic, depending on its popularity and how well the article has been edited.

Misinformation (or, as is the case now, straight up disinformation) is rampant online and in our daily lives. Don’t fall prey to it and don’t pass it along. Please.

*Al Gore did not claim to have built the internet. Although, it really a series of tubes. Did you not read anything I just wrote?

**Again, not true.

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