I must respect the opinions of others even if I disagree with them - Herbert Henry Lehman
image by: Sonny Abesamis
If you traffic at all in social media, you're familiar with how wantonly people disseminate misinformation. I'm not talking about debatable facts, abhorrent opinions, or unsupported hypotheses, but about patently false information.
Consider the pacific picture of Albert Einstein on a sailboat floating around for the last couple of years, featuring the following quote attributed to him:
"Everything is energy and that's all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics."
I didn't recognize this as a bogus quotation because I've got an encyclopedic knowledge of what the great man said: I knew it was bogus because whatever the ontological set-up being described in the quote is, physics it ain't. 'Frequency' has a particular meaning in physics, and whoever said/wrote this doesn't have even the rudimentary understanding of physics to use it properly (never mind that "the frequency of the reality you want" would be gobbledygook even if the idea of "match[ing]" it weren't inscrutably vague), let alone Einstein's profound grasp of the subject.
While the irony of putting into Einstein's mouth words that could be uttered only by someone ignorant of basic physics could be clever had it been done as a goof, how this bit of nonsense became a meme is far more simpleminded: the quote resonated with some people, they were moved (in one way or another) that a genius like Einstein supposedly said it, so they passed it along.
It may be unfair to fault people for not knowing their physics, especially when the film What the Bleep Do We Know? so successfully miseducated millions with a genuine interest in how the physical world works. It may also be unfair to expect people to do a little fact-checking before they pass along information. After all, shouldn't we live in a world where quotes are ascribed only to people who actually said them?
The problem is, that isn't our world. Here on real-life Earth people fabulate all the time, both by design and by accident. False quotations have become so commonplace that a picture of Abraham Lincoln began making the rounds with the following caption: "'The problem with internet quotes is that you can't always depend on their accuracy' -Abraham Lincoln, 1864 ."
Abe is right, but the problem goes far deeper than quotes and extends far beyond the Internet. I was reminded of just how much so when I recently came across a story regarding the roots of the myth that vaccines cause autism, a story I'd never heard despite having castigated Jenny McCarthy for her perpetuation of that myth.
Well, it's not really a story so much as a three-paragraph synopsis—three short paragraphs—coupled with a snappy infographic entitled "The science facts about AUTISM AND VACCINES". It appeared on Upworthy, a Website that, according to Slate, gets over 50 million readers per month by—depending on how you look at it—"harness[ing] the latest wisdom about Internet sharing to bring staggering amounts of attention to important issues," or by being "craven, formulaic, and sickly-sweet, despoiling the innermost secrets of the Web and human nature and getting rich."
To be sure, Upworthy is full of clickbait, those annoying little pieces that are more headline than head. And they're all the more annoying because apparently they're tapping in to the informational Zeitgeist.
But you can't judge data by its delivery system. The three-paragraphs-plus-infographic that started me thinking about this topic neatly documented the case of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who in 1998 published a study linking vaccines and autism. Twelve years later, the British General Medical Council concluded that Wakefield's supposed research was largely falsified, the conclusion of a process begun six years earlier, when the Sunday Times published an investigation discrediting Wakefield's work.
I read up on the story, and Upworthy has the details right—including part of what's so disturbing about this cautionary tale: that Wakefield's pseudo-study was published in The Lancet, one of the world's most prestigious medical journals.
What do you do when you can't take on faith the word of even what are regarded as the world's best sources? It's simple: take nothing on faith. Always allow for the possibility that anything you've heard or think you know could be wrong.
That's a potentially paralyzing possibility. But don't panic! It's merely a heuristic stance, one that allows you to move away from bad beliefs with relative ease.
It also puts you in a good position to be circumspect about what information you pass along to others. And that's the point here. Data don't disseminate themselves. A false belief can spread from person to person. And the more widely a false belief spreads, the more credibility it gets, eventually hitting a critical mass at which it's taken as true simply based on the false belief that if a huge number of people believe it, it must be true, à la the old saying, "A billion Chinese can't be wrong."
Of course a billion people can be wrong. The logical fallacy that the number of people holding a believe correlates with its veracity is so classic that it has a fancy Latin name: argumentum ad populum. A very loose 21st-century translation might be: Don't believe the hype.
That said, one of the great things about having so many people and publications out there connected in a worldwide web of information-sharing is that, with rather little effort, you can quickly get a sense of that supposed Einstein quote or vaccine theory—where it comes from, what its based on, whether there is a variety of seemingly reliable sources willing to vouch for it.
If it sounds like my reasoning here is a little circular, well, welcome to Earth, a place where you never arrive at any bedrock upon which you can build a church of unassailable Truth. Anyone and anything can be wrong.
That's no excuse for laziness. There's nothing preventing you from examining and re-examining your beliefs and from exercising due diligence before you accept a supposed fact, let alone before you attempt to educate others. If the idea that matching the frequency of the reality you want ensures that you'll get that reality resonates with you so much that you want to share it, go ahead—just don't attribute it to Einstein unless you've got some solid evidence that he said it (which you don't).
Despite your best efforts, you can still be fooled. But the issue here is not about being impervious to error: it's about best efforts, of which there are far too little in the instaculture of the Internet. Too often Internet users seem more interested in quantity than quality, in taking in and spitting out as much data as possible, rather than spending more time with fewer data sets in an effort to determine whether they're worthy of belief, let alone passing along.
It's distressing to see people I know to be perfectly well-intentioned contributing to the miseducation of the populace. Such a state of affairs can change only one person at a time, with individuals having the humility to internalize the difference between taking in information and being well informed, rumor-mongering and research-sharing, reading and understanding.
It's probably impossible for even the most diligent individual to ensure that every piece of information shared is accurate. But the more we work to meet that goal, the higher quality the overall informational flow will be. And that benefits one and all.
Source: Greggory Moore, Handle with Care: Why You Should Think Twice Before Sharing that Article, Moore Lowdown, January 19, 2015.