The (Mis)construction of Knowledge

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in two rulings nearly 15 years ago that sex offenders’ rate of re-offense, at almost 80 percent, is “frightening and high.” Since then, his “statistic” has been used by hundreds of lower courts and lawyers to defend policies that banish offenders from most communities. The severity of the punishment would be arguably reasonable—if only its backing were true.

It couldn’t be further from. Justice Kennedy found his 80-percent statistic in a 1988 Justice Department guide, which in turn had cited a Psychology Today article written by the self-interested counselors of a male sex offender treatment program. The piece was filled with junk science. It claimed that “most untreated sex offenders go on to commit more offenses—indeed, as many as 80 percent do,” even though hundreds of studies prove sex offenders’ recidivism rate is among the lowest of all criminals, at around 3.5 percent. The author of the article has since publicly regretted having exaggerated, but the game of broken telephone he and his co-author initiated had already snowballed, constructing a fact backed by the full weight of none other than the Supreme Court. Before the Psychology Today writers knew it, like the wind-blown feathers of a slashed pillow, their claim dispersed, inhibiting the reentry to society of generations of sex offenders, including the over 740,000 in the U.S. today.

Our words are powerful, and how we use them matters. Curated well, they can explain abstract concepts, tell stories, and describe laws. But misused, or repeated without enough care, words can also cause irreparable harm. The onus is overwhelmingly on public figures to understand the weight of their words, and it is also on all of us to differentiate between trustworthy and misleading sources.

It is alarmingly easy to fabricate knowledge. An editorial in The New York Times earlier this year stated that former Gov. Sarah Palin’s PAC played a role in inciting the 2011 assassination attempt on then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, when in fact no such link existed. The paper later corrected itself and apologized publicly (and in court when Palin unsuccessfully sued), but in the meantime, trusting readers left believing an alternative truth.

High-profile figures and institutions also fudge facts when they make careless statements. Politicians lie; need I cite examples? How celebrities misrepresent information might be less obvious. Whoopi Goldberg, for example, claimed on ABC’s The View in January that former President Obama “didn’t do executive orders in the beginning.” PolitiFact later flagged her statement a Pants on Fire! lie, but it’s unlikely The View’s 2.7 million viewers ever found out.

What’s concerning is we’re not even talking about individuals we objectively should not trust to inform us, like the recently deceased Paul Horner, the 38-year-old owner of cnn. com.de and other deceitful fake news sites, who told the Washington Post after President Trump’s election that compared to past years, “Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody factchecks anything anymore.”

No, we’re talking about authors, judges, journalists, politicians—public figures we understandably trust to tell it to us like it is, but that too often fall short.

This is especially worrying considering research on false memories that suggests people are alarmingly prone to believing fake information. Studies have found, for instance, that a 14-year-old could be “implanted” with the false memory of having gotten lost in a mall as a child, and that college students could be misled to believe they had been hospitalized with an ear infection. People are bound to trust Alex Jones’s claim that as part of their jobs police officers smoke marijuana yearly (another Pants on Fire! lie) if they’re prone to believing in false hospitalizations. That strikes a nerve.

The situation is worsened by motivating reasoning, a decision-making mechanism that explains how people go as far as to instantly trust information they like while deeply scrutinizing what they don’t like. Consider how motivated reasoning might have played a role in Justice Kennedy’s ruling: When drafting the Court’s majority opinion, Justice Kennedy embraced supporting evidence from the Justice Department that proved a “frightening and high” recidivism rate, but presumably second-guessed a source that offered contrary—but more accurate—information. Scores of lawyers and politicians also exhibited motivated reasoning when they unconditionally believed Justice Kennedy’s sweet-sounding finding.

Lying public officials, malleable minds, competing information… Is this what it feels like to live in a post-truth society?

Lying public officials, malleable minds, competing information… Is this what it feels like to live in a post-truth society? Our tools of instant information allow anyone to share anything anywhere, we are psychologically at-risk for gullibility, and not even trusted public figures are telling it straight. Either humankind is widely incompetent, doomed to descend into an informational abyss for our inability to distinguish between facts, opinions, and falsities, or we need to revisit the ways we share and consume knowledge.

Either humankind is widely incompetent, doomed to descend into an informational abyss for our inability to distinguish between facts, opinions, and falsities, or we need to revisit the ways we share and consume knowledge.

Our collective wisdom is endangered but not extinct. In what remains, I propose some concrete steps to preserve the integrity of our universal knowledge. Essentially, it is up to the arbiters, the creators, and the consumers of information to ensure that what facts are out there deserve to be out there.

Above all, fact-checking must grow omnipresent. Research in political science and psychology ascertains that when experts flag untruths, citizens’ misinformed views can often be righted, especially when the fact-check is presented by an empathetic source (such as a fellow Republican or Democrat), or through a chart or graph. One study even found that politicians were less likely to lie if a letter sent to their offices warned them that PolitiFact was fact-checking that state’s politicians.

Though fact-checking works, the practice has yet to receive support from two crucial partners: the media and the government.

All news outlets, save for Bloomberg TV, refused to provide on-screen fact-checking during the 2016 election’s televised debates. This was unfortunate, considering how debates, as well as congressional hearings, speeches, and campaign ads, are ripe with misinformation. Television outlets would be providing a valuable service if they introduced a recurring fact-checking sidebar to keep speakers accountable and audiences well-informed.

Independent fact-checking agencies do not have the wingspan to monitor thousands of public figures and their hundreds of thousands of untruths. That’s why the government could create a federal agency—a Department of Truth (not to be associated with the Ministry of Truth, a bureaucracy in George Orwell’s 1984 ironically concerned with lies) comes to mind—dedicated to monitoring public feeds and flagging those statements which misinform the public. A federal agency would have the unique power to fine public figures who misinform deliberately not once or twice, but repeated times. A federal agency would also oversee government reports, such as the flawed 1988 Justice Department guide Justice Kennedy referenced.

A second step toward restoring informational integrity is for media organizations to review processes for ensuring the accuracy of their content. In traditional newspapers, that responsibility would fall upon copyeditors. But of the 10,676 copyeditors working in newsrooms in 2002, according to a journalism watchdog, less than 5,680 remained in 2012. If they are truly interested in preserving accuracy, as they should be, then newspapers can start by hiring, not firing, copyeditors. Take it from the 100 copyeditors The New York Times removed from their positions this June, who, in an open letter to their bosses, called themselves “the immune system of this newspaper” who “go to great lengths to ensure quality and, most important, truth.”

Media organizations might also require mandatory statistics trainings of all reporters. If Fox News publishes the headline, “Police Officer Deaths on Duty Have Jumped Nearly 20 Percent in 2017,” as it did this summer, it cannot ethically quote Blue Lives Matter’s national spokesman talking about “the war on cops” but omit the major caveat that the spike is due to an increase in non-violent accidents like collisions. A journalist trained in statistics who still reports inaccurately should be removed from her role of informing the public.

Realistically, though, even with a Department of Truth or more copyeditors, falsified information will filter through the cracks and onto our screens. So, a third and especially crucial solution is for consumers of information to develop an eye for lies masking as truth. Classroom lessons on spotting biases and fake news don’t have to be boring, since information young people consume through, say, films, is just as prone to falsification. Imagine a new generation, one knowing Pocahontas’s true lover was not John Smith, as the Disney film portrayed, but another man, John Rolfe.

Lest we blame it on the kids, though, we would be wise to remember that adults can also develop as better readers, listeners, and thinkers. We should also be more demanding of our thought leaders: Politicians would think twice before lying if they felt their constituents’ support rested on their credibility. And all it takes to protest Sean Hannity or Tim Acosta is changing the channel.

In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin wrote: “False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm…”

‘False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often long endure…’ —Charles Darwin

It is not opinions that we must scrutinize, since disagreements are necessary for a forward-thinking, democratic society to search together for truth.

But facts, current events, politics, histories? These are the foundations of our knowledge— yours, mine, that of those who came before us and that of those who are yet to arrive. When this wisdom is tampered with, very real people are led to believe very unreal things.

Certain forces will always yearn to fool. But faced with the misconstruction of facts, it will always be our civic responsibility to defend our minds.

Dan Sicorsky ’19 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at dan.sicorsky@wustl.edu.

Dan Sicorsky

Dan Sicorsky ‘19 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at dan.sicorsky@wustl.edu.

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