Separating Stories

Last week I had a fight with a friend, let’s call her Jill, that left me deeply unsettled. This was not a conventional political debate but a profound disagreement about the truth. I’ve known and respected Jill for ages. She’s smart, educated, and successful. I called her because I’m troubled by the incoming administration and hoped she might allay my fears. But her beliefs about reality and what’s happening left me even more shaken. We are so far apart it’s scary.

I’ve never been highly politically engaged, and I tend towards conflict avoidance, so while I’ve been aware of polarization, I hadn’t realized its severity. This fight woke me up. At first, I tried to explain our differences with the “equally valid separating stories” hypothesis. In this model, facts exist and there is a reality. If you touch a red hot stove, you will get burned. But, as our understanding of the world is largely mediated by information rather than direct experience, we are subject to spin. So perhaps the liberal and conservative media have shaped divergent narratives that are equally right and wrong, and Jill and I are equally misinformed. I felt compelled to test this hypothesis.

Separating Stories

I began with birtherism. When asked if Trump had been race-baiting, Jill blamed Obama for fanning the flames of controversy toward his own ends by not promptly producing his birth certificate when challenged. This didn’t match my memory or make sense to me, so I researched the subject. As far as I can tell, Obama released his official Hawaiian birth certificate in 2008 and his long form birth certificate in 2011. Donald Trump began publicly questioning the president’s place of birth in 2011 and continued until September 16, 2016 when he stated “President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period.” These are my sources.

I emailed this list to Jill with a note that “this evidence does not fit your argument” and asked “do you have different evidence?” Jill responded by saying this doesn’t fit with her memory, she doesn’t have the time or motivation to research or discuss it, and there’s so much false “evidence” around that further research would be futile anyway.

She told me to relax, but her response did not make me relax. It did the opposite. If we can’t be bothered to seek the truth when confronted with cognitive dissonance, and if we can’t trust all of these sources put together, we are in trouble. I love Jill, but on this subject, she seems to be plain wrong. And I find it scary that a smart, educated person can be wrong about something so simple.

My second topic, climate change, is more complex. Jill conceded that the temperature may be rising slightly but argued that fluctuations are normal, it’s not caused by humans, and even if it is, the Paris Agreement won’t fix the problem. So I studied the topic, and evidence from such sources as IPCC, NASA, and DOD shows that greenhouse gas emissions due to human activity are causing significant global warming.

During my research, I came across ProCon.org which presents the arguments for and against scientific consensus on this issue. When I first read the Con argument that “more than one thousand scientists disagree that human activity is primarily responsible for global climate change,” I thought “huh, maybe Jill’s right on this.” But then I discovered the source is Climate Depot, a project of CFACT, an organization that receives funding from energy companies. I began to follow the trail of dark money and it soon led to the ExxonMobil Report which implicates Myron Ebell, Trump’s pick to oversee the transition at the EPA, as a leader in using the disinformation tactics of the tobacco industry to manufacture uncertainty on climate science. Meanwhile, Trump denies climate change as a hoax and the public is confused and divided.

All this leads me to believe I’m closer to the truth on climate change than is Jill. I find it hard to believe that thousands of scientists and hundreds of governments have conspired to trick us into thinking that temperatures and sea levels are rising. I just don’t see the incentive. I find it easy to believe big oil is copying the tactics of big tobacco. The incentive is clear. There are trillions of dollars at stake. I do realize it’s a complex issue, and I don’t claim to know whether we can slow or reverse global warming. But I can’t see how lies will help us move forward.

After a few days of information seeking and sensemaking, I’m forced to conclude that my original hypothesis of “equally valid separating stories” is wrong. I do believe both Jill and I are misinformed. Nobody is immune to cognitive bias, fake news, false equivalence, dog whistles, and gaslighting. But I also believe my story is closer to reality. I have a degree in library and information science. I’ve spent my career using and writing about the Internet, information, trust, and authority. And I’m open to being wrong. I’ve tried to see the other side. In contrast, Jill is not Internet savvy and isn’t willing to question what she believes. In short, her story has strayed far from reality and shows no sign of changing trajectory, while mine has held closer to the truth and is headed still closer now that I’m awake and paying attention.

Converging Stories

To be clear, I want Jill to be right. But I choose the red pill. I believe in seeking and sharing the truth. I am not comforted by Steve Bannon’s speech, interview, or quote: “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” While I agree we must reclaim democracy for lower/middle income people (which is why I supported Larry Lessig and Bernie Sanders), I find the use of lies, fear, racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and religious persecution to achieve those ends to be repulsive.

In a mad world, only the mad are sane.
– Akira Kurosawa

So, what can we do? In the long run, we must get serious about teaching information literacy to our children in the K-12 school system. Once someone has been misled and has spoken, acted, or made a public commitment based on their misunderstanding, the engine of self-justification propels them down the pyramid of choice and makes this mistake nearly impossible to reverse. So we must help our kids to choose their news and select their sources wisely. Search skills including the ability to identify bias, perverse incentives, fake news, misleading statistics, and other misinformation tactics should be taken as seriously as mathematics. Older students may benefit by learning metacognition and liminal thinking. Also, we must pressure media and social media companies, especially Google, Twitter, and Facebook, to accept their responsibility as custodians of democracy and to crack down hard on harassment and misinformation.

Only a positive vision of the future with shared goals and values can bring our separating stories together again.

In the short run, I ask you to dig deep for the truth. Spend time on information seeking, sensemaking, and soul searching. Share what you find. As Louis Brandeis noted “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Figure out what you really believe. What’s true? What are your values? What do you want for your family, community, and country? Only a positive vision of the future with shared goals and values can bring our separating stories together again. Spend time on planning with people you love and trust. Ask and answer a wide range of what ifs. Consider what Brian Eno calls “the big here and the long now.” As the question “What did you do during the war Grandpa?” reveals, we must be prepared to live with the consequences of our words and actions for the rest of our lives. Do not look the other way. Be vigilant. Be honest. Be kind.