Subtitle: Science and Facts Do Not Take Sides.
With the rise of QAnon, the return of anti-vaxxers, and the Big Lie about fraud in the 2020 election, conspiracy and misinformation have returned to the fore of American consciousness. Fact checking outlets work overtime. Social media is filled with bots, trolls, and outright lies. Elected officials claim that California wildfires are the result of lasers from outer space or that Israel is conducting an ethnic cleansing. Many ordinary Americans are left wondering where to turn for reliable information, and what they can do about conspiracies and misinformation.
Fighting for truth starts at home. Everyone has to hold their own side to account. When prominent Democrats accuse Marjorie Taylor Greene of being a nutcase, her fundraising goes through the roof. When Republicans try to hold members of the Squad to account, they are often rightly asked what they think about the 2020 election? If anyone wants to be effective in combatting misinformation, they must police their own side.
More importantly, when evaluating new claims, everyone needs to use extra scrutiny on those from their own side, or those that comport with their own preexisting beliefs. If you want a narrative to be true, you will more easily discount countervailing evidence. As the great Richard Feynman said, “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Human beings are exceptionally skilled at fooling themselves. In order to avoid cognitive dissonance, we ignore evidence that contradicts our opinions. Which is why you should have extra skepticism towards any new claims that you want to believe. If you want it to be true, take extra care to make sure that it is. Fighting misinformation and conspiracy should start with humility and self-reflection.
Some will contest this. They will say that their side empirically has a monopoly on truth. The prominent left-wing columnist at the New York Times, Paul Krugman, likes to say that the truth has a liberal bias. Journalists, academics, politicians, and even ordinary citizens like to repeat this trope. But despite the efforts of Donald Trump, Matt Gaetz, and their ilk, Republicans do not have a monopoly on conspiracy. They have tried, and succeeded, to make misinformation more obvious on the right. But lies, distortion, and misinformation still exist on the left.
- Whatever your opinion of Governor DeSantis, it is clear that 60 Minutes’ claims of corruption in the Florida vaccine rollout are false (especially after the Democratic mayor of Palm Beach said so).
- While President Biden easily clears the low bar set by his predecessor on truthfulness, he has famously played fast and loose with the truth during his time in public service. Most recently, he called Georgia’s election law “the new Jim Crow” and repeated false claims about restrictions in voting hours.
- While Donald Trump has sadly convinced many Republicans that the 2020 election was a fraud, Republicans hold only the most recent examples of election lies. Against all available evidence, Stacey Abrams still claims the 2018 Georgia governor’s race was stolen from her. Despite the findings of the Mueller Report, a majority of Democrats believe that Trump colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 presidential election. And a small cohort still cling to a belief that George Bush stole the 2004 election from John Kerry.
It is not just politics. Antiscientific behavior also does not take sides.
Many people claim that they are “on the side of science” or that they “follow the science,” without always following science in reality. They post yard signs claiming that “science is real,” but do not understand scientific principles or the scientific method. Oftentimes, the people who most loudly proclaim their devotion to “following the science” actually have no scientific background. They defer unthinkingly to “experts.” Of course, there is nothing wrong in principle with deferring to experts on scientific matters. In fact, we should defer to researchers on matters in their own fields. However, many people who claim to “follow the science” do not engage in elementary scientific reasoning when evaluating claims. Furthermore, they often discount any “science” that does not follow their own political beliefs.
Right now, antiscientific thinking is evident on the right. But it cuts across parties.
- Many people who claim to “follow science” denounce Genetically Modified Foods, despite the evidence showing GMO foods do not cause harm, and the fact that humans have been genetically modifying organisms since the inventions of agriculture and animal husbandry.
- Until they seized a foothold in the fever swamp of right-wing conspiratorial politics, anti-vaxxers were predominantly a left-wing phenomenon.
- Throughout the pandemic, newspapers across the country denounced Florida, Texas, and Georgia, for having fewer lockdown restrictions. Yet the disastrous outcomes they predicted never materialized. States like New York and New Jersey (with harsh restrictions) had much higher per capita death rates than Florida (and Texas and Georgia), despite Florida’s large senior population, and dense urban centers.
These examples are not meant to indict the left or the Democratic Party. Instead, they serve as counterexamples to the prevailing narrative that “the truth has a liberal bias.” In fact, neither truth, nor lies, have a conservative or liberal bias. Actually, there is some truth on both sides, and quite a lot of lying and misinformation.
The project of Meet in the Middle will require partisans on both sides to examine the truth and falsehood of their own positions. Rather than immediately condemning the other side, look first for the log in your own eye, or the logs in your allies’ eyes. Everyone should be skeptical of wild claims, especially those coming from their own sides (because those are the ones you are predisposed to believe, and which will more easily fool you). In order to counteract misinformation, each side needs to start cleaning up its own camp.
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