Two Essays

  • Frank Bruni on how everything is complicated, and the need to be humble;
  • A New Yorker piece about how to understand misinformation.

I have at hand two or three long essays that I plan to read and comment on, as I post. How many will I get through? I have my usual afternoon interval of an hour, to and hour and a half, depending on my partner’s schedule. (I.e. when he gets home from his latest errand.)

NY Times, Frank Bruni, 20 Apr 2024: The Most Important Thing I Teach My Students Isn’t on the Syllabus

This is an excerpt from his new book The Age of Grievance, but the point here is valid without further context.

I warn my students. At the start of every semester, on the first day of every course, I confess to certain passions and quirks and tell them to be ready: I’m a stickler for correct grammar, spelling and the like, so if they don’t have it in them to care about and patrol for such errors, they probably won’t end up with the grade they’re after. I want to hear everyone’s voice — I tell them that, too — but I don’t want to hear anybody’s voice so often and so loudly that the other voices don’t have a chance.

And I’m going to repeat one phrase more often than any other: “It’s complicated.” They’ll become familiar with that. They may even become bored with it. I’ll sometimes say it when we’re discussing the roots and branches of a social ill, the motivations of public (and private) actors and a whole lot else, and that’s because I’m standing before them not as an ambassador of certainty or a font of unassailable verities but as an emissary of doubt. I want to give them intelligent questions, not final answers. I want to teach them how much they have to learn — and how much they will always have to learn.

“It’s complicated.” This fits neatly into my understanding of politics and morality, in which conservatives think simplistically in terms of black and white, while liberals see shades of gray and even colors. Again, that classic quote, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” Attributed to Bertrand Russell, and others.

Bruni has one further observation.

I’d been on the faculty of Duke University and delivering that spiel for more than two years before I realized that each component of it was about the same quality: humility. The grammar-and-spelling bit was about surrendering to an established and easily understood way of doing things that eschewed wild individualism in favor of a common mode of communication. It showed respect for tradition, which is a force that binds us, a folding of the self into a greater whole. The voices bit — well, that’s obvious. It’s a reminder that we share the stages of our communities, our countries, our worlds, with many other actors and should conduct ourselves in a manner that recognizes this fact. And “it’s complicated” is a bulwark against arrogance, absolutism, purity, zeal.

I’d also been delivering that spiel for more than two years before I realized that humility is the antidote to grievance.

We live in an era defined and overwhelmed by grievance — by too many Americans’ obsession with how they’ve been wronged and their insistence on wallowing in ire. This anger reflects a pessimism that previous generations didn’t feel. The ascent of identity politics and the influence of social media, it turned out, were better at inflaming us than uniting us. They promote a self-obsession at odds with community, civility, comity and compromise. It’s a problem of humility.

Again: conservatives are certain about their black and white thinking; liberals are cautious, seeing the complexities of the world, hesitant to draw firm conclusions.


Here’s a long piece from the current issue of The New Yorker.

The New Yorker, Manvir Singh, 15 Apr 2024: Don’t Believe What They’re Telling You About Misinformation, subtitled “People may fervently espouse symbolic beliefs, cognitive scientists say, but they don’t treat them the same as factual beliefs. It’s worth keeping track of the difference.”

(The print article is titled “How Gullible Are You?” and subtitled “Don’t believe what they’re telling you about misinformation.”)

So what is this? Are all the books and articles about misinformation themselves misinformation? If so of what?? But as usual article writers don’t write their headlines….

The writer begins by talking about flat-earthers, and the 2020 incident in which one Mike Hughes launched himself on a homemade rocket in the California desert in attempt to prove the world is flat. With this key insight:

Flat Earth theory may sound like one of those deliberately far-fetched satires, akin to Birds Aren’t Real, but it has become a cultic subject for anti-scientific conspiratorialists, growing entangled with movements such as QAnon and COVID-19 skepticism. In “Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything” (Algonquin), the former Daily Beast reporter Kelly Weill writes that the tragedy awakened her to the sincerity of Flat Earthers’ convictions. After investigating the Flat Earth scene and following Hughes, she had figured that, “on some subconscious level,” Hughes knew the Earth wasn’t flat. His death set her straight: “I was wrong. Flat Earthers are as serious as your life.”

Like religious fundamentalists, such conspiracy theorists *really believe* their ideas. (To me, this is yet another piece of fascinating evidence about the difference between what people believe and the objective reality about the universe.)

The article goes on to mention several books on misinformation, by Paul Thagard, Sander van der Linden, and Adam J. Berinsky, all books and writers I have not heard of. This is my most significant take-away from this article. But what about the article’s claims?

The fear of misinformation hinges on assumptions about human suggestibility. “Misinformation, conspiracy theories, and other dangerous ideas, latch on to the brain and insert themselves deep into our consciousness,” van der Linden writes in “Foolproof.” “They infiltrate our thoughts, feelings, and even our memories.” Thagard puts it more plainly: “People have a natural tendency to believe what they hear or read, which amounts to gullibility.”

But do the credulity theorists have the right account of what’s going on? Folks like Mike Hughes aren’t gullible in the sense that they’ll believe anything. They seem to reject scientific consensus, after all. Partisans of other well-known conspiracies (the government is run by lizard people; a cabal of high-level pedophilic Democrats operates out of a neighborhood pizza parlor) are insusceptible to the assurances of the mainstream media. Have we been misinformed about the power of misinformation?

Yet people do “believe” different things in different ways.

Sperber concluded that there are two kinds of beliefs. The first he has called “factual” beliefs. Factual beliefs—such as the belief that chairs exist and that leopards are dangerous—guide behavior and tolerate little inconsistency; you can’t believe that leopards do and do not eat livestock. The second category he has called “symbolic” beliefs. These beliefs might feel genuine, but they’re cordoned off from action and expectation. We are, in turn, much more accepting of inconsistency when it comes to symbolic beliefs; we can believe, say, that God is all-powerful and good while allowing for the existence of evil and suffering.

In a masterly new book, “Religion as Make-Believe” (Harvard), Neil Van Leeuwen, a philosopher at Georgia State University, returns to Sperber’s ideas with notable rigor. He analyzes beliefs with a taxonomist’s care, classifying different types and identifying the properties that distinguish them. He proposes that humans represent and use factual beliefs differently from symbolic beliefs, which he terms “credences.” Factual beliefs are for modelling reality and behaving optimally within it. Because of their function in guiding action, they exhibit features like “involuntariness” (you can’t decide to adopt them) and “evidential vulnerability” (they respond to evidence). Symbolic beliefs, meanwhile, largely serve social ends, not epistemic ones, so we can hold them even in the face of contradictory evidence.

Long article. Near the end:

Findings like these require that we rethink what misinformation represents. As Dan Kahan, a legal scholar at Yale, notes, “Misinformation is not something that happens to the mass public but rather something that its members are complicit in producing.” That’s why thoughtful scholars—including the philosopher Daniel Williams and the experimental psychologist Sacha Altay—encourage us to see misinformation more as a symptom than as a disease. Unless we address issues of polarization and institutional trust, they say, we’ll make little headway against an endless supply of alluring fabrications.

From this perspective, railing against social media for manipulating our zombie minds is like cursing the wind for blowing down a house we’ve allowed to go to rack and ruin. It distracts us from our collective failures, from the conditions that degrade confidence and leave much of the citizenry feeling disempowered. By declaring that the problem consists of “irresponsible senders and gullible receivers,” in Thagard’s words, credulity theorists risk ignoring the social pathologies that cause people to become disenchanted and motivate them to rally around strange new creeds.

Every day I reread and copy-edit my post from the evening before. If this comment is still here, I have not yet done so for this post.

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