Links and Comments: Tribal Epistemology

Out of all the links compiled for my previous links post, this is the most substantial, the one I have enough comments on to put in a separate post.

19 May: Vox, David Roberts: Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology

Very long essay about how the media should or can respond to the problems of fake news and a divided American culture.

Over time, this leads to what you might call tribal epistemology: Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one.

Includes that diagram of news sources that shows how Trump supporters rely on Breitbart, Daily Caller, and Fox News.

The devolution of the right into unchecked tribal epistemology has involved, among other things, an absolute torrent of nonsense.

Millions of self-identified conservatives, in many cases majorities, believe that the Clintons have been involved in multiple murders, Sharia law has taken hold in the US, Obama is a Muslim (and a socialist) who was born in Kenya and seeks to destroy the US, Obama was planning a coup in Jade Helm, Democrats are running a child-trafficking ring out of a DC pizza restaurant, the UN’s Agenda 21 is an international conspiracy to increase urban density, climate change is a hoax, and on and on and on.

This is a very long essay that ends in despair — the writer asks, is there a solution?

The answer is … ha ha, jk

If you waded through all 7 million words of this post, you were probably hoping I’d finish with a solution, or at least some good suggestions. I am here to disappoint you.

This recalls the conclusion of Yuval Noah Harari’s review of THE KNOWLEDGE ILLUSION: Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, which I blogged about in this post. Perhaps there is no consensus reality, only allegiance to tribes, with self-serving notions about reality.

And to some degree, as I’ve maintained, it doesn’t matter; most humans get by and survive no matter what crazy things (superstitions, conspiracy theories, religious beliefs) they think are really true.

Or, perhaps the US is splintering into rival factions, as the SF author Marta Randall suggested in a recent Fb post:

There is a long and respected trope in science fiction speaking of a post- apocalyptic future in which the US no longer exists, and has been replaced by a number of semi-independent entities. In most of these stories the entities battle one another for scarce resources or maintain shaky alliances based on momentary advantages. We’ve all read these, or written these.

When I look at what this country has lurched through since January 20th, it comes to me that the transformation is already in progress, especially since Trump’s repudiation of the Paris Agreement and the response by individual states and municipalities to repudiate his repudiation and step forward on their own to support the Agreement. Regardless of what you may think of the Agreement itself, we are seeing a certain dis-uniting of the United States … The Balkanization of the country.

Maybe we are living in two disparate, overlapping countries, with truly different understandings of reality.

Actually, I do have suggestions for how not to become trapped inside a tribal bubble.

First — rely on news sources that existed before the internet. It’s the internet, and its ability to target communities of like-thinkers (on everything from politics to tastes in porn [Rule 34]) that has fragmented, or Balkanized, our culture.

Second — beware any news source that claims to stand up for a ‘truth’ that it claims is misrepresented by the so-called ‘mainstream’ media. Some of them may have a point, but many of them are in essence scams, playing to a base they know they can draw viewers, and make money, from.

Third — get out of the US bubble by checking news sites of other countries: BBC; Le Monde; Der Spiegel; Australia’s The Age. It’s fascinating to see how much they pay attention to US politics, and what they say. If you look at them and think they’re all part of a conspiracy to hide ‘the truth’, then the problem is probably yours.


For example!

18 May: Vox, Alvin Chang: We tracked the Trump scandals on right-wing news sites. Here’s how they covered it. We’re experiencing these historical events very differently.

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