A Nation of Suckers

In these days of fake news and intentional misinformation, it’s easy to wonder if anything we read or hear is true. Maybe even more alarming is our inability to know who to believe, who to trust. And of course, that is the point of fake news and misinformation. The goal is not so much to get us to believe false this or untrue that as it is to fuel mistrust and doubt: mistrust of our political leaders and doubt about the intentions and motivations that underpin our government and institutions.

In The Fine Art of Baloney Detection, Carl Sagan was definitely on point when he counseled, “Finding the occasional straw of truth awash in a great ocean of confusion and bamboozle requires intelligence, vigilance, dedication and courage. But if we don’t practice these tough habits of thought, we cannot hope to solve the truly serious problems that face us — and we risk becoming a nation of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who comes along.”

It’s harsh but certainly self-evident that “If you don’t control your mind, someone else will.” John Allston points out the obvious, but it has gotten to where even the obvious is suspect. In testimony to this sad state of affairs, William Safire advises, “Never assume the obvious is true.” At the extreme, we get to where we mistrust what we hear, what we see, what we think; and if the insidious erosion of trust persists, we come to distrust our personal judgment and our self-confidence falters.

There is an antidote for this insidious erosion of trust, but I doubt that many would think it is an easy medicine to swallow. The first dose is to give up our reliance on group-think. “Don’t think you’re on the right road just because it’s a well-beaten path.” I don’t know who said that first and doubt that it matters much. The value is in being reminded that we are responsible for what we think, what we believe, and just because lots of well-meaning folks have signed onto the trip does not make it okay for us to thoughtlessly follow. Anatole France assures us that “If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.” It’s also true that if fifty million people think or do a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing. It’s up to us to guard against being just another one of the fools.

The second dose serving as an antidote for this insidious erosion of trust is to give up on our habitual reliance on simply accepting the perspectives, views and opinions of people with the loudest voices or the most followers. Let it suffice to remind us of Buddha’s advice, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it — even if I have said it — unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

The third dose is perhaps the hardest to swallow. Grace Hopper argued that “The most damaging phrase in the language is, it’s always been done that way.” Variations on the point are mental crutches such as “I’ve always thought…,” or “I’ve always believed…, ” or “Everyone knows….” The notion is that once I think or believe anything, that’s the way it is forever.

Granted, it’s being consistent; but as Bernard Berenson cautioned, “Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago.” Or perhaps you prefer George Bernard Shaw’s take, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” Even so, Glen Beaman has a point, “Stubbornness does have its helpful features. You always know what you are going to be thinking tomorrow.” Unless you are content being pulled along by others, there is nothing for it but to take your medicine – all three doses – the only antidote to insidious group-think.