Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Promising the Moon

It is impossible for any human being to describe an event (“Just the facts, ma’am”) completely devoid of “spin.” However much we try to be neutral, we inevitably bring our own presuppositions and values into the story, omitting this and emphasizing that according to what we consider to be important, what to be unimportant, and what already should be understood by the listener. There is always an element of advocacy, however unintended, in whatever we say. This is true (in a more constrained way than elsewhere) even in scientific literature; the actual collected data may be value-free, but the choice of what information to collect in the first place is not – nor, often, is what to conclude from it.

Most of us are aware of this and allow for it when we listen to others speak. In an election year such as this one, however, the airwaves (and optical fibers) are filled not just with spin but out-and-out propaganda. Arguably, the utter lack of pretense of objectivity in campaign ads is a kind of honesty, but the half-truths and glaring omissions typically found in them are so close to lies as to be indistinguishable from them. It’s always easiest to gasp at the nonsense in the ads of the opposing party, of course, while we dismiss the dubious rhetoric of our own favored candidate as inconsequential exaggerations born of campaign enthusiasm. Meantime we worry that those “still undecideds” who so often determine the outcome of elections will be so gullible as to be swayed by the other side’s misrepresentations rather than by our own.

This raises the question of just how gullible we are. Here is an old rough-and-ready test. Answer this question: Do you consider yourself to be a gullible person? If you answered “no” you probably are. We all get taken in by nonsense every day, falling more easily for lies than for spin – for, while we expect a person to have a distinct perspective, we don’t always expect him to be untruthful by his own lights. The less we acknowledge our own capacity to be fooled, the more readily we will be.

Kids, as psychologists have shown repeatedly, believe just about anything they are told. Skepticism is something we learn the hard way; it is not the philosophy with which we start out. Adult gullibility is more circumscribed: adults generally believe new information if it does not conflict with what they already believe – they just have more pre-existing beliefs than kids and so appear less gullible. Furthermore, once having adopted some new belief, adults will tend to maintain it in the face of contrary evidence (“belief perseverance”).

For years there has been an internet prank about dihydrogen monoxide, a deadly chemical that can kill you if you breathe it. (See http://www.dhmo.org/facts.html.) Dihydrogen monoxide is, of course, water, but it is easy to get people to sign a petition to ban it. The presentation seems credible to them.

Tabloid newspapers thrive on readers’ willingness to believe the most amazing (sometimes libelous) things. The name, by the way, was borrowed from condensed pills, once called tabloids rather than tablets; the tabloid papers initially were condensed news. In the US, the rise of the tabloid is usually traced to The Great Moon Hoax of 1835. (The tabloid newspapers in the UK have a different provenance.) In 1835, The New York Sun announced that astronomer Sir John Herschel "by means of a telescope of vast dimensions and an entirely new principle" had discovered intelligent life on the moon and observed it in great detail. In a series of six illustrated articles, supposedly written by Herschel’s assistant “Dr. Andrew Grant,” the Sun described strange animals such as biped beavers and, most shockingly, winged moon people who pursued rather hedonistic lifestyles. Unlike the savage earth, the moon displayed a "universal state of amity among all classes of lunar creatures." The author added verisimilitude by describing an observatory accident when the powerful telescope’s lens caught the sun’s rays and started a fire.

The New York Sun scored a huge hit. All the NY papers reprinted the series, which soon went international. The story was not only wildly popular but widely believed. The real Sir John was in South Africa at the time and didn’t learn of the hoax until afterward. If he was upset by it, he didn’t say so.

Lest we think we think that we are less easily fooled today, consider all the varied conspiracy theory advocates out there – I mean advocates for the silly theories: the ones we ourselves buy are obviously true. I guarantee that if a major media outlet ran a hoax story, presented as a “leak,” that SETI was in contact with aliens but was sitting on the information, the story would have no shortage of believers even after the hoax was revealed. “That’s just part of the cover-up!”

So, how do we fool those independents into voting our way? Apparently, the propagandists will have to tune their message to lie in a way that doesn’t conflict with those voters’ pre-existing beliefs. The side that does this the best should win.

1835 Lithograph of Life on the Moon

When We Were Gullible Enough to Believe that Full Scale Development of the Moon Was Only a Few Years Away: Intro to Groovy Movie Moon Zero 2 (1969)


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