Monday, January 30, 2017

FALSEHOODS, LIES, AND FAKE NEWS

In its purest sense, skepticism is not a philosophy about the nature of reality.  It does not presume to establish specific facts about the history or structure of the world.  Rather, it is about identifying the best method for sifting through the evidence to gain a better understanding of the nature of the world.  Most of my essays on this blog have been in the context of religious thought, because I feel that there is an especially wide gulf between the approach to understanding reality called for by religion and the approach called for by skepticism.  However, for this essay I have wandered into the morass of the media.  Heaven help me.

Here I would like to discuss three specific terms that recently have gained purchase in discussions regarding the political environment—falsehoods, lies, and fake news.

Falsehoods.  

A falsehood is a statement that is demonstrably untrue.  Of course, this definition is a bit circular and doesn’t really answer the question in most situations.  That is because virtually all facts based on inductive evidence do not enjoy complete certainty.  Thus, while we would all agree (I hope) on the truth of the statement that the earth revolves around the sun, there is always the (exceedingly remote) possibility that reality is different.  So to assert that a statement is false is to say not that we are 100% certain but there is a high level of certainty that it is untrue.  In the end it comes down to the extent and quality of the evidence supporting the statement.  

The quality of the evidence is a major factor, worthy of a much longer discussion.  But, briefly, here are a few factors to consider in evaluating evidence: 

  • Statements should not be accepted—or rejected—simply on the basis of their source.  No source of evidence is “sacred,” that is, unimpeachable, and certainly not the individual making the statement.
  • Not all evidence is equal.  Some is better than other.  And in this context evidence from a source that is “independent” is better than evidence from an individual that has an ulterior reason for supporting the statement in question. 
  • All evidence should be accepted conditionally.  We should always be prepared to reject evidence upon further examination.

The modifier “demonstrably” serves to limit the discussion to those statements that are potentially verifiable.  The assertion that dogs are better pets than cats is a statement of opinion, not of fact to be confirmed or disconfirmed.  The term “demonstrably” also serves to limit discussion to statements for which there is substantial, generally accepted evidence to support or refute the truth of the statement. 

Consider, for example, the following statement made by Donald Trump:

I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.

This is a falsehood.  Mr. Trump was referring to having seen such crowds on television at the time.  No other eyewitness testimony of such crowd activity exists.  More importantly, there are complete records of all television media reports at the time, and no television media have any record of such footage.

Lies.

A lie is a falsehood made by an individual who knows the statement is false and who makes the statement with the intention of deceiving his audience.  

Much has been said recently regarding whether journalists should use the term “lie” when referring to statements made by politicians and other public figures.  The concern is that one cannot know whether the speaker knew a statement was false when he made it.  Perhaps his source of information was faulty, or perhaps he misremembered or misinterpreted what he saw. 

But in fact lies do occur—too often.  Just like with all other inductive propositions, at some point we are justified in concluding that a statement is a lie, that there is sufficient certainty that the speaker knew that the statement was false.  In the case of Trump’s statement regarding New Jersey residents cheering the World Trade Center destruction on 9/11, one could argue at least that Trump was thinking of video footage (that actually does exist) of Palestinians cheering the terrorist attack and got confused.

That said, consider the following tweet by Donald Trump:

In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.

This is a lie.  There is no credible evidence to support Trump’s claim.  All the credible studies of voter fraud have found that fraud does exist but that it is extremely rare.  To support the idea that 3-5 million illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election would require a conspiracy of unheard of proportions.  When Mr. Trump was asked what evidence he had to support his claim, he cited a Pew Research study.  But that study was done in 2012 and could not have concerned voter fraud occurring in 2016.  Moreover, the study dealt solely with voter registration issues, not with voter fraud.  When this was pointed out to Mr. Trump, he attacked the author of the study and added that every single fraudulent vote was cast for Hillary Clinton and not for him.  This is simply not credible.  Either Mr. Trump is delusional or he is lying.  Personally, I do not believe he is delusional.

That raises another question: What responsibility does a speaker have to take care when making statements to ensure that they can be verified?  We all misspeak, we all exaggerate, we all embellish in the heat of the moment or just because we are human.  But when someone is in a position of public trust, does he not have a greater duty to take care in verifying his facts before making public statements?

Fake News.

Fake news has generally been defined to include articles published on news and social media that are deliberately fabricated to deceive readers.  In effect, fake news is simply lies told with the trappings and in a format intended to give the impression that it is credible, when it is not.  Often the content of the article is simply wholly fabricated.  Other times the fake part consists of a sensationalistic title that promises content not borne out in the text of the article.  Very often, the goal of the article is simply to get reader “hits” and repostings so that the author can reap advertising dollars.

Having said that, importantly, there are three things that fake news does not include.  

  • Fake news should not be confused with satire.  The Onion and Andy Borowitz come to mind.  The difference is that satire is not intended to deceive.  It is only intended to amuse or to instruct or to express opinion through the vehicle of satire.  
  • Legitimate and honest journalists sometimes get things wrong.  Sources misspeak or are misunderstood.  Mistaken inferences are made.  Articles that contain factual inaccuracies are not fake news unless the intention was to deceive the reader.  
  • Opinions that are stated as such are not fake news, even if they contain factual inaccuracies or draw erroneous inferences. The goal of opinion is not simply to report facts but to interpret them, to open up a dialogue, and to persuade the reader.


© 2017 John M. Phillips

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