Saturday, July 11, 2015

Age of (Mis-)Information

Stepping aside from cult commentary, I feel compelled to address the availability cascade that assaults and influences us in our daily lives.

As Stephen Pinker so clearly elucidates in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of our Nature, the world today is much less violent than it has ever been before.  

As well, our moral evolution has made things repugnant today that were accepted as normal in the not so distant past: slavery, public torture and executions, and the subjugation of women, to name just a few of the most obvious.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, there is an encroaching psychological danger in this age that much of humanity is embracing with joy, and that is the ever-increasing availability of information. There are mind-boggling numbers of television channels available, connectivity to the internet is fast becoming ubiquitous, radio shows and podcasts proliferate, and even clothing and bags are emblazoned with brand names, all feeding us with information.

Having the wealth of man's knowledge at our fingertips is a marvelous thing, and I personally am grateful for the internet for the crucial role it has played in my leaving the cult and providing me with access to the multitude of audio courses, books, and scientific studies that have helped me to learn.  

The downside is that news outlets, both spurious and legitimate, have a tremendous, and perhaps, unwitting, influence on us via an availability cascade of stories and memes that give us a very distorted sense of reality, danger, and truth. It follows that the most effective memes and the most attention-getting, share-worthy, stories are those that arouse emotion. This compels writers, both amateur and professional, to write articles and headlines using more and more emotion-laden terms. The more emotion they can arouse in their readers, the more widely their piece is apt to be read and shared.

This feeds the ever-present internet outrage that so many on both sides of the political spectrum seem to revel in, not to mention the pervasive and very questionable health and diet related articles and websites (more often than not written by someone who just so happens to sell health-related supplements, etc.).

One of the daily challenges of the modern world is to be aware of the power of availability to influence us. We naturally deem things that are easily called to mind as being of more weight and importance, especially those that are emotion-laden, but being readily called to mind does not guarantee their value. Take it from one who spent years memorizing inane cult materials that still readily come to mind.

"A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth." Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman

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