Money Matters

Outsmarting Fake News and Dubious Data

(Source: hbr.org)

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Cristina Daura

During my lunch hour, I often cross the street to the gym for a quick workout. While I pound the treadmill, I plug my earbuds into the TV screen mounted on the equipment and flip back and forth between CNN and Fox News to catch up on the day’s headlines. What follows never fails to amaze me. These two media outlets, each watched by millions of people, exist in the same world but describe starkly different realities. It reminds me of the scene in the film The Matrix in which Neo’s perceived reality depends on whether he takes a blue pill or a red pill.

When that film came out, in 1999, many people chalked it up as yet another dystopian sci-fi thriller that posed quasi-philosophical questions about the nature of reality and the potential menace of technology. But the past couple of years—with the 2016 presidential election and the world of “fake news” we’ve been living in since—have changed all that, giving those questions new immediacy and relevance.

How can we discern the difference between substance and spin—whether we’re evaluating political ideas propagated on a mass scale to promote certain interests, or a PowerPoint presentation slightly skewed by a vendor or a colleague to make a point? How can the line between fact and fantasy seem so blurred?

Such questions have defined a burgeoning genre, starting perhaps with Harry Frankfurt’s concise treatise On Bullshit (2005) and continuing to books such as Evan Davis’s engaging chronicle of our moment, Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It (2017). Three of the freshest books in this crop look at our new reality from quite different angles, shedding light on how it came to be, explaining implications, and providing guidance on how to think and behave in it.

Answering the “How did we get here?” is Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, by the author and critic Kurt Andersen. Andersen argues that the real founders of America were the 17th-century Pilgrims of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who were both “fantasists” (driven by their passion to create a religious utopia) and “pragmatists” (with precise daily habits, a love of science, and a hatred of art). Add in the Constitution’s emphasis on individual rights, and you had a powerful brew, Andersen writes: “a nation that guaranteed personal liberty above all, where citizens were officially freer than ever before to invent and promote and believe anything.”

He treats readers to a kind of historical magic-carpet ride, past the Great Awakening (which he relabels “The Great Delirium”) and on to the 19th century’s mesmerism, homeopathic quackery, and Christian Science. Of course, we meet P.T. Barnum, who well understood “the perfect good-nature with which the American public submits to a clever humbug.” Some things never change.

Fast-forward to what Andersen calls the “Big Bang” decade of the 1960s, which turbocharged hyperindividualism and anything-goes belief. On the left was the rise of relativism, which, ironically, resulted in the enabling of far-right hysteria about gun ownership, anti-government conspiracism, climate change denial, and more.

Fantasyland highlights how, in our own era, the web—combined with democratic dynamics—has massively amplified the battle between what’s fake and what’s real, because the prominence of any given assertion depends simply on how many zillions of individuals click on it. (Just Google “chemtrails proof.”) Thus the book provides a cautionary tale about democracy, asking, Should freedom of belief be an affirmative right, protecting the assertion of fantasy as fact?

One might think that the rise of technology and our digital capability to measure real-world phenomena more accurately would counter our drift toward fantasyland. Not really, as the historian Jerry Muller demonstrates in The Tyranny of Metrics. Although he acknowledges that much good has come from scientifically quantifying what’s going on around us and using that information to drive our decisions and actions, he also believes that our “metric fixation”—seen in business, government, medicine, education, and elsewhere—has gone too far.

Muller argues, powerfully, that what can be measured is not always worth measuring; that efforts to measure are often more costly than beneficial and draw resources away from the things we ought to care about; and that measurement frequently provides us with seemingly solid knowledge that is actually distorted. The reader acquires a sharpened awareness of how numbers can become a kind of theology (fantasy?), substituting for human expertise and judgment based on experience.

If these two books illustrate, in different ways, that we are now in a bizarro realm where many people feel entitled to believe whatever they want and even data geeks can trade in squishiness, the Dilbert creator Scott Adams’s latest book—Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter—offers advice for how to navigate the new normal. It’s provocative and entertaining and at turns informative (a glossary of persuasion words is included), philosophical (“The Myth of the Rational Mind” is a short chapter), and practical (aphoristic Persuasion Tips are sprinkled throughout).

It can also be maddening. Adams professes admiration for Donald Trump’s “weapons-grade” persuasion skills, which led to his election victory (though he asserts that he supported neither Trump’s nor Hillary Clinton’s policy positions). But for people who care about progress—and especially for leaders, whether in the public or the private sector—winning isn’t and can’t be everything. How one plays the game should matter too.

We are a nation founded on freedom of belief and individual rights. And we are a nation that believes in scientific advances. These three books illustrate how those diverse threads in the American DNA have brought us to a place where people can’t seem to agree on the truth. Surprisingly, however, none of the authors make the point that with all rights come civic responsibilities. It’s up to each of us to step back, check the source, and think critically about our belief systems. Otherwise we risk submitting to yet another clever humbug.

A version of this article appeared in the January–February 2018 issue (pp.152–153) of Harvard Business Review.

More Info: hbr.org

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