Saturday, January 5, 2013

Don't Believe Your Eyes

 The internet is a wonderful thing because information can be transmitted almost instantly all over the world. The internet is also a terrible thing, because misinformation can be transmitted almost instantly all over the world. And how many times have people been swayed by misinformation because it confirms what they already want to believe?

 A simple example of this would be that oft-quoted aphorism that "insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result." This saying is frequently attributed to Albert Einstein. Maybe he said it; I've never seen any documentation that he did. It is understandable that people like to think that Einstein said it, because that means that it must be true. He was a genius, right? (Granted, his field of expertise was theoretical physics, which has little to do with psychology.) We hear something that sounds clever, and we think, yeah, I bet that is a great way of describing insanity. We don't stop to think that it is probably a better description of ignorance, inexperience, or stupidity than insanity. An insane person is more likely to think that his crayon scribbling shows that he is Rembrandt reincarnated, or that shooting up a school will give meaning to his life. He is less likely to be doggedly persistent in pursuit of a goal.

 I'm digressing a bit...misinformation.

 So anyway, what prompted this rant of mine was something that I saw of Facebook and Twitter a few times today. This picture has been making the rounds, and something very similar circulated a few months ago:

 Pretty cool, huh? It only caught my attention because I've seen all three Back To The Future movies a bunch of times, and I have a knack for remembering generally useless information, so I remember that Marty and Doc travel to 2015, not 2013. (All the dates in the series are done in easy-to-follow thirty year intervals, or multiples of thirty: 1985, 2015, 1955, 1885.) Apparently, someone figured out how to manipulate the image. Harmless right? I suppose so, though lots of people have already passed it around without giving any thought to whether or not it is true.

 The thing is, that picture is convincing. It looks real. And we have been conditioned to accept what we see, as long as it fits our expectations. Many people accepted without question documents that "proved" former President George W. Bush was absent from required National Guard training time, because it fit their preconceptions about his character. The ruse was discovered only when someone who designed typewriters noticed that the documents contained an font artifact particular to Microsoft Word that would never be produced on typewriters of the 1970s. Even after the story was shown to be a fraud, many people continued to believe it--no doubt someone reading this very blog still does--because it fit their prejudice against a politician. In the same way, many people cling to the belief that President Obama was born in Kenya rather than Hawaii, despite birth announcements being printed in two different Honolulu newspapers in 1961. We see what we wish to see, and dismiss the things that might prove us wrong.

 My point is, be patient. Don't reflexively spread things without making sure they are true. Don't assume the worst about people who disagree with you and then forward reports to prove how "awful" they are. I'll be writing more soon about the importance of critically evaluating the information you see before making a judgment. In a time when there is a lot of arguing about a lot of important issues, pause before you share. Unless you're going to forward this blog to someone, of course.

No comments:

Post a Comment