Keeping fake news under control: criticism vs populism

While Karl Popper was writing The Open Society and Its Enemies during a working holiday in New Zealand the poet W H Auden wrote an essay about maintaining standards of criticism in a mass society. That is a society where many people are literate but hardly any read with discrimination. They both used the terms open and closed societies to create a framework for their ideas.

Popper freaked out when the saw a US Presidential election and wrote his essay Public Opinion and Liberal Principles in reaction.  Auden addressed the same issues at some length.

We are frequently and correctly told that one of the most precious privileges of a democratic state is the right to free self-criticism. If we care, then, about the preservation of that democracy, our first duty is to discover how this right is, in fact, exercised. It will not take us long to discover that in a modern society, whatever its political form, the great majority prefer opinion to knowledge, and passively allow the former to be imposed upon them by a centralized few—I need only mention as in example the influence of the Sunday book supplements of the newspapers upon our public libraries.

If we are concerned, as I think we should be, at this trend, we shall accomplish nothing by cries of lamentation or superior sneers; we cannot hope to effect any reform unless we can discover, firstly, what it is in the structure of our society that makes for this state of affairs, secondly; how far the molding of the opinions of the few by the many is inevitable, and then what steps it is possible to take within the inevitable to minimize its dangers and take advantage of its possibilities.

 

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23 Responses to Keeping fake news under control: criticism vs populism

  1. Vicki says:

    a society where many people are literate but hardly any read with discrimination.

    Recently a friend, who is a highly intelligent former geologist, asked me how one distinguishes fact from fiction inpolitically charged controversies. I was discussing the inaccuracies of Bruce Pascoe’s “Dark Emu”. I was staggered to hear what was an honest concern on her part.

    I outlined the techniques of historical criticism and the comparison of evidence. But I could see that she felt that this was something she could neither do, nor care to do.

    If someone of her generation (post war) chooses to believe material that reinforces their belief system, what hope for a generation who are not taught to think for themselves.

  2. Paul said it better than I can:

    For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. – 2 Tim 4:3

    The Left have chosen to believe lies they want to be true, but aren’t. And if you point out the lie an avalanche of leftist hysteria and revenge lands upon you.

  3. C.L. says:

    … the great majority prefer opinion to knowledge, and passively allow the former to be imposed upon them by a centralized few

    An interesting observation but I’m not sure this was a new phenomenon.

    I think it’s important to remember that “knowledge” for most of human history was accumulated experience. How to hunt, where to shelter, how to cook, how to build things etc. Knowledge was familial, tribal, collective.

    After the invention of printing presses and the growing complexity of the world throughout the latter half of the second millennium, knowledge became something that strangers imparted from afar about subjects people generally wouldn’t otherwise be aware of or care about. Much of this ‘knowledge’ was, of course, opinion.

    What has changed is not the emergence of an opinion/knowledge class but the disappearance of a moral and intellectual objectivism. If truth is unattainable, what difference can there logically be between opinion and knowledge. This is where we’re at right now.

  4. C.L. says:

    Bruce and I on the same page.

  5. BalancedObservation2 says:

    Vicki

    I agree with you. And it’s a worry.

    From just my personal observations I think there’s far more political scepticism in the US among educated people than I think exists in Australia. Particularly skepticism about the left.

    So much so that I think it’s actually part of our culture which differs fundamentally from America’s.

    There’s a belief system among educated people here skewed very much to the left of centre. It seems to permeate most issues. Perhaps “belief system” is the wrong expression. Its probably more a fashion thing. It would for example be immensely unfashionable ( to say the least) for most educated people in Australia to share even a remotely positive view about Donald Trump on any issue with most of their educated friends. Trump incidentally polled very well among educated white women in the US.

    These are simply my observations. Test them on your friends if you’re game and I think you’ll agree.

  6. JohnJJJ says:

    I think it’s important to remember that “knowledge” for most of human history was accumulated experience

    Knowledge was about reducing risk. Now that we live in a safe society, it is irrelevant. That is why the safest society, the University campus, disdains objectivity.
    The workplace safety officers have removed all Dr. Samuel Johnson’s stones from the quad.

  7. Roger says:

    If truth is unattainable, what difference can there logically be between opinion and knowledge.

    That’s where we were 20 years ago.

    Now I see many people who are absolutely convinced that there is truth and that they, and those who agree with them, have access to it (full of Yeats’s passionate intensity); hence the drive to shut down critics and sceptics.

  8. BalancedObservation2 says:

    Roger

    Remarkably insightful points.

    And the line between fact and opinion is at times probably far more fuzzy than most think.

    Your point about “truth” helps explain the zeal behind those trying to impose opinions.

  9. Mother Lode says:

    You often see swastikas scrawled on images of Liberals and Republicans by leftists – it is one of the infantile ways they vent their hatred.

    Oh, and anti-semites like them of course. Who are the people with most hatred of Juice?

  10. BalancedObservation2 says:

    On the surface this post doesn’t immediately appeal as being an earth shattering one. But without overstating anything that’s being discussed here it is quite critical for democracy, and for our Australian democracy in particularly.

    Without overly sucking-up – it probably goes reflect on how important sites like Catallaxy are.

    Amidst the profanities – highly humorous, innovative and prejudiced as they can at times be – there’s a strong flavour of free speech from the more conservative voices in our society which the mass media is slowly but surely disenfranchising.

  11. Tintarella di Luna says:

    Now I see many people who are absolutely convinced that there is truth and that they, and those who agree with them, have access to it (full of Yeats’s passionate intensity); hence the drive to shut down critics and sceptics.

    Indeed it is so deeply personal to them because it is bound up with their own personal identity and if you criticise their views they take it so personally because they believe you are attacking their person — that’s why many snowflakes believe there is such a thing as ‘hate speech’ and that ‘speech is violence’ oh and of course that silence is violence too, so there’s that.

  12. Tintarella di Luna says:

    Now I see many people who are absolutely convinced that there is truth and that they, and those who agree with them, have access to it (full of Yeats’s passionate intensity); hence the drive to shut down critics and sceptics.

    Because so many young people are bereft of any belief system because traditional values have been so undermined at their universities and places of unlearning. By erasing the past all the foundations are gone so many young people on campuses bind up their identity to their their personal beliefs and biases to the extent that any debate or criticism is regarded as ‘hate speech’ and feel personally violated to the point that they believe your speech is violence. Very sad for some. Ain’t gonna be pretty.

  13. max says:

    Auden edited a selection of Kierkegaard’s writing. In
    The Crowd Is “Untruth”
    K wrote:

    For ‘crowd’ is an abstraction and has no hands: but each individual has ordinarily two hands, and so when an individual lays his two hands upon Caius Marius they are the two hands of the individual, certainly not those of his neighbor, and still less those of the crowd which has no hands…For every individual who flees for refuge into the crowd, and so flees in cowardice from being an individual (who had not the courage to lay his hands upon Caius Marius, nor even to admit that he had it not), such a man contributes his share of cowardliness to the cowardliness which we know as the ‘crowd.’

    Take the highest example, think of Christ — and the whole human race, all the men that ever were born or are to be born. But let the situation be one that challenges the individual, requiring each one for himself to be alone with Him in a solitary place and as an individual to step up to Him and spit upon Him — the man never was born and never will be born with courage or insolence enough to do such a thing…

    The crowd is untruth. Therefore was Christ crucified, because, although He addressed himself to all, He would have no dealings with the crowd, because He would not permit the crowd to aid him in any way, because in this regard He repelled people absolutely, would not found a party, did not permit balloting, but would be what He is, the Truth, which relates itself to the individual…it is not so great a trick to win the crowd. All that is needed is some talent, a certain dose of falsehood, and a little acquaintance with human passions…”

  14. melb says:

    It’s tribalism. What my tribe says and does is good, what the other tribe says is bad.

    Add to that the ancient, historical need to belong to a tribe for self protection and the unthinking masses tend towards the strongest tribe.

    The problem is that the left have control of the MSM. The masses, in the main, hear only one loud voice.

    This is now even more so now that the left have got on to the power of cancelling. Our miserable governments allow cancelling by not protecting free speech.

  15. Mother Lode says:

    Woops. That was the wrong thread.

  16. Mother Lode says:

    I read that Auden once scored a free book from a friend as the unlooked for result of borrowing it and then using a rasher of bacon as a bookmark.

    The friend was content that he should keep the book then.

  17. BalancedObservation2 says:

    Tintarella di Luna

    “Because so many young people are bereft of any belief system …”

    It takes courage not to allow that part of your belief system – which is based on experience, and values of fairness and goodness – to be captured and overruled by a dominant orthodoxy, especially when that orthodoxy is extremely powerful and is based more on the prejudices of the dominant members of that orthodoxy rather than a quest for truth or fairness.

    It’s not so much – as you seem to be implying – that university students start out without values and belief systems . It’s that they lack the courage (not so much the intellect) to question the prejudices of cliques dominating our higher learning institutions.

    However it’s not easy for new students. Is too easy to be critical of them. Experienced administrators in reasonably powerful hierarchical positions of authority have had their belief systems captured too.

  18. Vicki says:

    It’s tribalism. What my tribe says and does is good, what the other tribe says is bad.

    Absolutely. Our evolutionary origins explain SO much about our modern behaviour. Sadly, and amazingly, Wokism today even denies the influence of evolution on our species.

    Yet tribalism explains as much about our political and ideological preferences, as about our friendships and life choices.

    It amuses me to observe behavioural signals even amongst our cattle, and to reflect upon the universality of group dynamics in sentient creatures. Our Belted Galloways for example, tolerate the presence of the Angus, but seek their own breed to “hang out” with, although sex (of course) changes attitudes temporarily.

    At the end of the day, we are animals after all – albeit often too smart for our own good.

  19. Tintarella di Luna says:

    It’s not so much – as you seem to be implying – that university students start out without values and belief systems . It’s that they lack the courage (not so much the intellect) to question the prejudices of cliques dominating our higher learning institutions.

    I didn’t mean to imply that they were devoid of values and belief systems – you have put it better than I, it is indeed the lack of experience and courage to question those older in positions of power. A real shame that even the administrators and academics have been captured – why it has happened is what puzzles me.

  20. Tintarella di Luna says:

    Vicki says:
    March 3, 2021 at 2:37 pm

    But it looks like the civilised society is breaking down — there was a rule once that eschewed the discussion of politics and/or religion – I think that was a good rule.

  21. BalancedObservation2 says:

    Tintarella di Luna

    “…why it has happened is what puzzles me”

    I think we’re all partly responsible. We’ve stood by while most of our media and journalists have been captured/ bought out and have succumbed to some extent to similar orthodoxies, or worst still, captured by vested interests.

    In recent days we’ve seen clearly how our near monopoly media has bought out journalism in this country in the name of improving journalism.

  22. BalancedObservation2 says:

    Tintarella di Luna

    I think the discussion on tribalism by Melb and Vicki also helps explain what’s happened too.

  23. BalancedObservation2 says:

    The Age newspaper used to be an ideal study of tribalism at work. But not so much since it’s had an ownership change. Cold hard vested interests are slowly starting to take over.

    What influences are worse? Vested interests or tribalism? I’m not sure. They’re both pretty bad influences, especially when our media is so concentrated and largely in the hands of two majority-foreign-owned organizations.

    Before the ownership change The Age frequently trumpeted its editorial independence. While it was relatively free of editorial interference from its pretty disorganized owners it certainly wasn’t free of it from the dominant tribalism among its journalists.

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