Indirect Message

Episode 2: The Death of Expertise

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Hello everyone and welcome back. I'm Laci Green and you're listening to Indirect Message, a podcast about the cultural impact of the internet. Thank you so much for tuning in last week to my first ever episode. I really appreciate your kind messages and really enjoyed your voicemails. They may have made me a little misty. Most of those were personal messages, so I'm not going to air them this time, but the line is still open if you want to ring in. I also wanted to apologize for any issues finding the first episode. It was a bit of a Rocky start, but now that we've been approved across all of the platforms, I hope that joining the conversation will be a little bit easier. Anyway, no further housekeeping notes for me today. Let's dive in. Chapter one, the death of expertise. I have often perhaps too often thought about the problems that plague us as humans.

Violence, poverty, famine, disease. I'm fortunate to not have had to deal with most of these problems directly. Thanks. In part to being born in 20th century America. The problems that I have had to deal with directly felt more solvable as if the solutions were only just out of reach. The result of a lack of resources or information enter the internet, a new tool that promised to bridge the information gap. Scientists could easily reach the public. Civilians would have access to a whole world. Books and ideas and people all over the world could connect in cross cultural exchanges. To be fair, the internet brought some of that, but that's not all it brought.

[VIDEOS PLAY: Measles outbreaks happening in Washington state and Oregon right now. They have parents periods for people who would choose to vaccinate they kid. I don't like a button. Chemicals in the water that's turned the frigging frog gay. My reality, my senses tell me that the earth is blending stationary stage tonight. Some people swear by it. Others say it can make you really sick. Yeah. We're talking about the cabbage juice cocktail. A local woman's swears it can cure everything from the deadliest diseases and actually reverse homosexual behavior.]

Ah, Oh dear. You see, alongside providing us with unprecedented access to information, we've also been provided with unprecedented access to misinformation. Anybody anywhere can say anything in blasted out to the entire world. As a result, it's increasingly difficult to tell truth from fiction, even for well-meaning and educated people. This is already had dramatic effects from the resurgence of nearly eradicated diseases to compromise democracies. Adding fuel to the fire information overload has made us more vulnerable to manipulation and cognitive biases. Why is this happening? How did our relationship with reality become so miserably fraught and how can we, the citizens of planet earth uphold the truth in a post truth era? Here to discuss this with me is Dr. Tom Nichols. He's a professor at the US Naval War College, a five time jeopardy champion and quite a Twitter socialite! In his book, The Death of Expertise, Tom lays out a series of arguments about what's happening, which he describes as a story of ego erosion of mass media and college campuses that have lost the plot. Tom requested a disclaimer that he doesn't speak for the government. I also wanted to add that the ideas discussed here on indirect message are always done in the spirit of inquiry. A good faith attempt to figure out solutions together. And so discussion shouldn't be confused with endorsement. I hope you enjoy our conversation. I wanted to start off by defining our terms and really making sure we're clear about what we're talking about. Um, how would you define an expert? How can we know whether or not someone's an expert in their field?

Tom:
That's a great question because you know that that term makes people bristle. When you say expert, they will immediately say, Oh, you just mean somebody with a PhD like you. To which I sometimes say, okay, sure I do. Um, but I also mean other kinds of people. Look up your, your plumber is an expert. People forget that expert does not just denote someone in a profession. It's someone who has authoritative knowledge about a subject. It's the person to whom you would turn to advice. There is some issue of credentialing in some fields. It's a, it's an academic degree. In some fields it's a certificate, but there's also things like pure affirmation. You're an expert because other people who are good at this have determined that you are an expert. You know, if you go to a doctor, why does it matter that your doctor is a board certified pediatric surgeon? It means people in that specialty who, who monitor each other and submit each other to examination and review have decided to put their imprimatur on you.

Laci:
Wouldn't you say there are some experts online who are a little bit kooky and out there experts who seem to be ideologically motivated instead of intellectually motivated? Sometimes.

Tom:
Yes, of course. Absolutely. And, and you know, one thing that's important for experts to admit right up front is that there are bad experts that they're yeah, are just people who suck at this. The, but here's the thing, and this is one, the death of expertise. Problem becomes acute. Lay people think that the answer to a bad expert is to become an expert themselves in five minutes by, you know, Googling something. The cure for battery expertise is to seek out better experts. If you think about how a lot of the big failings among expert communities have been called out, uh, you know who, who finally understood why the space shuttle blew up that day. Other engineers, investigators, people who understood how a spacial is put together. But the other problem is, and I think this is, this is really a much broader problem that we want to take advice. We already agree with that. Confirmation bias is the strongest. It's stronger than gravity. It's stronger than a black hole because people don't go to the internet for information. They go to the internet for confirmation.

Chapter 2: *Fake News Intensifies*

Laci:

In July of 2017 I was quietly scrolling through my Twitter feed from bed as I often do when I noticed that there was another news article causing an outrage. Just another day on Twitter. Muslim woman demands pork free menu or she will leave the U S the headline read. Thousands of people took to Twitter to share this story and comment. "Buh Bye." "I say pass the bacon and good riddance." "These Muslims are so damn arrogant to demand pork free menus." "This isn't Sweden or France." But it wasn't America either. Strangely, the article in question never actually detailed the event in its headline. The first few sentences read. Also, migrants have turned into a worldwide issue and the circumstance deteriorates each day. Our nation has had considerable measure of Muslim related issues of late yet. This time settlers went too far. You won't think about what occurred next.

The picture on the article featured a stock photo of an unnamed Muslim woman and of the details that were given, it told the story of a Muslim family in a small town in France who requested a pork free option for school lunches. The local paper, their reports that the mayor of the town, Mitchell, Roger, denied the request and proceeded to ban pork free menu citing waste and secularism. His actions followed another French mayor Gilles Platret in 2015. The virality of the story was cloaked in irony due to the fact that the real story was almost the opposite of what had been reported. This is one of thousands of examples of so-called fake news easily found online these days. Fake news is often used to dismiss stories that people don't want to hear, but during its conception, fake news referred to articles which contain politically motivated fiction.

Lies. Written with the intent of manipulating us. Fake news operates and spreads by appealing to our emotions, to our preconceived beliefs and biases, but some vague news out there is more innocuous, confusing, even. "A lottery winner arrested for dumping $200,000 of the newer on ex-boss's lawn." This fabricated story got 2.4 million engagements on Facebook. "Former first lady Barbara Bush and dies at age 92." 2.3 million likes and shares. And then there's my personal favorite: "Woman sues Samsung for 1.8 million after cell phone gets stuck in her vagina." 1.3 million likes and shares. Now numbers like these can translate into big money online. Thanks to automated ads that can be run on fake news websites. In 2016, NPR managed to track down one of these fake news opportunists. Justin Kohler, age 40 from Los Angeles ran the fake news website called disinfect media when NPR was enabled to get in touch with them online. They showed up at his house.

NPR:
Hi there. Hi. Looking for Justin Kohler white. I'm a reporter with NPR. We were looking online and through a lot of tracing, uh, discovered the disinflation media was the owner of several websites such as [inaudible] report.net. Sorry guys, I'm gonna tell you now. Good day. Alright. Alright.

Laci:
Eventually Kohler agreed to talk about his motives.

Jestin Coler:
The whole idea from the start was to kind of build a site that could kind of infiltrate the eco chambers of the outright publish blatantly false or fictional stories and then be able to publicly denounce those stories and point out the fact that they were fiction fiction.

Laci:
These stories paint a troubling picture, an information ecosystem online that's a rooted waiting to misinform us when we least expect it. Before we continue, I wanted to give a shout out to sweet pea dating app. Last episode, I told you guys that Michael, who created the app has really been a big part of making indirect message happen and I think his app is an amazing partner here. Instead of building an app that's based on addictive algorithms that keep people swiping for hours, sweet pea is focused on helping us build quality connections and have meaningful conversations. So by the time you go on your first date, it feels more like your third, check it out for yourself by downloading sweet pee on the app store. Okay, let's get back to my interview with Tom. So this brings me to the why and how of his question, why is this happening? How did we get into this mess? It's troubling to me because I wonder, you know, if we want to have a free and open internet is some level of misinformation and deception, the price that we for that.

Tom:
Yeah, I'm not, I'm not that pessimistic. Um, I do think I, I mean, for example, we know now, and this was a worry I had early on, um, that, you know, younger people really are going to be kind of sucked in by the internet and believe all kinds of bad stuff. It turns out their grandparents are the problem. It's the old people sitting on Facebook who believed that, you know, Hillary Clinton is a lizard person who was sent here to steal our water and the word we've been avoiding up until now, and I think this is the problem that unites all generations when it comes to this is narcissism. People are being driven by narcissism. They cannot endure being told that they're wrong. I mean, everybody has these faith-based beliefs that they simply don't want to let go of. And until the advent of the information age, um, experts were the people who annoyed you by speaking truth to power and speaking truth to the mob to say, you know, the things you believe are not true. And now there's an alternative source of information that says, well, this shiny little box in my pocket right here, it tells me that you're wrong.

Laci:
Well, I think one of the more disturbing applications of this is with the anti backs movement. Um, and you know, I, I have anti vacs people in my life that I love. I've dealt with anti-vaxxers on the road who have, you know, some sort of bombarded me at talks that I've given, and I've had a really hard time, tried to be empathetic to people who I see as really actively undermining public health.

Tom: 
And I, I don't have any problem not being empathetic. I just don't, I mean, I've just decided that, you know, that the right answer when someone says, well, but don't, but bro, you think, right? Always three words that make your heart sink as an expert, don't you think? Um, and I just shake my head and say, look, you're wrong.


Laci:
I agree. It shouldn't be a negotiation when it is so blatantly wrong. Yes. But the reason why I try to be empathetic is because I do think that a lot of anti-vaxxers are scared. Um, and I think that the spread of misinformation online is largely propelled by fear. I think it's misplaced fear and I think it's irrational fear.

Tom:
Let me present an alternative explanation of the anti-vaxxer movement. Um, and part of the reason I am far less empathetic. I don't think it's fear. I think it's empowerment. I think it's, um, you know, I'm special and my child is special and we don't need your spooky of voodoo drugs because I don't like sticking needles in my kid and I'm, I'm rich enough and I'm empowered enough and I, I am not gonna walk in and have a doctor tell me what to do. And, you know, I'm a father. I remember my daughter's first a shot, you know, it's just a baby and she cried and I really hated it. And you know, you're your natural instinct as a parent just to pull that needle out of somebody and say, don't you stick my kid again? But, um, I think they go looking for the story. I mean, think of how hard you have to work to find the evidence in air quotes here that there is anything dangerous about most vaccines.

Laci:
Well that's the thing I don't think you taught. It's hard at all. It comes across my Facebook all the time disguised as real scientific articles. And I think that because the movement is, has gained this sort of momentum and um, has gotten so much national attention that it is now pretty easy to come across pseudoscience.

Tom:
And this is what drives me crazy about them and why I'm not empathetic. If you say, are vaccines safe, what are the kinds of results who get, you'll get the Mayo clinic, you'll get Cedar Sinai hospital, you'll get Harvard medical school thing. Um, yeah. And then you've got a hundred results from, you know, Joe's vaccines.com people choose to go with that because if they go with that source, they then have a door open to make that declaration of independence to say, I am empowered, I have secret knowledge or narcissism leads us to desire secret knowledge that makes us smarter than our peers. I would argue that deep down they know they're wrong, they know they're wrong, they know they're wrong.

Laci:
Well, that would make it all the more infuriating.

Tom:
Yes. Right. And now you see where I say my, my empathy for most of those folks, it's about zero.

Laci:
Well, I can empathize with that position a little bit. Um, I do, I do think that regardless of the vaccine stuff, just kind of finding good solid information and data. Yesterday, YouTube did something really interesting. They announced that they would be more proactive about elevating authoritative sources and recommending fewer videos that promote conspiracy theories. Do you think that this is a step in the right direction? And I guess I'm just wondering what role social media companies should have in this problem. Should they be fact checking? That seems to open up a whole new can of worms.


Tom:
Yes, it does. And it, and, and it piles on conspiracy theories on top of conspiracy theories. Uh, you know, it's like, Oh, you know, because the next thing you find is some site that says, here's the video that Facebook didn't want you to see. Now what social media companies should do if they're going to make a move toward tamping down this kind of material on their sites. I don't think that's a problem. I think that's like a newspaper. You know, if the, if the Boston globe, uh, said, look, we had a guy who wants to buy a full page ad, you know, saying the Holocaust didn't happen. We're not gonna run that ad. We're not taking your money. I'm okay with that. You know, and if that guy wants to go and put it up on a billboard that he purchased himself, says, here's the ad, the Boston globe wouldn't run well, you know, it's free country. And if that's how you want to spend your money, that's fine. But the Boston globe isn't required to sell you the, the, the space to, to that out there.

Laci:
I do think that, you know, someone could counter that by saying, well, Facebook reaches a quarter or a third of the world. And what would happen if Facebook chose to start curating really biased information to a huge portion of the world?

Tom:
I always devolve the responsibility for this back to the consumer as a democracy. We've basically given in to saying, you know, mommy, daddy, protect me from the bad man. Here's a simple answer to how to avoid being misinformed by Facebook. Don't get your news from Facebook. But people when they say, well, where should I get my information? And I say, well, you start with a reputable newspaper and reputable means doesn't have editors, has it been around for a while, does an issue corrections. That's an issue. Retractions are, it's reporters, people who you can identify whose body of work that you're familiar with, CNN in New York times and the wall street journal, but you know, they say, well, all of these sources are biased. Yes, every source has its problems. But there is a big difference between a report on the front page of New York times that has been edited and fact checked and is subject to correction or revision and a meme that your aunt from Schenectady sent you.

Laci:
You talk about sort of this disdain toward the mainstream media. You know, even the, the acronym MSN, ms M harder to say that it is to type, um, is used as a pejorative online. And there's a little bit of research behind this to showing that Americans, their trust in the media has completely tanked. Um, what has changed? Why is everybody so skeptical of what were once trusted news outlets? We know president Trump has, you know, gone off on tangents about this kind of stuff, but I feel like this started even before Trump.

Tom: 
Well, I often take news and make the analogy to food. We've never had more access to food as a society than we do now, but that's also why we are all fat and diabetic in the same way. You watched the evening news, which in America was 15 minutes long until the Vietnam war and then it expanded to a half hour and you watched it because there was no alternative to it. So that's part of the problem is that people can distrust the media because there's now, you know, a McDonald's and a burger King and a pizza hut right across the street from that balanced diet. The other is look the media, I think because the lower barriers of entry to journalism have produced some spectacular screw ups. Um, you know, I think the media, some of this has been the media has on fault. Sure. Um, you know, when CNN is on all day long and they have to fill the time talking about whether the missing Malaysian airliner went into a black hole, which actually happened, you know, I mean not the black hole, but them talking all day about theories of black holes and whether the airliner was, you know, hijacked aliens and all that crap.
At some point you look and you say, wow, I remember when CNN was like hard news. Um, but that's because people want to graze the 24 hour news cycle all day long without actually paying attention to it. There's too much time refill.

Laci:
Yeah. On TV and online. Well now there's a blog for every niche political interests you could possibly have with every niche political opinion you could possibly have.

Tom:
I took down my blog a few years ago. I had a blog when, uh, when I was kind of just sitting around and piddling around on the internet and I can't, as I was writing the book, I came to realize, um, I'm part of the problem if I want to prattle on for 3000 words about what I think about, you know, school shooters, nobody's gonna stop me. Um, and I, I really thought that's not healthy.

Laci:
Okay. I mean, that's fair enough. But I do feel like there's gotta be space for people to just kind of hash out their own ideas or to share their thoughts without it. Meaning that this is, you know, some sort of replacement for a real research.

Tom:
I think you're right. And I think there was a golden age of blogging where a lot of people got online and said, this is my take and here's some interesting stuff that I went into aggregated. The problem is now that I think blogging has become the kind of substitute for learning how to write because then I think it leads you to, to, to try to keep proving over and over again that you have something interesting to say. And that inevitably leads you into the hunt for [inaudible].

Laci:
In a similar vein on this topic, some things that I hear about and that I've seen myself a lot is activist websites which brand themselves as news sources. Um, you know, when you read the articles, they're littered with misinformation exaggerations. I mean it's very clearly biased. There's a lot of language that's emotionally manipulative. Is this just a cognitive bias issue as well, where people are looking for content that reinforces the political beliefs they already hold?

Tom:
I think you were right on the money when you said manipulative because I think a lot of those activist websites across the political spectrum portray themselves as news sources knowing that they are intentionally being disingenuous about it.

Laci:
You think they're self aware of it?

Tom:
Oh yes. I think they absolutely know what they're doing.


Chapter Three: A Capitalist Education

 

Laci:
As institutions where we go to become more knowledgeable. How do you think that schools can be a positive force for the future of this media consumption and media literacy?

Tom:
What a great question. Um, I think first of all, they need to return to a stronger emphasis on critical thinking and on making judgements. And I think one place where universities now I'm, you know, I'm very critical of the right, um, for its attacks on knowledge. Um, you know, people like Scott Walker and Matt Bevin attacking the universities in their own States and that kind of stuff. But when we're, the left I think has to own some of this was in the realm in the intellectual relativism that took over universities. Um, that said, you know, well, the tech says kind of what you think. It says we're all just peers together in a big learning experiment. I mean, this really, you know, this kind of therapeutic approach to education where we're always asking the students, are you happy? Are you enjoying this? That, that really has to end. And I think we have to say, look, you have to take your, you're here at a university to develop your rational faculty. The idea that there are now multiple generations of students who do not understand the notion of a premise and a conclusion is, you know, pretty scary.

Laci:
I think another part of the problem, um, seems to be that universities are being run like businesses. And part of that is because the cost of getting a college education is so high, uh, at a lot of schools now that, you know, students I think to some degree rightfully feel like they are entitled to a particular experience.

Tom:
You're absolutely right because the colleges are being run like businesses. But I would add like bad businesses, like incompetent businesses. Now there's a problem underlying this and this is where people on the right and the left, um, where their dogmas break down because you know, people on the right think that universities are run by a bunch of communists, which is anybody who's working in university can tell you this run they're run by hard-nosed capitalists. Um, you know, and people on the left don't understand why students, you know, have developed this kind of mentality when in fact they, um, then concurrently argue that there should be a limitless amount of loan money. And even, you know, if you're Bernie Sanders, you think college should be free. Part of the problem is that universities have become tremendously bloated with administrative positions and all kinds of ancillary stuff. Um, because there's an unlimited amount of free money to go to college. When you treat school like a consumer experience, you are not going in with the open mind that produces a person who is ready for lifelong learning. You are basically acting like a person buying a car and that car better be comfortable. However, if you're going to take out a ton of loans, I don't want to live in a world that doesn't have history and, and um, art majors. Um, on the other hand, I think we have to be honest, you know, should you be first question a person should ask themselves, should you be going to college at all?

Laci:
Well, there's a trade shortage, right? It's a major trade shortage happening right now. And part of that is because of the, a lot of students feel like they need to get a bachelor's degree, which is kind of diluted the value of the bachelor's degree. So it's born or are on par with a high school degree. I also feel like there's something to be said about the importance of higher education. Just as a something that creates a more educated society.

Tom
When people say everybody should go to college, the high school is kind of wipe the sweat off their forehead and say, so all we have to do is get through four years without a disaster, teach to the test, meet some basic metrics, and then everything gets ironed out in community college or the state college or wherever we're going to, where we're going to warehouse all these people who probably should have been given a much more competent high school diploma. It causes great inflation. And then the next cut as we're already seeing is that the jobs instead of requiring a bachelor's degree require a master's degree.

 

Laci:

Um, that is the extent of the questions I wanted to ask you. Is there anything else that you wanted to add or that you think is important in closing?

Tom:
You know, in the end all of these really come down to the question of do you, do you leave all these experiences, whether it's college or watching the news or you know, talking to your friends or being on social media. Do you leave these w kind of more with a willingness to take in information or are you, uh, are your views hardening and deepening and, and uh, just becoming immutable over time. And I think that's really the, the danger here and I'm worried that we're becoming much more childlike nation.

Laci:
While there are obvious causes for concern in our information ecosystem, it's important to note that this is our starting point. Social media is a relatively new phenomenon and many of us are just becoming aware of these issues, confronting these problems head on and figuring out real solutions together is vital to protecting our democracy, health and sanity. On the next episode of indirect message, there's no I in name, I kind of gotten this mode where chocolate rain blew up and I wasn't sure, was it blowing up as a joke? Was it blowing up in a way that was serious? We'll explore the wacky world of means. They're enormous impact on our collective conscience and what it's like to actually become one. This is going to be a fun one. Have a wonderful week everyone. I'll see you again October 2nd.