From my earliest memories I’ve recognized truth does not depend on our opinions or desires. Facts are facts, even when they’re inconvenient.
I’ve been blessed to have born into a time and place where knowledge was valued and the smartest people in the room should be heard and respected. Good leaders told the truth and journalists reported factually.
But in the last few decades we’ve seen this model challenged. The 24 Hour News Cycle recognized that they didn’t need their viewers to be informed, but instead they needed their viewers to stay tuned. On March 8, 2014 Malaysian Air Flight 370 disappeared and we still don’t know what happened. In the days and weeks after its disappearance CNN and other news outlets learned that as long as they covered Flight 370 they claimed high ratings. Their ratings plummeted when they left this coverage for other stories. And so they continued to cover Flight 370 long after they had anything to report.
On March 19th, 11 days after the disappearance, CNN reporter Don Lemon suggested that the plane was sucked into a black hole. I don’t think anyone believed this, but after 11 days he was running out of things to talk about.
We see countless more examples, but in the early 21st Century we need to recognize we are consumers who increasingly want to be told what we want to hear more than we want to be told the truth.
And that’s a bad thing. This doesn’t serve us well. We need to hear uncomfortable truths because that’s how we grow and learn.
As I child I was told about Adam & Eve, Noah’s Ark, and other events from the Bible. As an adult I learned that many of these stories were myths. They were true but not factual. But today I’m surrounded by fundamentalists who believe that every animal alive today entered Noah’s Ark in the year 1656 BCE and emerged 40 days later when a dove flew off and returned with an olive branch that spontaneously appeared after all the plants and trees were drowned in the flood. In a Gallup Poll from 2014, 42% of Americans identify as Creationists (ie, the world was created 6,000 years ago over the span of 6 days).
In case you don’t, let me take some excerpts:
A few years ago a mischievous group of pollsters asked American voters whether they would support bombing the country of Agrabah. As you might expect, Republicans tended to support military action while Democrats were more reluctant. There’s only one problem: Agrabah doesn’t exist. It’s from the animated Disney film Aladdin. Only about half the people surveyed figured this out.
Increasingly…laypeople don’t care about expert views. Instead many Americans have become insufferable know-it-alls, locked in constant conflict with each other, while knowing almost nothing about the subject they are debating.
How did this happen? How is it that people now not only doubt expert advice, but believe themselves to be as smart, or even smarter, than experienced professionals? Parents who refuse to vaccinate a child, for example, aren’t really questioning their doctors. They’re replacing their doctors. They have decided that attending the University of Google, as one anti-vaccine activist put it, is the same as going to medical school.
We need to find our way back from this ego driven wilderness. Historically, all people return to valuing expert views in times of trouble or distress. We’re all willing to argue with our doctors until our fever is out of control. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. But that’s where we’re headed. And unless we start accepting the limitations of our own knowledge, then each of us is failing in our obligation to participate in our democracy as involved, but informed citizens.
Well put Mr. Nichols.