Everyone Has Opinions. Who Can Know?

Merchants of DoubtOur founding fathers placed freedom of the press in the first amendment of the US Constitution, because democracy requires it. Citizens need information to make decisions, and a free press is crucial to its flow. Two centuries later the Fairness Doctrine was established in law, and although the legal doctrine was dismantled in the Reagan years, the notion of “equal time” remains enshrined in Americans’ sense of justice and fair play.

But not every “side” is right or true; opinions sometimes express ill-informed beliefs, not reliable knowledge. As we’ve seen throughout this book, some “sides” represent deliberate disinformation spread by well-organized and well-funded vested interests, or ideologically driven denial of the facts. Even honest people with good intentions may be confused or mistaken about an issue. When every voice is given equal time — and equal weight — the result does not necessarily serve us well. Writing in Democracy in American long ago, Alexis de Tocqueville lamented the cacophony that passed for serious debate in the young republic: “A confused clamor rises on every side, and a thousand voices are heard at once.”

That was two hundred years ago; today the problem is much worse. With the rise of radio, television, and now the internet, it sometimes seems that anyone can have their opinion heard, quoted, and repeated, whether it is true or false, sensible or ridiculous, fair-minded or malicious. The internet has created an information hall of mirrors, where any claim, no matter how preposterous, can be multiplied indefinitely. And on the internet, disinformation never dies. “Electronic barbarism” one commentator has call it — an environment that is all sail and no anchor. Pluralism run amok.

The result is plain to see. A third of all Americans think that Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks on September 11. Nearly a quarter still think that there’s no solid evidence that smoking kills. And as recently as 2007, 40 percent of Americans believed that scientific experts were still arguing about the reality of global warming. Who can blame us? Everywhere we turn someone is questioning something, and many of the important issues of our day are reduced to he said/she said/who knows? Any person could be forgiven for being confused.

—Naomi Oreskes & Eric M Conway
Merchants of Doubt

2 thoughts on “Everyone Has Opinions. Who Can Know?

  1. Great book. I’m getting Klein’s latest from the library tomorrow, and I understand she was hugely motivated by Oreskes/Conway.

    Fake facts contribute hugely to the devil of “centrism.” When I was a kid, my parents had a subscription to Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, because they wanted stuff around the house they hoped their kids would absorb. I don’t think I read any of them, but I understand why my parents had them; they were trying to expose us to things which had the patina of intellectualism.

    People who want to expose themselves to “intellectualism” now often read the likes of Brooks, Friedman, Zakaria. (Zakaria I particularly loathe. His books contradict themselves every few pages in a way that screams “graduate students wrote this but I get the credit.”) It’s natural to want to read the consensus Smart Guys, the centrists, who balance opposing points of view with a magisterial distance.

    But they aren’t centrists, as you’ve often noted. They’re apologists for empire. (Zakaria actually claims India was better off for British rule; like I said, he’s a dick.) The true centrism is represented by fact-checking news sources like “Democracy Now” or al-Jazeera (the left represented by types of Chomsky and Hedges, who advocate the end of capitalism.). Yet somehow verifiable facts about what’s happening in the world are perceived as radical leftism. So, amazingly, are the United Nations reports on climate change. As if the United Nations was ever vaguely leftist!

    Completely off-topic, but you might like this piece on the recently deceased Marion Barry that sportswriter Dave Zirin did for The Nation. It’s good:

    • My main thing about the centrists is that they seem to think they have no ideology, which is just bizarre. What they generally are is social liberals and economic conservatives. And that means they are literally elitists. Populism is the opposite: social conservatism and economic liberalism. Yet these centrists always claim that they speak for the people. Unbelievable.

      I’ll check out the article later. I’ve read a few good articles on Barry. Of course the mainstream coverage has all been about crack, of course.

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