With five known senses we take in the world around us. We see, hear, feel, smell, and taste our surroundings, scribbling all of these experiences down in our Cerebral Cortexes. There, this information is analyzed, cross-referenced, conclusions are drawn, and a worldview is established. We think we think, therefore we think we think we are. No matter how real it all feels, in the end all we have to comprehend and interact with our world is data. Perception is reality.
On an ethical level, we are concerned with the veracity of the data we give to others, but we must also have concern for the veracity of the data we take in. Bad memes assault us from many different directions in many different forms all the time. Erroneous data has a deleterious effect on our decision-making skills and impairs the integrity of our lifestyle choices. One individual’s diet and exercise program that is more accurate than another’s will live longer and healthier. Human beings with the most accurate memes will be more successful than others. Here are some everyday sources of information to be aware of:
With the exception of tabloid newspapers and magazines, most print media is subjected to rigorous editorial oversight. Newspapers of integrity must identify sources and check their facts. When they get things wrong, they either run corrections or their readers lose faith in their integrity. When a newspaper’s integrity suffers, readership dwindles and sales drop.
On the Internet, no such system of checks and balances exists. Unless they are unusually altruistic, most Webmasters are attempting to sell you something for profit or ideological gain. The information coming from much of the Internet has a purpose: to sell you on a product. For this reason, the data streaming into your head from these sources tends to be extremely lopsided in favor of the product, and disparaging of opposing products. “Truth in Advertising” does not exist on the Web.
The freedom of the Internet also poses a problem. Anyone can post anything online without any repercussions. There is no editorial filter, no publishing house looking out for its integrity, no sales, nothing to prevent erroneous data from getting more search engine attention than accurate. You don’t need to hold a doctorate or the respect of your peers to publish something alongside the Ph.D’s.
There are scams on the World Wide Web, but they are not as effective as the ones that enter your electronic inbox. We’ve all been on the receiving end of an “urban legend” e-mail hoax. E-mails from my friends have claimed AIDS-Infected Needles are being taped to Gas-pumps, Darwin Awards for fantastic stories of death, and even that KFC Chickens are genetically engineered without eyes and beaks. All of these were completely false, and easily identified through employing a modicum of common sense, but the fact that they were forwarded to me indicates that other people out there believed them.
There are also the less-obtuse ones. Politicians attributed ridiculous quotes, “first-hand” accounts of deplorable celebrity actions, gas-boycotts, and others, which sound possible at first, but upon investigation turn out to be false. The people who send these e-mails are trying to distort your perceptions of the world and draw you into their perspective.
Word of Mouth
I have learned to double-check anything anyone tells me word of mouth, especially the more fantastic claims. Most people I find, including myself, lack the veracity of memory they think they have. Many remember things not as they are, but as they want them to be at the present moment.
This becomes especially true in political discussions, where proponents, in the heat of the moment, perceive a greater urgency to the debate and fear losing face. The pressure to respond with a convincing, if exaggerated, claim to press one’s point distorts the discussion. My own fallibility in this area has prompted me to avoid real-time political disputation in favor of more thoughtful “letters” exchanges.
Ultimately, I cannot help but see this tidal wave of disinformation coming to us through the internet, e-mail, our peers, tabloids, and television as a positive thing. It means the public, as an audience, will become more skeptical, more effective at spotting erroneous data. Already I rarely receive false e-mails any longer, as I, and many other of my peers, now run quick fact-checks on the data we receive. We are becoming aware, protecting the integrity of our data.
Online Resources for Protecting Your Cognitive Schema