I’ve been reading Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen for a couple of weeks and it is disturbing to my intellectual and emotional equanimity. It is an interesting book to read but generates annoyance sometimes because he refers to interesting research papers from some people at some university somewhere. There are frequent footnotes but even so there are serious gaps in his arguments caused by lacunae in the links going back to his information sources. See page 262-3 for some examples.
I very much like the book and it gives a good effort at answering questions that have bothered me for years. Such as, why are so many Americans living their lives based on assumptions that are not only untestable but unrealistic, insane and destructive to the health and wellbeing of their true believers?
On the next page, 264, there is a plausible answer given by Thomas Jefferson, one of the key creators of our nation. “Thomas Jefferson said he’d ‘rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it’—and it would all be okay because in the new United States ‘reason is left free to combat’ every sort of ‘error of opinion.'”
All of that made sense back in the 1700s, when a hand-driven printing press was high tech and a thousand copies of an article would be a good print run. Also, only a few had access to those presses. Nowadays, everyone has access to the internet and can publish anything they can think up. Unfortunately, the most exciting things get read and redistributed, and easily mentally accessed flagrant lies get vastly more readership than carefully thought out, and carefully researched and linked analysis and opinion. What the internet public thrives on is the basest sort of undocumented, even undocumentable, scary stuff. Below is the chart of Trustworthiness of Information that I created in 2007, which lays out standards for various levels of believability of information. Click here for a big and printable view, and drag to the side for easy reference.
The materials that are having the most influence at present on the internet are at the top of the chart: TST~0, A glorious Hoax with an ultimate authority seeking your abject belief, Unverifiable source of data with clear problems in the historical record and with probable translation spins. Unfortunately, expert frauds carefully done are impossible to identify, and there is no way of verifying them.
A bit of information that is at the highest level of trustworthiness requires (at TST~14) Cross Accountability by Known and accountable people with the goal of clarifying reality; they have a keen desire for irrefutable proofs. The best information comes from groups of cross-purposed accountable viewers observing the same ongoing events and agreeing. This involves presently viewable processes which can be easily challenged at every moment by the accountable and well informed outside people. Complete clarity always leaves material open to questioning.
TST~0 is the stuff of excitement usually found on the internet, and TST~14 is usually challenged by TST~0 believers because it is designed in such a way as to be falsifiable. Because TST~0 is unchallengeable it isn’t challenged and therefore is accepted as true. Unfortunately, Andersen’s book Fantasyland, while exposing a lot of TST~0 thoughts in others, commits some of them himself.
Thus the greatest falsehoods are easily defended and believed and the greatest truths are constantly challenged and therefore disbelieved.