“Legions of idiots”

Posted by Pierre-Antoine Ullmo in Education Today

Dec 7th, 2019

Do you know the difference between a liar and a bullshitter? According to the sociologist Eva Illouz in an article published in Haaretz, “a liar lies because he cares about the truth not being known, whereas a bullshitter […] does not care about the truth, because he knows that whatever he says, true or not, will make an impression on the listener.”

Where does bullshit comes from? In a report commissioned by the Rand Corporation, Truth Decay, Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael Rich mention the role of social media platforms allowing anyone to become a source of information. They conclude that there is an increasing blurred line between opinion and fact.

“A liar lies because he cares about the truth not being known, whereas a bullshitter does not care about the truth”

 Umberto Eco wrote about it in 2015:  “Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community … but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots.”

We increasingly live in a world in which, according to Stephan Lewandowsky in an article about the post-truth era (jointly written with Ullrich Ecker and John Cook), it is not expert knowledge but an opinion market on Twitter that determines what is right and what is wrong.

These legions of idiots are everywhere. According to the Wellcome Global Monitor 2018, 28% of Americans and 33% of French believe that vaccines are not safe. In a 2019 Eurobarometer survey, it was found that nearly half of people in Europe believe — incorrectly — that vaccines often cause severe side effects.

Not only is misinformation found everywhere, but it is also often enhanced by our own behavior on social media. Indeed, as pointed out by Renata Salecl in her article Could ignorance be bliss?, “the massive amount f information that is available to us has […] contributed to tunnel vision, information bias and bubbles. These amplify people’s discord about what their social reality looks like, what counts as. fact. and what is. scientifically proven knowledge”. Our tendency to only consume the type of information that confirms are pre-existing beliefs and biases, and to only surround ourselves with people we agree with, not only limits our exposure to facts that could help us change our mind, but it traps us in blissful, or as Lacan might say, passionate ignorance.

Legions of idiots

So, who should we trust?

We already know about the continuing decline in public trust in institutions such as the government and the media. But scientists are also seen as untrustworthy. In an article, Cary Funk wrote that although many more people reported to the Pew Research Center in 2016 their trust in information from medical scientists, climate scientists and food scientists than information from industry leaders, the news media and elected officials, no more than about half of people hold strongly trusting views of scientists in any of these domains.

And the same exists in school, where it is more and more difficult to argue about objective facts and topics despite having data and evidence that have been produced in a scientifically proven way. Luana Maroja, Professor of Biology at Williams College, explained in an article the hard time she has in fighting “biological denialism that exists about nearly any observed difference between human groups, including those between males and females. Unfortunately, students push back against these phenomena not by using scientific arguments, but by employing an a priori moral commitment to equality, anti-racism, and anti-sexism.”

Can we be optimistic about the future of knowledge? Let’s hope that those millions of students around the globe that participate in marches against climate change and trust scientific facts are strong enough to defeat these legions of idiots.

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