Fighting Anti-Intellectualism and Propaganda

These posts by Pink (here and here) and this post by Swarn had me thinking about how societies deal with anti-intellectualism and propaganda. Classically in the U.S., people are generally held responsible for how they react to such things. Opinions are not and cannot be restricted by government in a free society; such is the shelter free speech provides (and an even bigger shelter by the First Amendment, unlike in other countries). Indeed, it is frequently this shelter that gets claimed by proponents of false statements, anti-intellectualism, and propaganda geared to incite people for whatever gain.

Can there still be consequences for this kind of speech?
The short answer is yes. I linked to the trailer for the movie Denial as one such example portraying Dr. Lipstadt’s defense against David Irving’s libel suit. Mr. Irving could not rely on alternative facts to support his suit, and consequently lost.

There can and should be other consequences for this kind of speech. Here is a news story about the Southern Poverty Law Center suing neo-nazi blogger Andrew Anglin after he allegedly called for his readers to take action against a Jewish woman in Montana. If the suit is successful, he will have to pay damages for any harassment his readers engaged in. In short, he will be financially responsible for the consequences of his speech.

It’s very important to note that these people are not getting punished for their beliefs or even just for uttering unpopular speech. Rather, they are facing the consequences of their actions. Speech might be protected, but it is not a shield to prevent people from saying everything they’d like.

What about people who toe the line elsewhere?
For every Rush Limbaugh and Milo Yiannopoulos out there, there’s an Ed Schultz or Rachel Maddow. Social media gets inundated with fake news that gets more publicity than real news. Even our President gets bombarded by partisan news. Right now, the public is at the mercy of a misinformation system which prompts all sorts of bizarre beliefs.

As I’ve mentioned above, classical ways to deal with this involve relying on consumers to control themselves, a caveat emptor for information. The problem is that these rules were established in a world where information could take days to reach one person, and word of mouth was the best way of sharing an idea with the masses. Nowadays, everyone can read, and electronic devices let one person with a keyboard reach billions of people worldwide.

Universities and places of higher learning have tried to combat this through public education, and there are popular channels on YouTube and elsewhere which spread actual, provable facts. But universities only really affect where they reside, and the other spread of information is purely voluntary. On top of that, it’s hard for people to find accurate information which contradicts false information.

Critical thinking is important, and if it’s to reach everyone, it needs to reach them at a younger age.
If one cannot create laws to protect the public from misleading speech and propaganda, then education must be an answer to this problem. Unfortunately, we have a Secretary of Education that’s tanked one state’s public education system. Not only that, but some parents do not trust improving critical thinking skills. Putting these two things together is practically a perfect storm for a populace that can’t protect itself from alternative facts and fake news, let alone deliberate attempts to incite people to violence.

We can’t have it both ways here. If we want a free society that protects speech, then we need a populace that can tell what’s right and wrong. Such a requirement entails intellectual discipline and study, and to reach everyone it has to happen while they’re in a lower school grade. Even high school might be too late, as people drop out.

Something also needs to get done about people who resort to violence in response to speech.
Protesting is fine, but making casual threats of violence against people is not okay. Over at UC Berkeley, there are more protests which cancelled a talk by Ann Coulter. Some of the students seem fine with this decision because of safety concerns, and there have been allegations that the violence is being prompted by outside sources. Regardless, this means that a university is unable to host talks of any sort due to violence.

What is not clear is how the university (and others, for that matter) are educating students on how to debate others rigorously without resorting to our baser instincts. As of this writing, I couldn’t find any information on whether students are being held accountable through expulsion for participating in violent acts on campus. If students are being held accountable, this needs to be more highly publicized.

What happens next.
Free speech cannot be eroded in a free society – either by government or its people. Consequences for speech is a separate matter entirely. If I use my speech to promote violence or terror, or if I issue false statements knowing the facts are otherwise, I need to bear the costs of that speech. Those costs can and should include people not listening to me, and people not having to spread the muck I rake.

8 thoughts on “Fighting Anti-Intellectualism and Propaganda

  1. Thanks for the link to my post SB. Much appreciated. Much of the time I see no way out of this catch 22. Better education is what we need, yet it’s the very thing we won’t get because of the way our society has come to devalue education. Education itself has become politicized. Kids are getting home schooled more and more because their parents don’t want them to get liberal BS in their heads about evolution, climate change, or learn about other religions like Islam. Universities are painted as bastions of liberal bias, as opposed to places where students confront new ideas and diversity from that which they are raised. To me it’s become so much more of a culture war than one for funding from the government. Of course those things go hand in hand and I still believe that there has been some insidiousness from the right to continue to defund public education. Such a thing would have been unthinkable from either party 50 years ago.

    Your points on free speech are also spot on. In the aftermath of Trump’s victory many asked if I would move back to Canada. I said that the point when I start to worry is when the government starts to censor information. Certain websites become unreachable, and people who preach reason, peace, and human rights are silenced or imprisoned that’s the time to get the most concerned. I feel that as “liberals” become more aggressive against right wing speakers, the right wing government has more cause to try and silence liberalism on the basis that incites violence. That’s one of the things that worries me.

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    • Something I’ve been wondering is whether universities might start doing public demonstrations of scientific principles in rural schools. These areas can be insulated from higher learning, and I suspect they also might be where there is the most bias against universities. I think it might have the most success in encouraging people at a younger age to develop their curiosity.

      Think about it: if you could provide a flashy demonstration of how climate works to school kids, it might stick with them for a while. Do you think that might be a possible route for universities to take in building trust with the public? It might not change policy today or tomorrow, but it’s something that could take effect 20 or 30 years from now.

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      • SB’s comment reminded me of our annual Science Fair here. They’ve been going on since our children were in school. I used to dread them, as our kids’ always looked quite pathetic (they had to do it themselves) compared to those whose parents really got on board and ‘helped’ their children do awesome Science Fair projects. The idea is for students to explore any number of experiments, displays, grow something, etc. Then every student in the school (Gr. Primary – Gr. 6) has their project on display in the Gym and several are chosen to go to a Regional Competition, then all across Canada. As parents, we could expect to see a volcano demonstration, a study to see how much sugar was in various drinks, perhaps a bean-growing exhibit using different fertilizers; that sort of thing. It’s a big deal here and has been for years.

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      • I never did science fairs, although looking back on it I wish I had. Personally, I would have tried to mess with electricity or fire. So it’s probably a good thing nobody ever forced me to get into one.

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      • That’s a good suggestion. I don’t know about other universities, but we do actually do things like this, but usually in terms of severe weather and severe weather safety. I don’t believe we’ve done one for climate. Some more broad talks about the scientific method might also be worthwhile. I would suspect that bigger universities play even less of a role in K-12 schools in their community as such universities tend to be more research focused. This is something you could certainly even task undergraduate students with given they had a good enough understanding themselves.

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      • There are a lot of ideas I have on communicating science to younger kids, and they’d work across disciplines (so any colleagues in chemistry and physics could also get in on the action). Ideally, the flashier and more visually appealing the presentation, the more persuasive it will be. Finally, there are even some good reasons you could give the other faculty for why going to all this effort is worth the effort (chiefly among them: it advertises the school to potential students).

        I cannot recommend enough that schools of higher learning do this stuff to demonstrate to all people that they do know their stuff. Even if the kids don’t go to your school, they’ll hold it in higher esteem. Most importantly, they’ll take that esteem wherever they go. That includes when they go to places that badmouth universities as being too liberal.

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      • Universities do, do a lot of educational outreach in terms of hosting various events on campus like science fairs, art shows, etc. There often isn’t a lot of pedagogy there, but universities are usually active in at least making their presence felt with younger students, and the outreach events are good recruitment tools. And teachers do often ask for help teaching curriculum they are less familiar with, but right now I don’t think curricula require some of the things you mentioned, so I do think we need to have a curricular overhaul…well and fix many other things broken about public education. Which is not really the fault of public education itself.

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