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By Talia Jessener
On Monday 24th January the Henry Jackson Society were delighted to welcome Professor Daniel Levitin to discuss his new book ‘A Field Guide to Lies.’ Through it, Levitin explained how to navigate a world in which ‘alternative facts’ have become so commonplace, and how to think critically about fake news – opinion presented as fact- and call it out for what it is: a lie.
Levitin explained that it should come as no surprise to anyone that politicians have been known to stretch the truth, especially during election campaigns. However, as he went on, there is a big difference between an exaggeration that may actually only be a promise and not a fact, and an outright lie of the kind that became prevalent on both sides of the recent presidential campaign.
The main reason fake news is so widely believed, he claimed, is primarily due a severe case of information overload facing society today. He stated that humans have created more information in the last five years than in all of human history, before rushing to cite his sources to assure the audience that this was indeed a real fact as oppose to an alternative. Consequently, there is less time and inclination to fact check. Furthermore, since there are now so many different media outlets in existence, people no longer need to read news sources that don’t fit with their world view, and can instead simply listen to an echo chamber reinforcing their own opinions.
Fake news is also often accepted as truth due to the authority behind it, as people are more likely to be influenced by big names. Yet, Levitin’s problem lies in the assumption that just because someone is an expert on one subject, their opinions on all subjects should hold more credibility. He highlighted this through the case of William Shockley, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1956 and then went on to become a proponent of eugenics. However, Shockley was a physicist not a biologist; indeed, he had been awarded the prize for inventing the transistor, and therefore his racist opinions should have held no merit. Yet, due to the celebrity of his name, his opinions were accepted, leading Levitin to urge vigilance against trusting pseudo-experts in society today.
The future was not all doom and gloom, however; Levitin suggested three institutions that act as a bedrock against fake news, and should be supported at all costs. Firstly, he claimed we must trust in Science, and in scientific studies that are conducted properly with results that can be replicated. While conspiracy theories exist, he believed that a handful of unexplained anomalies should not undermine an established theory containing thousands of pieces of evidence. Secondly, we should have faith in the courts and the legal system to uphold the truth wherever possible, and shut down outlets for fake news and anything claiming to be an alternative fact. Finally, we must trust the free press to produce good quality stories that do not twist the truth to their own agendas, and that call out other media outlets who try.
At the end of the day however, Levitin stressed how the public themselves must become more vigilant when it comes to questioning an author and the origin of a story, before mindlessly sharing an article on Facebook. While a lie can get a million hits online, its retraction may only get 30,000 which is why it is important to critically analyse a story before it gets to that point. We must learn to be able to recognise for ourselves what is real and what is alternative, what is truth and what is lie. A fact is a fact for everyone; it cannot have an alternative or it is no longer a fact. And it is down to us to realise that, ultimately, while you can have your own opinion on a topic, you certainly cannot have your own facts.
For a full transcript of this event click here