Tuesday July 23, 2024

Truth and deception

By M Zeb Khan
December 06, 2016

It is the age of disinformation as much as it is the age of information. Unless one has strong cognitive filters to deal with all kinds of information – authentic and fake – one would not escape falling and faltering along the path of life.

This has happened so dreadfully in the US elections, and the same is feared to echo everywhere in the world. The so-called Dark Age seems to be round the corner with the age of reason finally packing up. Some call this the post-truth era.

One major sign of the modern man going back into the cave is his inability to discriminate between right and wrong and between truth and propaganda. Social media is flooded with news and views with no floodgates at the entry or exit points.

Lies travel faster than the truth and no one knows how to grapple with the phenomena of Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter. Social media connects people around the world but at the same time it serves as a platform for concocted stories. The most unfortunate side effect of social media is its ubiquity in a world of rising irrationality.

The ‘ubiquity’ of social media is as visible as the mid-day sun. Irrationality, however, is subtle and making a comeback in countries where reason was adored for centuries. The Brexit episode and stringent laws in France are examples of how and when reason can succumb to emotional appeals and quick fix solutions.

Racism and nationalism, which gifted humanity with two world wars, are back on the stage with a new narrative and a different enemy. The problem then was lack of communication. Today, though, it is probably over-communication which makes matters worse for individuals as well as states.

The gloomy relationship between man and technology does not mean going back on human achievements. It is neither possible nor desirable to reverse the information era for the sake of getting rid of fabricated stories and baseless information fed to social media. What can and should be done is to invest in education as an effective safeguard of liberty and a sure path of human progress. Education, however, is worthless if it simply fills in the mind of people with more information. The focus of education is and should be critical thinking which enables man to question every claim about truth.

And the questioning should begin with examining the context in which something is said or done. The contents of a message take on different meaning with a change in context. For example, politicians generally say things more than they believe or do but the frequency and magnitude of their exaggerated statements increases even more before elections and during the war. It is typical of smart people to cherry-pick and report events out of context in order to mislead others.

The credibility of source is even more important for a claim to be accepted as true. Facebook and Twitter have a huge cache of fake accounts. Wikipedia is even worse in measuring up to some minimum standard of establishing credibility of the source. The credibility of source can be ascertained by looking at the possible motives of the reporter, his expertise, and more importantly, his reputation.

Since both the context and the source are either unknown or are not disclosed in the virtual world, the only viable option available for avoiding deception is to examine the evidence which, among other conditions, must meet the criteria of independent verifiability and logical coherence of the given message.

The younger generation, in particular, needs to be trained in critical thinking. Educational institutions should create an environment of free enquiry as the basis for acquiring true knowledge. It is difficult to defeat lies with truth. One can, however, develop competence to disprove claims (the principle of falsification) by putting them to critical scrutiny as a sure path of progress towards truth.

But most of us, unfortunately, fear leaving our comfort zones and live, in the words of Hegel, in a state of false consciousness. We unconsciously prefer to be deceived if we believe critical thinking will exposed our pre-conceived notions and beliefs.


The writer teaches at the Sarhad