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So, take a stroll down memory lane to remember all of our past Word of the Year selections.
All this adds up to a depressing picture for those of us who aren’t ready to live in a post-truth world. Trying to refute a bold, memorable lie with a fiddly set of facts can often serve to reinforce the myth.
His key example is tobacco companies sowing doubt about the negative health effects of smoking – for example, he talks about tobacco companies sponsoring (accurate) research into all of the non-smoking-related causes of disease so that everyone focused on those instead.
But his solution – telling engaging stories, adding a human interest element, enjoyable documentaries in the style of Carl Sagan – seems unusually unsuited to the problem.
This is especially true given that the article itself is about the way that false ideas spread by people never double-checking their beliefs.
It seems to me that if you believe in an epidemic of falsehood so widespread that the very ability to separate fact from fiction is under threat, it ought to inspire a state of CONSTANT VIGILANCE, where you obsessively question each of your beliefs.
Third, Harford describes his article as being about agnotology, “the study of how ignorance is deliberately produced”.
Opponents of Brexit can make an engaging documentary about all the reasons Brexit would be bad, and then proponents of Brexit can make an engaging documentary about all the reasons Brexit would be good.
If you get good documentary-makers, I assume both will be equally convincing regardless of what the true facts are. The first because Harford’s stronger statements about facts are probably exaggerations, and he just meant that in certain cases people ignore evidence.
The fundamental problem is one of transmission: how can we make knowledge percolate down from the fact-loving elite to the fact-impervious masses?
And I don’t want to condemn this too hard, because it’s obviously true up to a point.
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First, the article makes the very strong claim that “facts are toothless” – then tries to convince its readers of this using facts.