Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The end of truth

If you've been too distracted by the presidential election to follow the latest cutting-edge theories in physics, you may be surprised to learn that the latest in physics sounds... well... actually quite a lot like the presidential election.

(And no, I'm not referring to whatever physics account for Donald Trump's hair.)

In The Atlantic, science writer Amanda Gefter (whose mesmerizing book Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn is a must-read) had a conversation with cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman about the extent to which a "public object" doesn't really exist because of the observer effect, and how skewed our perceptions of reality may be as a result.

Let me try to translate this into English (and scientists, please let me know if I'm translating badly).

We humans like to believe that there is a "real" world out there irrespective of our individual perceptions. In other words, if you look at Donald Trump's hair and I look at Donald Trump's hair, we'd like to think that at the end of the day we're looking at the exact same hair. There is some "objective" reality of Donald Trump's hair. If we somehow had a third party god-view of Donald Trump's hair, we would know where Donald Trump's hair is at all times and we could measure it accurately, even if it, say, fell into a black hole.

The problem is, as Gefter points out, experiment after experiment with quantum particles shows that if we make the assumption that there is a "god view" independent of someone observing a particle, "we get the wrong answers." Experiments keep defying the idea that there is a third party, objective reality out there that's separate from who is observing it.

It's quite possible that reality itself is comprised entirely of the interaction of first-person points of view. If you were inside of a black hole and I was outside of a black hole and Donald Trump's hair fell into the black hole, we might see two totally different things happen and they're both equally real. You literally have your own Donald Trump's hair, and I have mine.

Lucky us.

So how does this relate to the presidential election?

"The Media" is Plural

For the last hundred years, owing to some quirks of technology (only so many channels on the spectrum) and economics (efficiences of scale), we had a largely centralized media after the rise of radio, television, book publishers, and newspaper syndication in the 20th century. Most people got their national and international news either from a major paper, from syndicated services like the AP within their local papers, or from the nightly news on one of the capital-lettered networks on television.

The effect of all of this is that our news was pre-filtered and shaped by these "mainstream" networks, which meant that we were by and large starting our political discussions from the same set of facts. We may have disagreed, sometimes strenuously, and there was much that was happening outside of the "mainstream" that we didn't even know about, but our disagreements were starting with many of the same basic "truths."

Cable altered this landscape a bit, leading to the rise of CNN and Fox News, among others, but then, of course, along came the Internet, which has had a profoundly unpredictable effect on what we even consider our realities to be.

On the one hand, the Internet has shone a light on previously unheard voices that would have previously struggled to have broken through to the mainstream. The Rodney King video was shocking when it landed on TV in the early '90s (at least, shocking to white viewers), but its existence depended on some person randomly having a camcorder on hand when it happened and getting the tape to a TV network willing to run it.

Now there is a stunning drumbeat of cell phone videos of police shootings and their aftermath that are dispersed on social media, raising awareness of the frequency of these types of incidents and sparking calls for reform and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

At first it felt like the Internet was going to spur greater access to the truth by allowing alternate voices the room to flourish through crowd sourcing, through the gathering of like-minded people in virtual spaces, and by the amplification afforded by social sharing. Rather than being stymied by gatekeepers, truths could bubble up, the spotlight could shine in places that it previously failed to reach, and we could have greater confidence that we were getting the truth by having access to so many primary sources to verify the truth for ourselves.

It felt like information, as they say, was going to be free.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Freedom

But there was a problem with the colossal explosion of information on the Internet: there's way too much of it.

Along came Twitter and Facebook.

Both of these social networks allowed us to do something very important: they filtered information for us, and most importantly they helped filter our news. 62% of Americans now get their news via social media.

Facebook and Twitter went about this in slightly different ways. Twitter has always been a bit more of a wild west, but what you see on the social network depends entirely on who you follow and what those followers tweet and "retweet" (sharing someone else's post). There's some cross-pollination from outside your immediate circle, but if you follow only people who are like you, chances are you will largely see what is being shared by people like you.

Facebook started with a similar constraint (you are only seeing the posts of people you are friends with and the Pages you follow), but took one more crucial further step to filter. Because of Facebook's news feed algorithms, what you see in your news feed is influenced by who you interact with the most and the types of things you tend to click on. Their intent is to show you what you will find most interesting.

The result has, arguably, been the sorting of the country into isolated echo chambers that don't sufficiently interact with each other and see information that doesn't conform to their preexisting views. As Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in the New York Times, Facebook's own research shows the company encourages confirmation bias by "somewhat prioritizing updates that users find comforting." You start seeing the things on Facebook that you want to see, perhaps confirming your pre-existing opinions, rather than having them challenged.

This might not be hugely consequential to our politics if we were still operating with largely the same essential set of facts. Yes, we may see things we're more likely to already agree with, yes, we may have completely different narratives of the same real-life event ("Benghazi!"), but these would constitute different spins on the same facts.

But then came the fake news.

Alien Hunting

We've always had the National Enquirers of the world, which mixed some actually-true scoops with, ya know, Bill Clinton confessing he's an alien hunter.

What's new is that we now have an explosion of fake news that looks plausibly like the real thing, and it's... pretty much everywhere on social media, including the very false articles that the Pope endorsed Trump and that an FBI agent connected to the Clinton email case was found dead.

Facebook has taken a lot of heat for the role fake news played in the election, and in the wake of the controversy, both Google and Facebook have pledged to restrict ads on sites that have fake news, despite Mark Zuckerberg denying fake news influenced the election.

But the problem with expecting Facebook to filter out fake news is that such an exercise devolves into philosophy very, very quickly. Who gets to decide what is "true" or "fake"?

Let's take the "Bill Clinton confesses he's an alien hunter" story above. How, exactly, do you go about debunking that story and proving it's fake?

Someone asks Bill Clinton, and he says he's not an alien hunter? What if he's lying?

A majority of people don't think Bill Clinton is an alien hunter? What if they just don't have the facts, or what if the voters are lying because they're Democrats who think alien hunting is a bad look for Bill?

Snopes says Bill Clinton is not an alien hunter? Who made Snopes king? Do they have 24 hour surveillance on Bill Clinton's extraterrestrial activities?

At the end of the day, isn't it up to all of us to decide what we think is true or untrue based on the preponderance of evidence and the sources we trust?

And... guess what: JOKE'S ON YOU, BILL CLINTON REALLY DID KINDA SAY HE WAS AN ALIEN HUNTER. Or, at least, he said somewhat jokingly on Jimmy Kimmel's show that he looked into the Roswell and Area 51 records when he was president to make sure there were no aliens. ("Hunting" for evidence, get it?). Here's the video.

So... Now what. Do you let that article on Facebook or do you ban it just because the headline is somewhat misleading? How misleading is too misleading? What's the line between satire and fakery? And how do you know why someone is sharing something? What if I want to share something because it's bats*** crazy?

Sure, maybe you can use human editors or artificial intelligence to weight the likelihood of accuracy of a story and begin to weight sources by reputation and tag posts accordingly, but how do you prevent bias from creeping into what are, at the end of the day, editorial decisions with blurry lines?

The "mainstream" media already had a version of this problem with their "Democrat says this, Republican says that" structure of balancing stories, which can quickly devolve into false equivalency or total confusion if one side is telling the truth and one is lying. If one scientist says the moon is a satellite orbiting the Earth and another scientist says the moon is a giant mozzarella ball on an invisible pizza, organizations like the New York Times are reluctant to call person two a lunatic and instead present the pizza idea as a "controversial new theory." We report, you decide! They are loath to decide for you.

So it's no wonder we're out there clicking on things that mainly reflect what we already believe. The information out there is so vast and complicated and contradictory, how can we do anything other than charge forth using our gut feelings and biases and tribal allegiances to cut through the noise?

And now, I fear, we're in for one final hammer blow to a truth we can all agree on.

The Final Frontier

Much like the way ABC, NBC, and CBS used to marshal the news into centralized mainstream narratives as a starting place for political discussions, we may look back on having a couple social networks we could squabble on as a quaint relic of a more innocent time.

We're taking the dominance of Facebook and Twitter for granted. Just as the television networks' dominance were usurped by an abundance of cable news outlets that are now in the process of being usurped by an even greater abundance of Internet news outlets, there's a risk that the social media landscape could fracture even further into our own little echo chambers. Who's to say we're not going to divide ourselves up into liberal Twitter and Facebook and conservative Twitter and Facebook or into even smaller groups than that?

And even on top of that, we now have an incoming president with a, shall we say, interesting relationship with the truth.

For a glimpse into what is possible with a president who is unbound from the truth, who will have tremendous influence over the apparatus of government and the state, and a chief advisor who already runs a propaganda apparatus, I'd turn you to this 2014 article about the alternative realities created by one of Vladimir Putin's top advisors, who co-opts movements on the right and left, who drumbeats phrases until they become meaningless, and takes both sides of arguments to leave everyone feeling completely disoriented:

One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human-rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern-art exhibitions. The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls. Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime.

We don't have a national press we trust. The independent press that does exist is in perilous financial straits. We have a social media landscape where we live in our own echo chambers. We are constantly tricked by fakeries. We have a president-elect willing to spin up easily falsifiable stories and an interest in stirring up our emotions, who could very well further legitimize propagandists, and who could break norms to employ previously nonpartisan government data or institutions to create alternate realities that are extremely difficult to disprove.

Try to set aside whatever feelings you may have about my level of paranoia in going there, and, as Trump would say, "Believe me" on this one: It is about to get very, very confusing to figure out what is true.

The Observer Effect

Much like, well, apparently reality itself, the news is busy creating itself to conform to our existing perspectives, and our grasp of what is true is largely dependent on what we make of it. In the coming years, this is only going to get more and more complicated.

The Internet has fractured our centralized, mainstream realities into millions of individual bubbles. We have truths sitting side by side with fakeries and no time to sort them out. We don't trust and can't agree upon the institutions we used to rely on to sort through this for us. We can't even talk to one another, because our facts barely intersect.

Most importantly, the universe is bending toward us, letting us choose our own truth adventure and giving us whatever we need to believe what we want to believe.

Sorry, Mulder and Scully. The truth is not out there. We are all independent observers spinning up our own realities.

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Anonymous said...


Nathan Bransford said...

Haha not sure if intentional or unintentional, but perfect comment either way.

Other Lisa said...


One of the suggestions CNET's editor-in-chief had, and I think it's a good one, is for Google and FB to hire all those unemployed journos and newspaper professionals to vet and edit what is considered "news." And call the rest of it "stuff people are sharing" or what have you.

But this segmentation into different realities is a huge, huge problem, and I honestly don't know how it gets fixed. It goes along with the geographic sorting we've been increasingly seeing. If you look at the election results in CA, it's like we are in a different country.

And I don't know, maybe the values divide has gotten to the point where we really are.

Lisa (Brackmann)

abc said...

This is fantastic! Thanks for taking your time to write this. On the other hand, crap.

Magdalena Munro said...

You know that this blog blew me away, however, I wanted to couple that with written praise. This was one of those reads where I craved sitting with 10 of my smartest friends while we discussed the tenets of your piece. It's clear you put a lot of time and thought into this and I really appreciate you. There is a shift underway and one can only hope they are on the right side of goodness when it's time to rebuild our planet and nation. Sidebar: Can I build an underground bunker on your Dad's farm?

JOHN T. SHEA said...

Donald Trump's hair fell into a black hole? That explains a lot!
But seriously, a great essay, Nathan, well worth rereading.

JOHN T. SHEA said...

I think Jacob Wonderbar, the President of the Universe, should be asked to reunite the Donald with his hair by either retrieving it from the black hole or throwing the Donald into the black hole, or any black hole, or an Interstellar Time Warp, or a Cosmic Space Kapow, or any large dangerous space anomaly VERY far from planet Earth.

Jack said...

Truth has always been slippery.

Some religious folks believe they have a holy book that reveals absolute truth, but there's not a lot of agreement among them as to what that truth is. The legal system is based on the absence of absolute truth; what lawyers call facts are the points of dispute that the court is asked to rule on. Doctors see changes in medical truth all the time. Scientists are convinced that there is an absolute, unchanging truth, but they don't know exactly what it is. Historians have to settle for whatever they can determine with the available evidence. Politicians... um... never mind.

abc said...

In other news, is it String Theory or Multiverse Theory? Or something else entirely?

Chris Bailey said...

Thank you for coherently posting the truths of this issue. We have to wrestle with it. It's tiring. I'm all nostalgic for a time when a half hour of news and a daily paper was enough, and opinions were clearly labeled. Good ol' Walter Cronkite.

Cinthia Ritchie said...

Wow, Nathan, I think I kind of love you for writing this. As a former journalist, I do know that the "news" is never really the news. It's what happens to be on the radar, what will most likely interest the public/reader and bring in the most advertising dollars, etc. So we've never really had "news" in the respect that most people assume and yet it was vastly, vastly more objective than what we have today.

The difference in the news and news reporting in the Internet age, when each story can be tracked via reader count and reader clicks and how that influences what is highlighted, what is reported, what is the most popular and therefore deemed the most "worthy" is pretty darned scary. It's led to sensationalized headlines to grab readers and pull them in and that's led to sensationalized reporting to keep readers reading because alas, that can also be tracked and reported to editors/advertisers, etc.

It's also interesting to point out that in journalism, the people making the big bucks are NOT the reporters or even the editors. It's the advertising department. A good ad executive can bring in two or three times the salary of a top reporter, so guess who really has the clout?

The "fake" news publications/sites are scary, and most are also badly written and geared toward emotional, not intellectual, response, and I think what we have to understand is that while most of the people in our online and personal bubble are probably college-educated and well-read critical thinkers, the vast majority of the American public is not. They aren't trained or willing or curious enough to want to examine issues. They want to believe what they are told because their lives are hard and their jobs are hard and they're struggling and they just don't have time, at the end of the day, to weed it all out. (Trust me, I was raised in a working class farming community, I know and love and can identify with these people, though I also thank god almost every day that I managed to get away from those very same people.)

Trump has bragged that he doesn't read. Well, a good part of the American public doesn't either.

I could go on but it depresses me too much. Thanks for a really great, insightful and intelligent post, Nathan.

Nathan Bransford said...

Obama recently touched on this subject in an interview in the New Yorker:

The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama told me later. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”

That marked a decisive change from previous political eras, he maintained. “Ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is the consequence of man-made behavior, because that’s what ninety-nine per cent of scientists tell us,” he said. “And then we would have a debate about how to fix it. That’s how, in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, you had Republicans supporting the Clean Air Act and you had a market-based fix for acid rain rather than a command-and-control approach. So you’d argue about means, but there was a baseline of facts that we could all work off of. And now we just don’t have that.”

JOHN T. SHEA said...

The New Yorker interview sounds interesting, Nathan, but if President Obama really believes US politics was less polarized in the seventies, eighties, and nineties he has a poor memory or an excessive nostalgia for the recent past, or both. And in the seventies and eighties scientists did not believe in global warming.

Looked at from outside, from Ireland, for example, where I live, US politics shows more consensus than Americans may realize. Political violence has killed more people here in my lifetime than in the USA with sixty times the population.

I have always treated the pronouncements of both politicians and experts with a certain skepticism, while seeking to avoid cynicism.

Peter Dudley said...

There's a lot to chew on here. I especially like jack's comment about the truth having always been slippery.

Truth can be messed with through simple, subtle filters, not just outright fakes. Take Katrina coverage, for example. Someone pointed out that all the TV video of rescues showed black people being rescued by white people, yet the damage crossed all socioeconomic and racial lines, and people of all races rescued others. America, however, was shown only one version of that truth, which helped define America's understanding of (and therefore response to) that disaster. I don't think it was intentional, but it happened.

What the internet has done is make it easier to fool entire populations very quickly. It has also exposed America's desire to be fooled in a way that, as you said, feels comfortable. We want our biases fed, and we're too busy to try to change the frame of reference with which we view the universe. (Though we are never too busy to argue about it.)

I do think that methods and mechanisms will evolve to build skepticism into the network, but I also think well-crafted trickery and misinformation will always continue to flow faster and farther and louder than complicated truth. If truth does, in fact, exist.

JOHN T. SHEA said...

Magdalena, Nathan's father grows rice. Your bunker would be flooded every year!

alexandroid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
alexandroid said...

I think our only hope is to build a culture where people value evidence based arguments over conspiracy theories, where critical thinking and scientific method are taught and praised but speculations and poor fact checking are considered unethical and looked down upon. We will never be able to get objective truth but at least we can affect our common mindset and lens. We've done this before with things like valuing life, empathy and honesty, there is no reason we could not do it again as a society and civilization at large.

JohnO said...

Wow, what a throwdown this is, Nathan. Well done!

A lot of people have made good points in the comments ... the rise of "fake news" is alarming, but truth, or even what the narrative is, has become a kind of a contest now. One of the conservative rhetorical strategies for a long time is just to yell loud and long about something, even if there isn't evidence to support it (nine hearings on Benghazi, for example, or the seven-year hounding of Bill Clinton).

What we have with Trump is something different. His run through the primaries was a dominance display. He insulted, interrupted, mocked, belittled. It didn't matter that he didn't have policies, or even had the facts straight, because he was the outsider who always said provocative things and made headlines.

What we're seeing now is that he's a public figure first, and is better than anyone I've seen at staying at making people REACT to what he does, instead of the other way around.

In any normal year, we could take this last week and talk about all the potential scandals, conflicts of interest, and other looming disasters facing the country. For example:

- a $25 million settlement in the Trump University case, when his business had been accused of defrauding thousands of Americans. The main defendant is the president-elect of the most powerful country on earth.
- A "stay to play" story about Trump coaxing foreign diplomats to stay in his Washington DC hotel (or any of the other colossal conflicts of interests he's simply ignoring)
_ Hiring Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, a man who has a four decade history of racism and homophobia, and has been accused of declining to prosecute the KKK for killing a black man, suppressing the black vote via voter intimidation, and being fired from a district judge appointment over racially insensitive remarks
- Hiring Steve Bannon, neo-Nazi and accused domestic abuser
- Hiring Mike Flynn as National Security Adviser, a man forced out of the Defense Intelligence Agency for being mentally unstable, and accepted payment from Russia to attend a Russian propaganda even where he was seated next to Putin
- Hiring Myron Ebell to head the EPA, despite Ebell accepting money from the fossil fuel industry for his advocacy group
- Hiring Mike Pompeo to head the CIA, despite Pompeo calling for a return to the bulk collection of Americans’ domestic calling records (restricted by Congress last year), and denouncing President Obama’s decision in 2009 to close C.I.A. black-site prisons

Yet what dominated today's news cycle? Trump calling for the cast of Hamilton to for their unscripted speech to Mike Pence. Again, Trump is making us react to him.

I agree with you, and Obama. The narrative has become a contest. Which means you can no longer sit back and think justice will prevail, unless you're awfully sure justice has the majority of voices behind it.

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