The Danger of A Single Source

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Historical truth is an intersection and not a single spot on a map. My senior year of high school, we read a short story about a car crash. The driver had one perspective, the bicyclist had another, a bystander had a third, and the dog walker had another. Our teacher used the story to demonstrate the power of perspective, but the story also begs the question: what's the true story of the crash? What's the truest true account to offer the police officer when s/he comes to make a report? The answer? Yes. All of them. The truth is at the intersection of all of the characters' accounts. 

"The Danger of a Single Story" is a famous TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about her experience encountering a single story. She recounts being a young Nigerian, writing stories modeled after those she read, including characters who ate apples, talked about the changing weather, and drank ginger beer. She tells of her college roommate when she came to the United States to study. The roommate asked to listen to Adichie's "tribal music" and was disappointed when Adichie produced Mariah Carey. A single story crowds out the possibility of the truth. It reduces people and ideas to a narrow, often twisted stereotype.

Before it fell out of fashion in education, there was a fourth player in a western student's educational foundation. Students learned reading, writing, 'rithmetic, and rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, including thinking logically, dissecting strategies of public speakers, and determining the validity of evidence and credibility of the speakers. Part of understanding rhetoric is knowing how to avoid false logic or logical fallacies. This used to be called "common sense." This list of common fallacies comes from UNC Chapel Hill's writing center. I'm listing a few here, but there are plenty more.

1. Hasty generalizations: Making an assumption about an entire group based on a small sample size. Are we making sweeping generalizations based on just a few--especially people who look and think just like us?

2. Missing the point or "irrelevant conclusion": The premise of an argument supports a specific conclusion--but not the one the speaker draws. A simple example might be to say a lion can't be dangerous because it looks fluffy and majestic. Yes, it is majestic, and maybe it's fluffy, but that's not the point. 

3. Post Hoc or "false cause": Assuming that because B comes after A, A must have caused B. President Jones raised taxes, so the rate of violent crimes increased. President Jones must be responsible for the rise of violent crime. Not necessarily. More information is necessary to connect the two.

4. Slippery Slope: The arguer claims that some action will begin a chain reaction, leading to a dire outcome. Sometimes, event chains are logical, but not always. Is there real evidence that animal experimentation will lead to immediate loss of respect of life which will eventually lead to human experimentation and mass genocide?

5. Weak Analogy: Using a common item to explain a more complex item when the two don't really have key features in common. Guns are like hammers. They're both tools with metal parts that can kill. Would we restrict the sale of or require registration for hammers?

6. Appeal to Authority: Trying to add strength or credibility to an argument by citing someone famous when the famous person isn't or wasn't an authority on the topic or name dropping without explaining the reasoning behind the famous person's stance.

7. Ad Populum: Considering it good evidence that someone should believe it because everyone does or because belief will make life easier.

8. Ad Hominem and Tu Quoque: Making someone's ethical character or characteristics (hominem) or hypocricy (quoque) a reason to discount a point-of-view. 

9. Appeal to Pity: A strategy to get someone to accept a conclusion when the information isn't relevant using pity. It has been a tough year for Jampy; he should really have an A in the class.

10. Appeal to Ignorance: When the speaker uses lack of evidence as a reason to support the speaker's conclusion.

11. False Dichotomy: The speaker sets up the argument as if there are only two possible options--when really, there are many options. We either tear down the building, or we continue to risk student safety!

I have a poster in my classroom with a famous quotation by Abraham Lincoln. He says "Don't believe everything you read on the internet." Haha. Of course Lincoln couldn't have said that, but in a quick-click culture, we've lost the personal responsibility of questioning our sources. In the old days of research, a researcher would have to dig through periodical indexes and drive to several libraries sometimes in order to find a paper copy of a specific article. The challenge of classic research was in locating information. Now, the challenge is in sorting through the masses of information to find what's true. Questioning the authenticity of your sources is part of your due diligence as a human.

In 1938, Orson Welles narrated his War on the Worlds program, broadcasting that Martians had invaded New Jersey. Historical lore tells us that he started a panic, though some sources tell us very few people actually tuned into the broadcast that night. Misinformation is not new. In 2009, Dave Cullen published Columbine, his retelling of the shooting at Columbine High School from the perspective of a journalist. According to Cullen, in the time right after the shooting, news outlets were so desperate for facts that they often published details before they knew the details. Misinformation is not new. What is new is the rate at which information spreads and the lack of personal accountability consumers have in determining its truth and constancy. If you click on a post about bigfoot burning down California, and you believe it and re-post, is it "the news'" fault that you believed a single source with no supporting reliable documentation and spread the information with absolutely no self-check? 

Spotify's The Dissect Podcast overviews Donald Glover as Childish Gambino's Because the Internet album and project. One of the questions Glover explores is an allusion to the Biblical Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve faced consequences in the Garden because of their "progress" to have all knowledge. Glover questions: what are the consequences of this innovation, the internet? Do we really value multiple voices, or do we glorify an algorithm that can tell us just what exactly we want to hear? 

I pray that my children live in a world where we listen before we judge, we value diverse perspectives, we critically evaluate all sources, we have the understanding to think logically, we accept our own fallibility, and we accept people and allow them to grow. 

Listen before you attack, and you might just find the truth.

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