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Consider the Source (2019-05-28)

No OED edition has ever had a version of this cover with this combination of colours -- not without reason, practically speaking, of course. No OED edition has ever had a version of this cover with this combination of colours -- not without reason, practically speaking, of course.
No OED edition has ever had a version of this cover with this combination of colours – not without reason, practically speaking. may 2016

At one point in my life, I lived for several years in a small town with one public library branch. This was before the internet was ordinarily accessible – and let's not forget that this state of things existed as little as fifteen or so years ago in many such towns – and while catalogue ordering was certainly a thing, and there was a local bookstore, it was no easy thing to access much by way of reading material. The main reading matter around outside of the library was the few newspapers, meaning typically one local and two from the closest city, plus the by turns annoying and execrable reader's digest, and a scattering of persistent tabloids. Inside the library, there were certainly books, and already a tiny selection of cassettes and movies. The library was very small, and no doubt still is unless it has moved by now, roughly the size of a typical two bedroom apartment built before 1970 in north america. So at least 100 metres square. With only so much funding to work with, the library staff were hard pressed not to accept sets of books in good shape and demands to take advantage of series sales to provide basic materials kids would need for school. And if the municipal government and library board were very christian and insistent that the book budget should go to books that had passed their religious filters, well, until more people tucked an oar in that could hardly be expected to change.

I describe all this not to pick on it, but to acknowledge that it was (and is) a product of local politics and prioritizations. It was also in proximity of alternative sources, including a relatively nearby city, a nearby airforce base with independent facilities, and the library collections in the local high schools. High school teachers had little choice but to explain to their charges that it would be at best unwise to simply base reports and projects on series of books like those published and endlessly flogged on television by then time-life books, or just what they had read in encyclopedias. All of these tend to age out of use, as the now vanished species of encyclopaedia salesmen once depended on for a living, and as anyone who has giggled over the extraordinary hair styles and fabric patterns from books illustrated with drawings and photographs from the 1970s knows very well. Like it or not, we had to consider the source. Even the dictionaries got updates after all.

I've been thinking about this a lot, as the mainstream media at least has suddenly rediscovered that its propaganda pants are down again, and so the news heats up periodically with alarmed articles condemning "fake news" and sidestepping demands for genuine investigative reporting, as opposed to "media embedding" and reproducing press releases with the serial numbers barely whited out. Of course, "fake news," that is propaganda, and its sometimes but not always less dangerous cousin, structured nonsense, are not new problems. Far from it. If we want european examples, we can start with the fate of the knights templar, or the so-called "cathar heresy." When I was still in elementary school I was a huge archaeology buff, and had probably read every book on ancient egypt that came within range of my library card twice. Akhenaten and Hatshepsut each have more than their fair share of debunked stories about them that were recorded in writing and eviscerated by documents surviving from their reigns and archaeological data. Among the most infamous propaganda writers in history is a fellow usually referred to in english as Virgil, who wrote an epic poem as part of his contribution to roman emperor Octavian's efforts to shore up his claims to have the right to do what he was doing.

UPDATE 2019-03-16 - The "hit us where we fear" aspect of persuasive but false claims helps make sense of how absurd soap advertising works. By now it is widely accepted that "sex" is used to sell an astonishing array of products, although not all. Soap advertising, especially for stuff marketed as dish or floor soap, for example, seems like an exception. Well, yes, to the use of "sex" aspect, not to the "hit us where we fear" aspect, which is actually the most general case.

So thoroughly unsexy soap ads depend on making us fear that maybe, just maybe, whatever the soap is supposed to clean isn't as clean as it might be, and everybody else has noticed but us. So if it is bath soap, we are encouraged to fear that we must stink if we aren't washing with that "fresh spring scent." Or that our dishes must be full of spots, or that our clothes look dingy and worn. The ads try to make us afraid that we are objects of scorn or pity.

In a january 2019 blogpost, Michael Ullyot unpacked a short line written by Francis Bacon circa 1597. The post had many purposes, from showing how the OED can be used to make sense of an older english text, to how we can completely misunderstand what an older text in any language says if we don't account for language change. The line happens to be full of what many second language learners will have been taught to call "false friends," words that look just like those in their own language, but in fact mean something quite different. To make sense of it successfully, the reader needs to consider both the source in terms of who wrote it, when, and where, and which dictionaries and other items are best for analyzing it. This may all sound very ivory tower and esoteric, yet all of us do this all the time, barring exceptions we may not be aware of.

Seriously. We do this sort of thing all the time. If you have ever said to somebody else, "let me google that" you are getting into exactly that process. "That" may be a particular claim or news event. So you search online, and pick out sources on it you find reasonable or otherwise trust. Advertising companies posing as search engines and so-called "social media" encourage all of us to simply take their word for it, to trust that the top results from the search or in our timelines are the most accurate and/or informative. "Fake news" disturbs these companies mightily, because advertisers want their ads to be seen, but don't want to be associated with obvious lies, and these companies want the advertisers' money. They are far more attractive advertisers if we can be presumed to trust their algorithms, even when those algorithms are no longer designed to carry out the sort of tasks we have in mind. That doesn't mean those algorithms can't provide accurate context and interpretive information, far from it. It does mean that they must inevitably reflect the interests and beliefs of their makers and the people who tell the makers what to build into them, just as that old fashioned thing, the newspaper, must reflect the interests and beliefs of its editors.

For better or worse, we need to have bullshit detectors because there are so many perverse incentives to fool us with bad information. Worst of all, we may unwittingly help the people trying to pull a fast one, because we are perversely incentivized to fool ourselves. This is the hardest part of the whole issue. The deadly combination of beliefs, lack of confidence of those beliefs, and therefore complete intolerance of learning about other perspectives and even just more information about whatever the topic is can neutralize our bullshit detectors when we need them most. When national governments are trying to persuade everyone that they should start a war, or far closer to home, when far from disinterested parties try to persuade us not to vaccinate children, or to eat a diet composed almost entirely of simple carbohydrates. These are the sorts of issues that hit us where we fear, where we are pressed for time, where we are confused and most inclined to seize on any structured story that seems to explain things.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2019
Last Modified: Monday, May 29, 2017 2:03:23