Progressives, conservatives, and moderates alike all believe things that aren't true
I think one of the biggest problems with misinformation on the left is the combination of polarization with the fact that conservatives have been marginalized in large swaths of academia (to a lesser extent same problem with journalism).
This creates a dynamic where experts are reluctant to stand up and call out misinformation of ideologically charged topics on the left. Sure, they won't endorse it and will deny it's true if asked but if they try and correct that misinformation people will immediately suspect them of shilling for conservatives (why are you trying to convince people that police violence isn't a serious issue rather than combating such and such misinfo from the right).
And I fear this is a much bigger problem than many people realize. People on the right may not have as many fancy degrees but they can tell that experts aren't being straight with them but they can't necessarily tell where or when that is happening.
Indeed, I often think it's the true but misleading facts pushed by the left that do more damage. False claims can be refuted but selective citation of fact and clever manipulation of the discussion issue are often things that are very hard to reply to unless you can and do go read the original research. So it becomes rational for many people on the right to simply throw up their hands and distrust all experts on everything.
40 comments and I guess I’ll be the first to mention the first issue that made *me* realize that my side (the Left) doesn’t have a monopoly on misinformation: nuclear power.
And it looks like I’ll also be the first to mention the issue that made me realize the Left is just as scientifically illiterate, subject to cognitive bias, and hypocritical as anyone: Covid. I was - and still am - stunned at the lack of nuance on the Left... that even wanting to calmly discuss costs and benefits of policy interventions in 2020-2021 made me into some kind of conspiracy theorist who wasn’t ‘following the science’ (as ridiculous and widely repeated as the phrases ‘defund the police’ and ‘believe all women’) ...and how Covid hawkery became nothing more than a blind anti-Trump political identity. (Anti-Trumpism is worthwhile... but sacrificing reason and wisdom in its name is not).
Bottom line....humans are humans. If you ever find yourself in a room full of people who all agree on something, be afraid. Be very afraid.
"...there are no magic tipping points."
But, actually, there are.
We just cannot say with absolute accuracy when/how they would occur. A relative lack of understanding about how the global climate system works isn't the same thing as tipping points not existing. The IPCC discussed tipping points at length in their last 2022 Report, defining them specifically (and non-magically) as “a critical threshold beyond which a system reorganises, often abruptly and/or irreversibly," reflecting the scientific consensus that such tipping points are 1/ very real 2/ have actually happened in the past and 3/ could occur again under the right circumstances.
So, the IPCC here is both acknowledging the existence of tipping points, their potential peril, and also the continuing uncertainty about them. It also shares your qualified optimism that we probably aren't currently on a Climate trajectory to hit them, but with *heavy* caveats about the uncertainty, considering this is very much science-in-progress about unprecedented things for humanity.
So, at the very least, you absolutely don't have sufficient credibility to categorically deny the existence of said potential tipping points. And throwing in a dismissive "magic" in there shows a condescension and dangerous lack of curiosity about this topic, considering the potential risk at play. You could, instead say, "We don't know either way, but it seems very unlikely at this point that we'll hit a tipping point by 2030 that sends us spiraling irrevocably into the Hothouse Earth scenario that many fear would doom us as a species."
We insure against long-tail risks all the time, and "abrupt and/or irreversible changes are particularly dangerous because they can occur on timeframes that are short enough to defy the ability and capacity of human societies to adapt." Just because you are very unlikely to die in a house fire, doesn't mean that you dismiss the risk as "magic" and nonexistent, neglecting to engineer some aspects of your life toward mitigating that risk. You don't have to be a misinformed Doomer to take Climate tipping points very seriously, while also understanding that we're currently set on a more medium-bad scenario of warming.
Thank you for this excellent column, Matt Y.
This is something I feel very strongly about. I'm in academia, and I consider myself lefty/liberal, but I agree 100% that the right does not have a monopoly on misinformation and harmful ideology.
A *huge* problem on the left is the uncritical (heh) embrace of the belief that America is fundamentally racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and every other -ist and -phobic there is, and if you deny it, you yourself are racist, bad, blinded by your white fragility, etc. The misinformation about police shootings of Black men is just a small part of it. Matt Y had a brilliant piece a couple years ago about Tema Okun's work on how punctuality, hard, work, valuing the written word, and so on are signs of white supremacy. There's a quote from "White Fragility" that says (I'm paraphrasing from memory), "Whenever a Black and white person interact, the question to ask is not, Did racism take place? but How did racism manifest itself in this interaction?"
Can you think of anything more defeatist? If you are white, you *cannot* interact with Black people in any way shape or form without racism hanging over you like a deadly curse. You are doomed to spread racism wherever you go! But you must not complain or protest, because then you will just demonstrate how racist you really are. And if you show that you're hurt in any way, you will be guilty of "making it all about yourself" and "demanding emotional labor from Black people" and "making Black people feel unsafe with your white tears."
How are we supposed to have a healthy, thriving, multiracial, diverse society when people think this way?
Second, and I don't blame Matt Y for not touching this fun topic, but the far left/ progressive folks have made an absolute hash of gender issues. There's sex and gender and gender identity that you feel in your soul and gender presentation and gender-nonconforming and what gender others perceive you as and trans and nonbinary and genderqueer and genderfluid and agender and I have no idea how any of these fit together anymore, and if you question any of it you risk stepping on a landmine labeled "vile transphobe who wants queer/trans people to LITERALLY DIE."
I don't know what the solution is, but as they say in AA, the first step to recovery is to admit that you have a problem.
A big part of the problem, which isn't confined to any particular political tribe, is that the concept of the Overton Window has gotten a little too dominant, and people care more about 'saying things that will shift the center of gravity of the discourse' rather than 'saying things they actually believe.' Obviously politicians do this but now a lot of the politically-engaged do it as well. So maybe you think, sensibly, that the climate predictions are far too alarmist, but also that governments still need to do more. Do you tell the truth about the alarmism and potentially shift the conversation away from your preferred policy, or do you lie about your beliefs in the hope of getting the better outcome?
I think it's better to tell the truth, not just out of principle but also because it's so hard to predict how messages affect others' behaviour, but a lot of people adopt the latter framing, out of the belief that everyone has a duty to be an activist. We saw how misguided this approach is in a lot of Covid messaging. And maybe things have always been like this because that's just human beings and it's just social media making it visible. But it does seem like a lot of people say things to move the needle in the discourse rather than just saying what they mean.
It is kinda funny that "misinformation" really became politically memetic because people refused to accept the lawful result of the 2016 election.
Like last time it would be useful to include the real number here:
"One suggestive survey indicated that about 40-50% of liberal or very liberal people believe 1,000 or more unarmed Black men are shot and killed by the police in a typical year."
13-27 based on existing data although they believe it might be in the 60-100 when all data is reported.
It feels like much of the news that leads to misunderstandings is truthful but misleading or omitting some context and it seems like it would be good to try to move towards a place of trying to eliminate those opportunities for misunderstanding when we can.
I will take your word for it that Wilson probably didn’t act badly, but now I’m imagining how it would go if I tried to un-disinform my left wing friends:
“Actually, the government looked into it, and determined that the policeman didn’t do anything wrong!”
“No no, it was a *different* law enforcement agency!”
“While I’ve got you here, did you know that Matthew Shepard’s death probably wasn’t a hate crime after all?”
There is a ton of misinformation in the environmental movement, and most of it comes directly from the naturalistic fallacy. (That's the belief that anything "natural" is good and anything "unnatural" is bad.)
GMOs are a great example. Once I was looking online for information about a certain processed food ingredient and I came across a website that claimed GMOs were "unstable" as if modified DNA was akin to a radioactive isotope - a piece of total nonsense, clearly invented by someone who knows nothing about the underlying science but thinks it makes sense because the gene editing process is unnatural and therefore it must be bad, right? They also often talk as if genes can migrate out of organisms and across species - they can't, they only pass from parent to offspring. Or as if a single gene taken from a virus that infects plants could somehow be dangerous to humans - again, total nonsense, plant viruses don't infect people and one gene is not a virus even if it came from one.
And this sort of thing is not OK. Gene editing can be used for dubious purposes as well as good ones, but doing things like blocking the adoption of rice that has vitamin A in it because it's "unnatural" just perpetuates avoidable suffering in poor countries and does nothing to help the environment. And GMOs aren't the only area where you see this - overstating the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear waste, and scaremongering about chemicals regardless of how strong the evidence against a given chemical really is, are very much part of the problem too. More discipline and intellectual rigor is needed here, both to keep the environmental movement from discrediting itself and to actually craft good policy that actually protects the environment and our health.
The concept of poetic truth—first developed by Shelby Steele—refers to the fallacy that erases the distinction between fact and narrative. Derived from the concept of poetic license, in which a poet takes liberty with conventional rules of syntax and grammar in order to achieve a more powerful effect, a poetic truth is a rhetorical device that takes liberty with literal truth in order to achieve an effect. Poetic truth offsets the actual facts by imposing a larger essential truth that reinforces our subjective feeling.
> We need a richer understanding of human fallibility
The lack of this is one of the most frustrating aspects of American culture to me.
Is Happy Memorial Day appropriate? Note: I’m sure I’ve said this before as well. But it’s meant to be a somber day of remembrance for those who died while in service.
Happy Veterans Day makes sense. So does Happy 4th or Happy Labor Day.
And while we are talking about misinformation, can we clear up that Memorial Day isn’t for Veterans, even if Veterans have died. By definition a Veteran can s someone who left Active Duty, so therefore excluded from the category of “people who died on Active Duty”
But hell, as a Veteran I will take any discounts and sales at anytime.
On a somewhat related note, it’s cool that Veterans are excluded from work requirements for SNAP, but it would be cooler if we were excluded from income requirements as well. Free Food Stamps for all Veterans.
Personally, I would rather they would exclude military pension from disqualifying you for unemployment insurance.
As for how to fix it I think we need to create incentives that encourage people to take down misinformation on their own side.
Perhaps in academia (and maybe even in opinion journalism), we should have designated devil's advocates whose job it is to argue against whatever claims are being made. That way they can avoid the risk of being seen as shills for the other side while combating the bad info on their side.
Or at alternatively we need some kind of social support for people who combat the misinfo on their own side since right now it's all disincentivized.
As a centrist, I really struggle to not believe that SSDI claims don't affect LFPR. Ive read the linked piece and the evidence just doesn't seem compelling.
I'm sure some of that is cognitive dissonance on my part, but I also can't see how closely SSDI claims and unemployment claims correlate and not believe there's a connection there.
I do not know or read any right adjacent sources, but my impression -- maybe I am wrong -- is that the purveyors of Right misinformation are doing so cynically so only the "public" is misinformed, whereas on the Left it is the purveyors who are genuinely mis-informed. On the right is there not more of a feedback loop?
You didn’t know about the Brown case facts because it wasn’t covered. There was wall to wall coverage of the Jussie Smollett hate crime”; when it came out that he faked it, and a court found him guilty, I watched MSNBC’s entire evening block to see what they’d do. The answer was they ignored it. I used to watch Maddow every night. No more. It started with Fox, but now the MSM - CNN, NPR, NYT, Fox - are all just peddling propaganda and ideological reinforcement. I ended my NYT and WaPo and Atlantic subscriptions; I stopped donating to local NPR because they kept trying to jam “Latinx” down our throats. They all badly mishandled COVID.
Ideologically driven, immune to facts, the media makes us dumb when they should make us informed. It’s why I subscribe here and a couple other Substacks. Nothing else is credible. The fall of the NYT and WaPo are the saddest of all.