About ‘Disinformation’

Those critical of Communism often highlight how it’s underpinned by Envy; But I think supporting Communism is first and foremost a result of the Sin of Pride: there’s immense hubris in believing one can design a centralised economic system that beats evolutionary forces. In “The Road to Serfdom” F.A. Hayek contends that government control of economic decision-making, even with good intentions, inevitably leads to totalitarianism. Hayek was a visionary: a lot of intellectuals persisted in their love for Communism even after the horrors of the Soviet Regime became apparent.

While at the moment outright advocacy for Communism may not be widespread among intellectuals, there remains a latent affinity for top-down control – a kind of ember of ideology that, though subdued, is still smouldering, waiting for the right conditions to reignite. Often, the catalyst for such a resurgence is the perception of a looming threat (that might very well be a justified worry in itself), such as the recent concern over misinformation. The same pride that made intellectuals believe in centralised control over the economy now leads them to often support a form of epistemic control to fight off misinformation.  (emphasis added)

The above is from Ruxandra Teslo’s substack post The Road to (Mental) Serfdom.  It is very well done–read the whole thing.

There is no human or set of humans qualified to act as ultimate judges of what is true.  Sometimes, even the most well-meaning and brilliant individuals get it wrong: see for example the case of Vannevar Bush and ballistic missiles.  Bush, who was FDR’s science advisor during WWII, was an unquestionably brilliant and creative man who, along with his many other contributions,  invented the mechanical analog computer and envisaged the concept of hypertext, long before the Internet and the World Wide Web.  Yet, regarding the prospect of intercontinental ballistic missiles, he wrote in 1945:

The people who have been writing these things that annoy me have been talking about a 3,000-mile, high-angle rocket, shot from one continent to another, carrying an atomic bomb, and so directed as to be a precise weapon, which would land exactly on a certain target, such as a city. I say, technically I don’t think anybody in the world knows how to do such a thing, and I feel confident it will not be done for a very long period of time to come. I wish the American public would leave that out of their thinking.

If Dr Bush had had complete control over American defense and aerospace research, it is likely that the US would have been much later in ICBM deployment than it in fact was.  We cannot know what the consequences of such lateness would have been, but it’s safe to say that they would not have been good.

The people and entities who demand to be the gatekeepers of truth are not generally anywhere as intelligent and accomplished as was Dr Bush.  And their track record does not inspire confidence.  Yesterday marked the 120th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Only 9 weeks previous to that flight, the New York Times mocked the idea of heavier-than-air flight.  In 1920, Robert Goddard’s rocket experiments were dismissed by that newspaper in an almost unbelievably arrogant manner.   And just recently, the NYT published a highly misleading headline about what had happened to a hospital in Gaza.  Any information-management regime is likely to be run by the kind of people who run the NYT…or worse.  Consequences of forcing information conformity can be very severe, as I discussed in my post Starvation and Centralization.

From Ruxandra’s post: “Just like a free market allows disparate individuals and companies to try and fail and then maybe succeed at creating a product, freedom of thought leads to institutions and opinion makers trying to get at the truth. It’s from this constant hum-drum of people trying their best, that something resembling Truth emerges, and never from top-down control or blind application of some rule.”

This point was once better-understood in the United States than it is today, I believe: even people who were not big fans of the economic free market were often fans of the intellectual free market.  But the whole idea of discussion and debate…even of the adversary system in the courtroom…is  now rejected by a disturbing numbers of people.

In a rather meta way, the idea that there are no safe judges of ‘disinformation’ is apparently itself considered misinformation by some people  If you click the link to Ruxandra’s post on her X/Twitter feed, you get a message Warning: This Link May Be Unsafe.  The likelihood is high, I think, that the message is there because somebody or some set of somebodies filed false reports about the link being harmful.

Drucker’s Prescience

Peter Drucker, in his 1969 book The Age of Discontinuity, discusses the increasing role of knowledge in modern societies and suggests:

As a result, it is quite possible that the great new ‘isms’ of tomorrow will be ideologies about knowledge. In tomorrow’s intellectual and political philosophies knowledge may well take the central place that property, i.e. things, occupied in capitalism and Marxism.

This must have seemed like a rather strange idea to most readers in 1969…the great new ‘isms’, and therefore the great political and cultural fault-lines, were going to be about knowledge?  Surely, debate about the nature of knowledge must have seemed like something more appropriate for a university philosophy course in epistemology than a likely major subject for the political and media stage.

But, isn’t this precisely what we are seeing now, with all of the assertions and arguments about ‘disinformation’, the assertions about ‘science says’ and resultant reactions and critiques, the revelations about social media bias, and the concerns about potential artificial-intelligence bias?  These are all arguments about what constitutes a valid, useful, and true source of information.

The whole idea that it should be possible to present and hear arguments for both sides of an issue…which is the entire basis of our political system and our justice system–is under attack. People argue that they are in danger if they are exposed to a view different from their own.  There seems to be a longing for a single, unquestioned source of truth.

Or maybe the whole idea of ‘truth’ is obsolete in many minds.  Things have reached the point at which there is actually a need to defend the possibility of objective knowledge existing at all.   Maybe one reason for the decreasing interest in the pursuit of objective truth is that most people today are much more insulated from the struggle for survival, and instead of worrying what truths reflect they way the world works–‘how can I keep my hut warm in the depths of winter?’–they worry about what truth-claims reflect the social world which they must navigate and will advance their position in this social world.  This is the view of the courtier, rather than that of the merchant, the peasant, or the warrior.

I’ve previously quoted something a wise executive said to me, many years ago:

When you’re running a large organization, you aren’t seeing reality.  It’s like you’re watching a movie where you get to see maybe one out of every thousand frame, and from that, you have to figure out what is going on.

If this is true of the person running a large organization, it is even more true of the individual in a democracy, both in his incarnation as a citizen and voter and his incarnation as an individual decision-maker in matters concerning his own life and that of his family.  He cannot possibly directly observe all of the factors bearing on, say, the border situation or the war in Ukraine or the Covid vaccines or the stability of the Social Security system, hence, those who control what frames are presented to him–and in what sequence–have tremendous influence.

Those who seek power and/or cling to power generally seek to control what is viewed as truth.  Someone at Twitter just remarked:

Fun fact: soviet psychiatry version of DSM 5 had a condition “truthseeking” (правдаискательство) used to commit dissidents for questioning the legitimacy of the bolshevik regime.

I doubt that Drucker foresaw anything as radical as some of the positions taken in today’s fights over knowledge, but overall, his forecast appears to have been a correct one.

Your thoughts?