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The persistence of falsehoods

The persistence of falsehoods
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America is often, and normally in a positive sense, described as a nation of believers. In the past few weeks, however, we have witnessed a veritable pageant of unreasoning credulity.   

Thousands stormed the Capitol in the mistaken belief that a vast voter fraud conspiracy stole the November election. By all accounts, millions of Americans believe fraud happened, despite its rejection by the courts and an absence of competent evidence.   

Thousands of QAnon adherents believe that the government is run by a cabal of pedophiles out of a kid-friendly Capitol Hill pizzeria. The QAnon believers among the Jan. 6 rabble sought to reverse the November election and install President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump's Facebook ban to stay in place, board rules Trump allies launching nonprofit focused on voter fraud DOJ asks for outside lawyer to review Giuliani evidence MORE as a messianic supreme leader.    

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Meanwhile, untold numbers of investors have poured billions of dollars into unproven companies, inflating their valuations beyond any economic reality. Tesla, for example, has been so overvalued that its board had an extra $1.5 billion to invest in bitcoin, an imaginary currency backed by … well, by nothing but its investors’ willingness to believe.     

Castles in the air, all of them.   

What are we to make of this widespread willingness to believe unfounded ideas and to act on those beliefs?  

Perhaps the most important thing to realize is that, unfortunately, there is nothing new to this. As one astute commentator has put it, “In reading the history of nations, we find … that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, until their attention is caught by some folly more captivating than the first.”  

Those words of wisdom weren’t written recently about the QAnon, the Trump voter fraud scam, or the wild investor speculation that has unmoored corporate valuations from anything real. They were written almost 200 years ago, in 1841, by British lawyer Charles MacKay in his classic work, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.” It is a must-read today, because it lends perspective to what historian Barbara Tuchman called “the march of folly” in our own time. 

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From time immemorial, it seems, we humans have been afflicted with what MacKay calls “the love of the Marvelous and the disbelief of the True.” Examples abound. “The monks of the inquisition,” according to MacKay, “believed that St. Anthony pulled his nose with a pair of red-hot pincers, and that the relics of the saints worked miracles; yet they would not believe Galileo, when he proved that the Earth turned round the sun.” Johannes Kepler’s proof of the heliocentric solar system met with similar skepticism, but “when he pretended to tell fortunes and cast nativities, the whole town flocked to him, and paid him enormous fees for his falsehood.” When William Harvey demonstrated the circulatory system, “every tongue was let loose against him” by those who believed, among other things, that cysts could be cured by rubbing them with a dead criminal’s hand.   

Most directly pertinent to today, the discovery by Dr. Edward Jenner in the 1800s that vaccination could abate the symptoms of, and perhaps prevent, smallpox, was rejected out of hand as something “none but a cheat and a quack could assert”; far more likely, the argument went, was that the “children would grow hairy and horned as cattle, if they suffered them to be vaccinated.” 

MacKay’s work also treats extensively another form of misplaced belief: the persistence of speculative frenzies and market crashes through history. Believers in bitcoin and Robinhood speculators would do well to read MacKay’s account of the tulip mania that gripped Holland in 1634, in which “the rage among the Dutch to possess them was so great that the ordinary industry of the country was neglected, and the population, even to its lowest dregs, embarked in the tulip trade.”   

Prices soared as demand reached maniacal proportions. By 1636 tulips were traded on the Stock Exchange of Dutch cities, which unleashed pure speculation. “A golden bait hung temptingly out before the people, and … [e]very one imagined that the passion for tulips would last forever …  Nobles, citizens, farmers, mechanics, footmen, maidservants, even chimney-sweeps and old clothes women … converted their property into cash and invested it in flowers.”   

It didn’t last. It couldn’t, because at the end of the day the market was grounded in … well, tulips, a commodity that had little intrinsic value but the shared and credulous belief that the flower was worth coveting.              

There is nothing new to human credulity, in short, and instances of the ruin that follows blind and misplaced beliefs are abundant and as recent as the 2008 stock market crash. But social media represents a new and dangerous accelerant.   

Social scientists studying truth and falsity on social media have made the disturbing discovery that, as Sinan Aral of MIT puts it in “The Hype Machine” (my other candidate for a must-read about our current predicament), “[I]n all categories of information … false news spread  significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth — sometimes by an order of magnitude. … False political news traveled deeper and more broadly, reached more people, and was more viral than any other category of false news.” Social media, in other words, accelerates our historical preference for the marvelous over the true to the frenzy of a crack high. Falsehoods can consume us before we can respond.

What must be done?   

As in the early days of broadcast media, we must recover a sense of the marketplace of ideas as a public trust and develop and empower entities akin to public utilities to monitor false information and call it out. Until that day, as citizens we should take on board the lessons of history and social science and wage a campaign against superstition and falsehood in all of their forms. As history teaches, and the classic Motown song goes, “When you believe in things that you don’t understand, you suffer. Superstition ain’t the way.”  

John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.