Information, Sociability, Reality Check

I’ve been off RSS readers for a while, in part because of Google’s exit from the game, but also because of information overload. Thinking about using it again and revisiting some old stomping grounds in the blogosphere, I found Dan Cohen’s relevant comments on Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know. Seems I am in good company with my occasional ignoring of information—ignoring that I prefer to think won’t lead to, might even prevent, ignorance.

I treat Twitter rather cavalierly too, as if it were a place to hang out, learn stuff, share things, and then leave—sometimes for longer spells. If I view all these information inputs in social terms, this is a perfectly rational way to engage with the Twittersphere. If I worried about missing some bit of news, some fascinating article or weird event, I would never get anything done and my mind would become a still murkier mess. Besides, meaningful ideas and conversations tend to have longer lifespans, and they make themselves felt in other contexts.

Dan’s piece, indeed his whole blog, reminds me of another thing. Much ostensibly older writing on the web has value, and sometimes we should take a moment to read bits of it instead of gulping down and spewing forth a remixed version of the latest clever insight or rant. (I’m talking about myself here, bigly, uh, big league.)

The History of Knowledge and Contemporary Discourse on Science

The polarizing contemporary debate on science in the United States could be extraordinarily interesting for historians of knowledge, if it were occurring in the past. Still, if we could divert our attention from the news for a moment, we might find it still offers some food for thought.

In the midst of the current conversation, which is experiencing renewed fervor under the new administration, the Twitterverse is exploding with talk of “truthiness,” “alternative facts,” “fact-based journalism,” “fake news,” and “lies.” This rhetoric encompasses not just climate science but also everyday policy-making and “s/he said” – “s/he said” arguments. It is easy to get caught up in this conversation, whose ideological and epistemological battle lines seem so clearly drawn, but one thing gets lost—most of the time, anyway. Continue reading “The History of Knowledge and Contemporary Discourse on Science”

Richard Evans on Trump

How do the early days of the Trump administration look like the Third Reich? Historian Richard Evans [an important historian of Nazi Germany] weighs in”; interview by Isaac Chotiner, Slate, Feb. 10, 2017.

The question might still seem hyperbolic to many, but sober, historically informed analysis along such lines can be informative for understanding both present and past.

What’s Going On?

No really, Laurel Leff wants to know. This isn’t a poltical-rhetorical question but something bigger. What are we to make of the president’s recent nod to Holocaust denial? We need to consider the matter in an open, fearless, and dispassionate way, but how?

For those of us who teach and research the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, the Trump administration’s refusal to mention Jews in a statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day has been both horrifying and confusing.

Read Leff’s whole piece, and if you haven’t read Deborah Lipstadt on why “Holocaust denial” is an appropriate term here, be sure to follow that link in Leff’s piece too.

Assault on Facts and Credibility

All administrations lie, but what we are seeing here is an attack on credibility itself.

The Russian dissident and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov drew upon long familiarity with that process when he tweeted: “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”

Charles J. Sykes, ”Why Nobody Cares the President Is Lying,“ New York Times, February 4, 2017

Correction to ‘Governmental Data Erasure’

I was motivated to write about governmental data erasure yesterday because of an Internet Archive tweet regarding the preservation of USDA documents, whose deletion seemed clearly related to the Trump administration’s erasure efforts in other areas, but I was wrong. My general point about politics and information still stands, but I should have sourced examples of data erasure and rescue more thoroughly. Moreover, in the apparently clearest-cut case of the EPA, there might be a gap between initial Trump administration impulses and present reality. Even that situation is in flux, as the sum of the following examples from generally reliable news sources suggests:

The uncertainty, even chaos of the past two weeks has negative implications for the attitude of many toward the media, even if the chief beneficiary of this confusion, the Trump White House, is also its author. In such circumstances, it is especially important for all of us to be as conscientious as possible when using and propagating information. I will certainly try to do better.