True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society Hardcover – Mar 17 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
In 2005, Stephen Colbert catapulted the word truthiness—the quality of an idea feeling true without any backup evidence—into the public consciousness. Salon blogger Manjoo expands upon this concept in his perceptive analysis of the status of truth in the digital age, critiquing a Rashomon-like world in which competing versions of truth vie for our attention. Driven by research and study, the book relies on abstract psychological and sociological concepts, such as selective exposure and peripheral processing, though these are fleshed out with examples from American history, politics and media. For example, Manjoo demonstrates how the Swift Boat Veterans' negative campaign derailed John Kerry's 2004 presidential run. He also points out that the sheer quantity of 9/11 imagery has engendered more conspiracy theories, not fewer—demonstrating, he says, the disjunction between truth and proof. Manjoo rounds out his analysis by examining the workings of partisan news realities, and he points out that the first casualty in these truth wars is a basic human and civic need: trust. Though several of the author's ideas are repetitiously threaded through his narrative, Manjoo has produced an engaging, illustrative look at the dangers of living in an oversaturated media world. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In 2005, Stephen Colbert catapulted the word “truthiness”—the quality of an idea “feeling” true without any backup evidence—into the public consciousness. Salon blogger Manjoo expands upon this concept in his perceptive analysis of the status of truth in the digital age, critiquing a Rashomon-like world in which competing versions of truth vie for our attention. Driven by research and study, the book relies on abstract psychological and sociological concepts, such as “selective exposure” and “peripheral processing,” though these are fleshed out with examples from American history, politics and media. For example, Manjoo demonstrates how the Swift Boat Veterans' negative campaign derailed John Kerry's 2004 presidential run. He also points out that the sheer quantity of 9/11 imagery has engendered more conspiracy theories, not fewer—demonstrating, he says, the disjunction between truth and proof. Manjoo rounds out his analysis by examining the workings of “partisan news realities,” and he points out that the first casualty in these truth wars is a basic human and civic need: trust. Though several of the author's ideas are repetitiously threaded through his narrative, Manjoo has produced an engaging, illustrative look at the dangers of living in an oversaturated media world. (Mar.) (Publishers Weekly, January 28, 2008)See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
The book is not comprehensive and, since the lack of possible counter actions makes the current descent seem inevitable, it is a bit of a downer albeit enlightening. As might be expected of a contributor to Salon, Mr. Manjoo has a leftish perspective but he does a good job of balancing his examples and observations.
The concepts Mr. Manjoo discusses are important and the book is well worth a read.
In a rare departure from the norm the author states clearly (although very late in the book) what he is trying to do:
" In this book I have explored how modern communications technology has shifted our understanding of the truth. I argue that new information tools haven't really given us faster and easier access to the news, but that they have altered our very grasp on reality. The pulsing medium fosters divergent perceptions about what's actually happening in the world -- that is, it lets each of us hold on two different versions of reality. "
He also makes clear the concepts he uses to do this. They are:
"..."selective exposure", in which we indulge information that pleases us and code ourselves among others who think as we do; "selective perception", in which we interpret documentary proof according to our long-held beliefs; "peripheral processing", which produces a swarm of phony experts; and the "hostile media phenomenon", which pushes the news away from objectivity and toward the sort of drivel one sees on cable."
These ideas are carefully illustrated with examples. The effect is to outline some of the reasons why irrationality drives so much public perception and opinion in the United States.
"True Enough" was published in 2008, before the "debate" about health care reform reached its most strident and bizarre levels. Media coverage of the issue, with all the half-truths, misrepresentations, and outright lies would have been a rich source of material to bolster the author's arguments.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
For example, he talks about how the rise of conservative radio and the Internet supported the growth of the Swift Boat campaign, an anti-Kerry campaign based largely on conjecture without proof. Before the Internet and niche media such as conservative radio existed, extremist right-wing ideas would likely have been limited to just a few believers. But with today's media options and the plethora of right-wing radio and Web sites, the Swift Boat campaign was able to gain plenty of supporters nationwide and lots of donations, until the campaign was able to run anti-John Kerry ads during the 2004 election, which many think significantly damaged Kerry's campaign.
Some of the other, quite diverse, topics covered in the book include news stories that are actually paid ads (which I found fascinating), the rise of 9/11 conspiracy theories, and why Apple enthusiasts aren't able to stomach criticism about their beloved products. But what I really liked about this book was how he discusses the psychological and sociological underpinnings about why we believe what we believe, and how we unwittingly pick and choose our own media sources often to confirm our pre-held beliefs. He unearths study after study that explains how our biases unconsciously play into how we interpret the truth in politics, news, and even football games.
Manjoo has a straightforward and clear writing style, making political details, as well as the complexities of social science research, easy to understand. I came away from this book realizing that in a world where news is often designed for the viewer, and where we are often unaware of how or why we choose to believe what we believe, the truth can indeed be a slippery thing.
Farhad Manjoo's book both describes this phenomenon and attempts to get beneath its surface. He cites examples from both sides of the aisle -- the attack of "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" on Senator John Kerry's Vietnam heroism as well as the claim of certain Democrats that George W. Bush had stolen the 2004 election in Ohio and Florida. Manjoo exposes the personal vendettas (Swift Boaters) and the mistaken calculations (Dems) that started the ball rolling. He then shows the steps by which the groups attracted public's attention, twisting facts into alternate realities that finally made their way into the partisan echo chambers where their tiny, tinny voices boomed loud and strong. Manjoo also introduces the reader to the psycho-perceptual processes by which human beings in a information-drenched world make decisions. In line with other recent books (such as "Kluge" by Gary Marcus) Manjoo unveils the heuristics, the shortcuts, through which humans beings evaluate reality. Too busy to research car brands? Let a consumer magazine (or your favorite local TV anchor; or your intimidating brother in law) make the decision for you. A fascinating study showed foreign students outperforming US students on questions about the relative sizes of American cities. But this was not because they the foreigners knew *more* about America than the hapless Yanks; it was because they knew *less* -- the foreigners heuristically reasoning that cities they had heard of must be bigger than cities they had not.
"True Enough" is filled with this sort of fascinating and illuminating detail. Political partisans probably ought to know that Farhad's results favor the left side of the aisle. Republicans, he shows, are more likely than Democrats to limit their media intake to sources they already agree with, a phenomenon called selective exposure. And Reps are more likely to see a story as interesting (even when not related to politics!) when branded with a logo of their favorite conservative media outlet. But both sides are as eager to give credence to experts whose credentials sounds impressive (another heuristic shortcut) even when they don't relate to the matter under study. Depending on your position, these results will either seem legitimate or biased. They rang true to me -- "ringing true" being another heuristic, by the way, that predisposes us to accept as factual things we already accept as true. His description of the popular sitcom "All in the Family" was an example of selective perception -- liberals loved seeing Archie shown up as a bigot; conservatives loved hearing him spout politically incorrect epithets and viewpoints.
For those who are open-minded enough to accept that the human mind is limited and error-prone, "True Enough" is fun and enlightening. For those interested in politics, it is also a cautionary tale about genesis and stability of human biases. A must-read for those who want to better understand their own minds and those of their fellow voters.
Manjoo tells the story of the 'Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,' who created an almost entirely fictional story of John Kerry's service in Vietnam to discredit his record as a war hero, because they were deeply offended by his declaration of opposition to the war before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after he returned from Vietnam. The SBV version was first presented publicly on numerous radio talk programs, with conservative hosts and audiences, to whom that version was truthy because they already held a low opinion of Democrats in general and a high opinion of George W. Bush. It felt right to them, and they accepted it as true, an opinion many hold to this day, despite conclusive evidence that Kerry did, in fact, genuinely earn his medals, and was truly a war hero.
This accords well with the observation of cognitive scientists that when the facts don't fit a person's frame, the frame stays and the facts are ignored or denied. (see Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think, by George Lakoff.)
Manjoo tells about a study by Stanford professor Shanto Iyengar and Richard Morin of the Washington Post, in which they obtained a list of headlines in six categories: politics, Iraq war, race, travel, crime, and sports, and randomly placed beside each headline one of four logos: BBC, CNN, Fox, and NPR. Democrats somewhat preferred CNN and NPR, and Republicans very strongly preferred Fox. The Fox logo tripled the interest of Republicans in stories about politics and Iraq, and even increased Republicans' interest and decreased Democrats' interest in headlines about travel and sports. Professor Iyengar says that people "have generalized their preference for politically consonant news to nonpolitical domains."
But why was the Republicans' bias so much stronger than the Democrats' bias? Democrats might be tempted to explain it as evidence that Democrats are smarter, but that explanation is questionable at best. I think the correct explanation lies in the correlation between two dimensions of personality characteristics: Progressive vs. Conservative and Liberal vs. Dogmatic. Liberals tend to be progressive, so much so that the political spectrum is often cited as Liberal vs. Conservative, which is not correct. There are dogmatic progressives and liberal conservatives, but they are relatively rare. Dogmatics especially tend to be hostile to opinions that differ from their own, and they tend to be conservative, whereas liberals by definition are willing to consider opinions other than their own, and they tend to be progressive.
Manjoo contends that on many subjects, (not just the obvious one of religion, with its many 'only true churches,' etc.) different groups of people hold to different, and incompossible, versions of reality. Republicans and Democrats may legitimately disagree about what should be done about a situation, but when the facts are known, it is not legitimate to disagree about what the situation is. But consider the study by Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach, in which 237 students were asked what they thought about people who were different from them and what they thought was going on in the TV show ALL IN THE FAMILY.
"The majority of those surveyed found ALL IN THE FAMILY hilarious. But bigots and nonbigots harbored vastly different ideas about what was happening on the show. It was a classic case of selective perception. When asked who seemed to win most of the arguments--was it Archie [the bigot] or his hippie [non-bigoted] son-in-law, Mike?--the bigots thought it was Archie. Those who weren't bigoted thought it was Mike."
Chapter 4 has forced me to change my opinion about what happened in the 2004 election in Ohio. If the Republicans stole Ohio by vote-tampering, they did it cleverly enough that the experts couldn't detect it, albeit several amateurs thought THEY could and did. Beyond doubt, there was skulduggery going on, probably at least some on both sides, but there is not sufficient evidence to support a definite conclusion that it changed the result.
Chapter 6 discusses deceptive advertising practices. One such is video news releases, or VNRs, which are clips of "marketing propaganda produced in the language and style of real news." Dozens of VNRs are sent out each week to TV stations in the often-realized hope that they will be used on a local news program, usually without the public being told that they are being shown a commercial in disguise.
Another deceptive practice is the creation of a fake grass-roots organization (Astroturf organization), such as GGOOB, the Get Government Off Our Backs Project, which "attracted an impressive array of member groups" including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Traditional Values Coalition, the NRA, Americans for Tax Reform, and many others. GGOOB claimed to have been created "at the 'grassroots' by 'business groups, civic groups, and other organizations'" but it was really created by R.J. Reynolds' PR company, MBD, to fight against new regulations on the cigarette industry.
I may have two small complaints, which may have been corrected in the final published version:
(1) An index is needed.
(2) While many of the footnotes are where they belong, others are gathered at the end of the book where the index should be.
You need to read TRUE ENOUGH to know what you are up against; how lies are transformed into common (but false) knowledge. IT SHOULD BE IN EVERY SCHOOL LIBRARY. IT SHOULD BE READ AND DISCUSSED IN CLASS IN EVERY HIGH SCHOOL.
Manjoo's prose is lucid and fluent in the languages of science, psychology, and politics. Rejecting the cowardice of a "well, you have your opinion, and I have the right to mine" approach (or non-approach) often used to defer the pursuit of serious inquiry, Manjoo states repeatedly that the purpose of inquiry is to arrive at the best answer achievable, an approach that necessarily excludes the weaker of competing theories. Evolution by natural selection AND intelligent design can't both be right; careful examination of the facts should elevate one explanation over the other. Careful examination of the facts, and a subsequent calm and collected judgment regarding a solution to the problem at hand, how hard can that be? Very, very hard, it becomes clear as the reader turns the pages of True Enough.
Why so hard to get at the truth? The road from collecting data to coming to an accurate conclusion, Manjoo's carefully researched book points out, is serpentine and filled with many truth-swallowing potholes. First, and paradoxically, access to reliable and vetted information in the age of Google and the internet is much harder to come by now than it was a few decades ago. If a website has a title that starts with "The Truth About...", it is an almost pathonomognic indicator that a double-click will yield you entry into looneytune territory. Click on The Truth about 9/11, the Truth about the Kennedy Assassination, The Truth about Vaccines, or Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and then stand back as the spew of creative non-thinking gushes out like pus from a lanced boil, in giga-pixel glory.
But what if we ARE able to get our hands on accurate information, are we home free? Not even close, says Manjoo. In a fascinating exploration of the way the human brain processes information, the psychological mechanisms that we use to reinforce our chosen beliefs and deny access to threatening information, and the sociological phenomena that mold our perceptions of the world in which we live, Manjoo clearly illustrates just how rocky and arduous the road to quality truth-seeking is. True Enough, however, is neither rocky nor arduous: it is both fascinating and a wonderfully enjoyable read. Nor is it pessimistic, Manjoo's enthusiasm for the pursuit of accuracy and truth is infectious.
True Enough is jam-packed with absorbing and sometimes astounding examples of our human willingness to distort or avoid the truth, with compelling analyses of the conspiracy theories that surround 9/11, the Kennedy assassination, and the mistaken left-wing theory that the 2004 election was stolen from John Kerry in Ohio.
Most disturbing to me is something not explicitly stated by Manjoo, though his book makes the conclusion unavoidable: there is a fundamental divide between those who search for the truth, and those who PROCLAIM the truth. Those who proclaim the truth work backwards: they choose a truth, then deliberately and skillfully suborn the facts to fit. Thus did the cigarette companies roll on for half a century after it became clear that their product was a killer, thus have the opponents to health care reform and the efforts to develop a rational approach to global warming proceeded.
Far from an ideological or partisan screed, True Enough is a clarion call to all persuasions and to all reaches of the political spectrum to reject what has become known as "truthiness" and to replace it with an ardent search for carefully established truths.
Manjoo's integrity and impartiality give his book an uncommon dignity and gravity. The book is absent of ridicule and condescension, which is the way a book about the search for truth is best written.
However, the final chapter bothered me. The author seemed to veer off into a separate story that might be titled "what the bad guys are doing to deceive you." Maybe I am an example of the selective perception which he describes in earlier chapters, or maybe, as a career marketing person, I am defensive about derisive criticism of legal attempts to influence people. Or, maybe Mr. Manjoo needed to fill more pages, or maybe he is an example of the same partial revelation that he attributes to Swift Boat Veterans, Princeton/Dartmouth football fans, Robert Kennedy, tobacco executives, and Lou Dobbs. I wonder what Mr. Manjoo thinks of promoting book sales.
Some people, particularly (as Mr. Manjoo would agree) those who already believe that evil forces are out to dupe them, may like the last chapter best. I did not. It caused me to reduce the book's rating to a low 4 stars. I almost dropped it to 3, but I appreciate the author's somewhat iconoclastic argument that the Internet and cable choices are dividing us, not making us wiser, and that we are not as rational as we think we are.
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