The Biggest Threat to Democracy

If you had asked my what the largest issue facing humanity was a few years ago I would have said climate change. I don’t think this is true anymore. This isn’t because climate change has diminished in importance, it hasn’t; it’s because our inability to act on climate change is a symptom of a much larger issue.

This is the same issue that allowed someone like Trump to become the president of the USA, and after 4 years of a disastrous presidency still have a 40% approval rating. It is the same issue that has allowed the absolutely absurd conspiracy theory of QAnon to enter mainstream discourse.

The biggest issue facing humanity (or at least Western Democracies) is our growing inability to distinguish fact from fiction, between information and misinformation.

As with most things, if Carl Sagan said it, he said it best:

There are two kinds of dangers, one is that we have arranged a society based on science and technology in which nobody understands anything about science and technology and this combustible mixture of ignorance and power sooner or later is going to blow up in our faces. Who is running the science and technology, in a democracy, if the people don’t know anything about it?

And the second reason that I am worried about this is that science is more than a body of knowledge, it is a way of thinking, a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.

If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we are up for grabs to the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along.

It is a thing Jefferson lay great stress on. It wasn’t enough to enshrine some rights in a constitution or a bill rights, the people had to be educated, they had to practise they skepticism and their education, otherwise we don’t run the government, the government runs us.

Or as Issac Asimov said:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’

If we don’t re-develop our critical thinking skills, our ability to tell fact from fiction, information from misinformation then we will be unable to to solve the major problems facing human civilization. Thousands have died needlessly from COVID19, and if trust in a vaccine is low and people choose not to be vaccinated even an effective vaccine might not stop the pandemic.

We will see continued inaction on climate change, ensuring millions of people suffer and die as the planet continues to warm.

Partisan politics will continue to get more polarized as politicians realize that there is no consequences to spreading miss-information of their opponents until we reach an ugly breaking point.

How did we get here? There are many factors, and no “side” is blameless, but we need to be careful with false equivalencies. One “side” bears most of the blame for the current state of affairs. As mentioned in the video clip from Carl Sagan above, in 1995 the Republicans, dismantled the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, whose role was to provide Congressional members and committees with objective and authoritative analysis of the complex scientific and technical issues. This is exactly the kind of expertise we desperately need today.

The truth is that there has been at decades long campaign to discredit relevant expertise. Right wing parties (at least in North America, I am less familiar with Europe) have had a troubled relationship with science, and this troubled relationship has been aiding and abetted by the right wing (mostly Murdoch) media. Fox News is the most prominent entity here but it is hardly alone. From pollution, to evolution, to climate change, to COVID19 (and many more), there has been a carefully orchestrated campaign to sow doubt amongst the public. To confuse and muddy the waters, and ultimately to erode trust in expertise.

Then came social media, and the ability for anyone to spread any baseless conspiracy theory they wanted. Combined with our atrophied critical thinking skills and there was little hope to prevent the avalanche of misinformation. The problem has become so dire that even outlets like Fox News, who worked hard to discredit expertise, now risk being ignored and sidelined if they try to walk back the damage they have done. Fox News used to be a driver of misinformation, they are now a passenger along for the ride; not in control of the destination.

This all became abundantly clear during the COVID19 pandemic, but the problem is not new.

So what can we do about this?

There are no quick solutions. Our collective ability to think critically is diminished. Expertise is no longer trusted. The voices of reason are drowned out by charlatans and snake oil salesmen.

A focus on critical thinking, or skeptically interrogating the universe, as Sagan said, in the education system is urgently needed as part of the school curriculum. But even if this were well implemented today, it would take a generation for students to go through the school system and learn. I am not sure we can wait that long.

Certainly social media platforms can do more to to slow/stop the spread of misinformation while boosting the spread of information, but this isn’t a silver bullet. Determining truth is difficult, and often requires significant domain expertise. The sheer amount of content posted every second makes this a daunting and perhaps impossible challenge.

Ideally group leaders (politicians, religious leaders, pillars of the community) need to stand up and fight misinformation from within their communities. Imagine an alternate-universe where Trump worked hard to get his supporters to wear masks… No I can’t imagine that either. But maybe other Republicans, and prominent conservative voices could start making a dent in misinformation and start promoting real expertise.

Ultimately until there are real consequences for the willful spread of misinformation I expect it will continue to flourish online.

I am not confident that any of these solutions will solve the problem, but I also don’t have anything better to recommend.

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