The Age of Information has incredibly impacted our society. We have shortened attention spans, increased sensitivity to tragedy and insult, and, most importantly, an endless supply of ammunition to support our assumptions. Because if I believe all automatic guns should be banned, and I have an army of stats, graphs, articles, and experts to support me, why should I ever consider your stats, graphs, articles, and experts? If you haven’t noticed, politicians seem to carry around a Swiss army knife of facts and statistics. They rattle off percentages like a sword in its sheath, implying it is indisputable and if you deny it you just might end up hurting yourself.
I am not the only one to note this trend. After any debate, important speech, significant event, five or six articles immediately appear, claiming to “fact-check.” Following President Obama’s final State of the Union address, at least ten websites posted articles “fact-checking” his optimistic perspective of the American economy. (Ironically, many of these fact-checkers’ statistics clashed.) As these two sides engage in the battle of the stats, the hard-working American—the one who does not have the time or patience to follow the numbers and uncover their sources—is slowly seduced by the stats that justify his predilection. So instead of forming a solid, compromised middle-ground, the people become polarized simply because the sheer amount of information is unnavigable. Brainwashing becomes not an art of precision, but an art of inundation.
So how do we stop abusing stats and graphs? We need to make the distinction Mark Twain made when he said, “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”
In our obsession with empiricism and statistical evidence, we have equated statistical evidence with truth; or, God forbid, we have subjected the truth to statistical evidence. Although there is a subtle difference between truth and fact, Twain’s words remain an omen to all truth-seekers who put their guard down at the first sight of favorable weather. The biggest challenge we face in the Age of Information is sifting through the noise, the arm-waving, and sometimes the idiocy, to reclaim the primacy of truth. It requires that we not be comfortable with our own biases and presuppositions, supported by the latest BuzzFeed article or Facebook infographic. This process necessitates deliberation, mutual accountability, and collaboration.
The people of the past had a tall task in pursuing truth. With the dawn of the Age of Information, we just might have to climb a little higher and a little faster.
Joshua Cayetano is a Richter Scholar and a student in the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University. He is majoring in political science and history with a focus on Middle Eastern studies. Originally from Pacifica, California, he enjoys traveling to different countries, sitting on the beach with any good book, or playing basketball.