This morning I am half-tickled, half-appalled about the New York Times’ article, Don’t Go Down the Rabbit Hole: Critical thinking, as we’re taught to do it, isn’t helping in the fight against misinformation. I mean, I just got done commenting on this problem, directly and peripherally, in a couple of recent posts, which I will synopsize as:
- Person comes to my zip code to complain about my content
- I say I’m open to hearing their critique and counter-claim
- They say it’s too dangerous for them to spend time learning enough about it to make a counter-claim, but it’s obvious just by xyz white males (or whatever) being interested in the same content that it’s bad and wrong
- I say ok whatever but still gonna need an intelligible counter-claim
- They say there’s no need to counter-claim it’s just obvious based on -isms
- I say idk, dude, -isms come and go but still gonna need a counter-claim
- They flounce off with some type of parting shot — ‘you’re so oppressed you don’t even know it’
This trend had me scratching my head.
LITTLE DID I KNOW, the New York Times would run a feature article about that very thing! It’s much more powerful to refuse to know about something than to risk knowing about it. “Even with good intentions, you run the risk of misunderstanding something, because [they] are way better at propaganda than you. You won’t get less racist reading Stormfront critically, but you might be overloaded by information and overwhelmed.”
The article’s hero, Michael Caulfield, recommends a four step approach called SIFT, in order to strategically know less in the age of the internet:
- Investigate the source.
- Find better coverage.
- Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context.
At this point, I was willing to give the article the benefit of the doubt? I liked Step 4, for sure — I just sat through four years of watching the MSM take everything Trump said and did out of context, culminating in an unconstitutional 2nd impeachment trial advancing actually doctored evidence. I think tracing things to their original context is always the right move.
But I guess Caulfield meant this, like, a different way? Because the article goes on to offer this example — and keep in mind this SIFT method is being adopted at universities and high schools, ie hubs for indoctrination:
An instagram post by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., alleging a link between the HPV vaccine and cancer. Concerning, right? This is where you STOP. Your time is precious, and everyone on the internet is competing for your time (except me — I appreciate my readers but I just really love to write, regardless). Under no circumstances should you “go down the rabbit hole” of data potentially connecting HPV vaccines to cancer. Instead, step 2: investigate the source.
So, Caulfield says, you can simply pop Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s name into Google — the tech giant that’s been sued by the Justice Department on charges of multiple violations of anti-trust laws, known for its blatant ideological bias, who leaked internal documents admitting it influenced the 2016 election by millions of votes, and again in 2020 — you know, that Google — and voila, the top hits plus Wikipedia all identify Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as a conspiracy theorist.
It’s just that easy! “Is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. the best, unbiased source on information about a vaccine? I’d argue no. And that’s good enough to know we should probably just move on,” Caulfield concludes with a wink and a flourish of his elegant cloak.
They should have called the article “How To Sheep Real Good.” Or, “Learning to Sheep.” Or, “Lions to Lambs, in Four Easy Steps.” Oh — so many good alternative titles.
So, like I said — I’m part tickled, part appalled. I’m appalled because it’s appalling, but I’m tickled because the exact crazy thing I’ve been experiencing on a liberal vs me inter-personal level has now been adopted as the actual SOP by the dog whistle of the progressive Left (have you noticed no one says that? It’s only a “dog whistle” when it leans right. Hmmm….I should probably STOP, back away from that insight, shoot it dead, put it in my trunk, drive it to the lake in the middle of the night, sink the car, never think about it again).
I’m going to propose something better: it’s called basic ass rhetorical analysis, with an eye for logical fallacy. Let’s rhetorically analyze this very NYT article, in fact.
The main idea with rhetorical analysis is that everything you encounter is intended to be persuasive, or at least that assumption should be your going-in position. We’re more aware of this with op-eds and essays; we’re much less aware of it, and therefore dramatically more vulnerable, with ScIeNcE! Leather-bound books and smells of rich mahogany. Things containing data, graphs, articles with very dry language, etc. Science is our new religion and so we enter this, like, blissful altered state when we encounter things that seem science-y, as if a priest has emerged from the screen and is anointing us with oil and herbs, swinging his incense censer hypnotically left and right, preparing us to receive the holy sacrament of whatever the fuck chart they put together.
My economics teacher in freshman year of college, 27 years ago, showed us how the same data could be used to substantiate two radically different, but both accurate, charts, depending on whether the intent was to emphasize or de-emphasize growth, and ever since then I knew: I better put on my fucking thinking cap when it’s chart time, y’all.
So back to the first point: everything is intended to persuade. On the the second point: who is this entity and what do they stand to gain from persuading me towards, or away from, holding any particular perspective?
Well, in the case of the New York Times, we know they simply want the best for us. They love us, they hate to see us go astray, they know that misinformation and disinformation will hurt our little peanut brains and make us less popular at dinner parties, so they’re just trying to help. That’s all. It was an honest mistake when they tried to pass off footage from Italian hospitals as NYC hospitals for Coronavirus fear porn and got caught for it, twice.
Hm, let’s see…the article used the word “conspiracy” or “conspiracy theorist” four times, plus a smattering of words like “white supremacist rhetoric”, “pseudoscience,” plus a healthy helping of the terms “misinformation” and “disinformation”. These terms alone should alert you to the fact that you’re swimming in waters with a high concentration of rhetoric for rhetoric’s sake.
How do we differentiate information from disinformation? Theories from conspiracy theories? According to the New York Times, we don’t. Instead, we STOP; then we use the same internet sources that de-platform and censor dissenting voices as fast as they arise, by the thousands and tens-of-thousands, to confirm that someone, somewhere, at some time, labelled that perspective “conspiracy theorist”, “white nationalist”, or “debunked”, and if so, steer clear of the whole deal.
So, is the HPV vaccine linked to cancer? I don’t know, and I can’t afford to know, because that’s one of those rabbit holes the New York Times warned me not to go down, for my own good. And I know it’s for my own good because that’s what they told me, and there’s no need to confirm it for myself because confirming it for myself is exactly what the online predators want me to do, and not confirming it for myself is what the New York Times wants me to do, and who are you gonna believe — the New York Times, or the people the New York Times tells you are conspiracy theory peddlers, saying things that the New York Times has specifically advised I do not, under any circumstances, look into?
The choice is obvious.
I told you to keep an eye out for logical fallacy. Did you notice, like…all of them, here? It’s kind of a billboard mashup of logical fallacies. Straw Man, Bandwagon, Appeal to Authority, False Dilemma, Hasty Generalization, Texas Sharpshooter, Reverse Cowgirl, Wheelbarrow, the San Francisco Birdfeeder…okay wait, my bad. Those last few were sex acts. But you see my point.
Why would this organization of dubious repute, who even whitewashed Wikipedia can confirm has logged numerous oopsies in its left-leaning history, attempt to persuade me in this direction, though? I mean, what do they stand to gain from it?
The only answer I can think of, besides ‘for my own good’ which isn’t the right answer to anything except something your mom tells you and probably not even then, is for this organization to pathologize engagement with information it can’t control, and to frighten people away from their natural intellectual inclination towards pattern recognition and curiosity.
I mean, it would be pretty crazy, right, if the question wasn’t so much answerable on the scope of this one entity, the NYT, or that one entity, Fox News, or any one entity, but instead was, like…an affiliation of entities all covering for each other. Wouldn’t I be happier not knowing that?
Apparently not, because the libs are the least happy people I’ve ever seen in my life, no matter who’s president, and they take their marching orders to purposefully not know things very seriously.
So, this isn’t a step we specifically covered back in the day, when I used to teach rhetorical analysis at NAU, but it’s one that I recommend: who are y’all in bed with?
So, we only know the left and right margins of the meta-narrative, ie the perspective being advanced by not one but multiple cooperating fronts, by observing when and how it gets disrupted, which is exactly what the NYT is advising we don’t investigate, and meanwhile Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple, Robinhood and others are deplatforming as fast as they can. I mean, it’s like time to make the doughnuts every minute, with these ideological censors.
I’ve been continually surprised that the people on the “correct” side of all this — those not being deplatformed and censored and vilified — haven’t had more of an impulse to say, “Hey, I think those ideas are wrong and those people are crazy, but this is a free country and it’s not right to censor free speech, even on the basis of it being ‘misinformation’ because obviously that same tactic could be used against any group or perspective, theoretically. That seems like a Pandora’s box that should probably stay closed, no matter how annoyed I personally am.” Right?
Like, I’ve referenced this guy before, but it’s worth revisiting — I met a dude at my job years ago who absolutely hated the idea of gay sex, gay stuff, the gay lifestyle, said it was ‘disgusting’, all that, but said he’d die for people’s right to live their gay life because that’s what freedom is, and that’s what our country is founded on. Where are all the people like him? Cricket fucking cricket.
If you’re like me, and you went all the way through school and college learning nothing about communistic takeovers except that it became this silly witch hunt for the US during the McCarthy years, and meanwhile look over here!, the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell!, then all of this lockstep censorship plus the NYT’s special bonus advice to not look into any idea identified as a red flag by the lockstep censors, just seems like, ‘huh’.
‘Huh, that’s weird.’ Communistic takeovers, a thing our educations breezily glossed over, are definitely things that used to happen in countries we don’t care about, to people who were probably like sub-humans that wore kerchiefs on their heads and lived on beets or whatever, and this can’t possibly be a communistic takeover here, because we’re too smart! In fact, the article talked about the dangerous intellectual flattery these conspiracy theorist online predators will use — arguing that you are, in fact, smart enough and awake enough and aware enough to withstand the trials and tribulations of the rabbit hole. No you aren’t! The NYT said so.
As tempting as it is, to turn to these peddlers of disinformation and intellectual flattery, I’m definitely feeling more attracted to the New York Times’ paternal assurance of how dumb, vulnerable, and easily led astray I am; toats.
Maybe the biggest and best advice I have is to put a name on it. Frame the terms of the argument, even if the source you’re reading hasn’t and even possibly would prefer you not, as is the case here (I’ll come back to that). This was maybe the hardest thing to get freshman English 105 students to do.
They’d be like, “I’m arguing against abortion.” Okay (freshman still do that and seniors don’t, I noticed); but, like: abortion versus adoption? Abortion versus other forms of birth control? Full term abortion versus abortion in the first eight weeks? Abortion in the First World versus the carbon footprint of additional babies in the First World, which is much different from the carbon footprint of babies in the Developing World? You’re arguing against abortion in what context, exactly?
Frame the debate so you know what your argument needs to include and what it doesn’t need to include, because this bitch is only supposed to be six pages long double-spaced, max, and I ain’t readin’ more than that on my weekend.
Now, since we’re analyzing an argument that’s already been made by the New York Times, I think anyone with any situational awareness at all would agree, the NYT seems to be talking about Q and Qanon specifically, but they’re careful not to actually say that, you’ll notice. There’s just reference to, you know, like full length documentaries full of debunked info, just enough of a grain of truth to keep you hooked, the very real danger of you being ‘overloaded by information and overwhelmed’, which is of course no threat at all if you simply stick to NYT articles like you should. ‘Going down the rabbit hole’ is a term that’s been widely applied to the decision to be receptive to consuming some degree of Q-curious content, and this phrasing has been used many times by parties both for and against. Interestingly, the phrase ‘follow the white rabbit’ is reminiscent of The Matrix but also is common in Q circles — the adrenochrome molecule, turned 90 degrees, resembles a rabbit.
What is adrenochrome, you may ask? It’s that rabbit hole you’re not supposed to go down. But if you do, make sure you use DuckDuckGo and not Google.
Some of my favorite accounts on the internet…well, have been banned or shadow banned, in all honestly, but anyway, some of my favorite accounts are ones that just post lists of things for me to research, if I want to. Just that. It’s like: here’s a starting point for some things you might want to know about, and make up your own mind about, using whatever synthesis of sources, search engines, and perspectives you choose.
This article by the New York Times might have been more effective if they’d simply posted a list of things for me not to research. Because that’s basically the point they’re driving at.
I guess what I’m saying, at the end of all this half-appalled, half-tickled exposition, is: choose your weapon. There is certainly risk in deep engagement, speculation, engagement with counter-narrative ideas. You might be wrong. I might be wrong. But if I’d followed Mr. Caulfield’s advice at different points in history, what might have happened? Let’s see…I definitely wouldn’t have bought any Bitcoin for myself, back when it was worth three thousand dollars and all the financial experts said it was a bubble. Just woke up to a new all-time-high today (yawn) of $57k. I also wouldn’t have felt there was any basis to support women’s rights or the emancipation of slaves. Those ideas were very unpopular in their time. I think what Caulfield is trying to say is, we need to remember that thinking is not so much critical engagement with facts?, as it is, like…an idea popularity contest, that we can’t afford to lose, because it’s more important to be popular and happy than to trust our own intellectual footing.
So thanks, New York Times, and no offense, but you might consider having literally even a shred of journalistic integrity. I can already tell your article will not age well, and it’s only been like 24 hours.