True Enough: the science, history and economics of self-deception

Farhad Manjoo's True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society is a breezy-but-engrossing look at the increased polarization of news in the 21st Century. Manjoo convincingly argues that our own capacity for selective perception (show two groups of partisans footage of a political debate and both will swear it was biased for the other side; show the same footage to someone who doesn't care and they won't see bias for either side) combined with the Internet's capacity to network affinity groups and spread fragmented, selective media are a perfect storm, with the truth right in its path.

Manjoo makes a good case. He walks through a number of net-based conspiracy theories on both sides of the political spectrum, speaks with their adherents, the experts who claim it's all bogus, and then to cognitive scientists and other scientists who explain the gigantic gap between what is so obvious to non-partisans and what is blindingly, passionately important to the adherents.

Grounded in history and science, True Enough paints a dismal picture of a species with a limitless capacity for self-deception and selective reasoning. But Manjoo doesn't ascribe the rise of truthiness to fragmented media alone: he calls out PR firms, media outlets and others who have profited from the erosion of the truth.

I'm more-or-less convinced by Manjoo's idea that reality itself has fragmented, that many of us "know" different, mutually exclusive "facts" about the world, but I'm not so sure that this is an outcome of a networked society. For centuries, a large number of people "knew" that Jews used gentile baby-blood in Passover matzoh. They "knew" that phrenology worked. That gypsies stole babies. That the laboring classes lacked the capacity to learn and participate in society. That women had fewer teeth than men.

Our capacity to select the facts that justify our beliefs isn't new, but perhaps it is growing worse. Certainly, the money's better than its ever been. Forewarned is forearmed -- having read True Enough, I feel like I'm more ready to examine my selective perception and cherished illusions. And that's certainly worth the price of admission. True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society


  1. A more positive take is that this selective behavior is becoming more and more exposed as more peoples thoughts and opinions become available to a larger group of people.

    Truthiness and deceptions used to reside in safe incubators of small towns, religious sects and church revivals; in the records and the video tapes of dubious pastors bought by mail; or in the short run publications of New Age gurus, UFO freaks, Illuminoids and Apocalypse junkies.

    Now, it’s getting exposed more than ever.

  2. Thanks for this write-up. I saw “True Enough” at my local bookstore yesterday and was very curious about it. As soon as I finish “The Shock Doctrine” I’ll pick this up. I’m a little behind.

  3. You’re correct that previously, people believed all sorts of wild and wacky things. In the old times, most people were illiterate and thus most information (especially of the kind you’re noting) was repeated from one person to the next: thus, it was transmitted and altered based on bias. However, the modern news media (supposedly) transmits solid verifiable facts, and the surprise (to some) is that *still* people manage to fit that information into their own world-view as they so desire.

    The expectation that the solution to bias was information is being shown to false. The question is, what is the solution to bias? I’m interested in what this book has to say on that subject.

  4. Reminds me of one of the themes in The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in that we have too much confidence in what we “know” and that we fit facts to events to create a narrative that doesn’t fully explore that factors that lead to the event.

    Sounds like good reading.

  5. I really enjoyed this book, but with the way McCain and Palin and campaigning–by simply spouting lies with no fear of being questioned or held accountable for them–I fear that Manjoo’s book is already out of date. It’s not that we perceive different truths anymore. It’s that Americans simply don’t care if something is true or not. The appeal of a lie is more important than the desire to know any truth.

  6. People’s search for truth on the internet is the same as it ever was, but faster. Most people tend to like hearing news that cofirms their worldview: otherwise we’d have hippies reading the Daily Hate and more venture capitalists reading the Gaurdian. Of course, once you’ve found your niche, you’re more easily influenced by those who you perceive to be part of it. Groupthink has always been a big part of how our (sub)cultures work.

    Similarly, people online therefore tend to use news sources and join communities that reinforce their worldviews. The global nature of the net means that the real fringe nutters can all get together an reinforce each others’ viewpoints. By contrast, without the internet they might be forced to only interact with non-[conpiracy theorists / political extremists / etc], who would provide an unconcious reality check and drag them back toward the mainstream.

    The slightly scary thing is that very few people seem to realise this. We get set in our own worldviews and fail to realise that other interpretations and perceptions of events are every bit as (in)valid. This ends up with cries of “liberal conspiracy” or “right-wing bias”, both of which crop up all over the net (and this site) with depressing regularity.

    It’s impossible to avoid this bias, but one can learn to recognise it in oneself and watch out for it.

  7. @#1:

    > Truthiness and deceptions used to reside in safe incubators of small towns, religious sects and church revivals

    Or, just so we don’t limit our examples to red staters and conservatives, we could also add “The New York Times, sophisticated social circles, the right dinner party circuits in Washington DC, San Francisco hipster gatherings, etc.”

    The blogosphere allows not just the dissemination of crazy opinions (on both sides), but also allows attempts to refute crazy opinions (on both sides).

  8. It sounds like a good read, though I wonder if the issue isn’t more about how it has grown increasingly difficult to remain non-partisan on most issues. Or perhaps I’ve been reading too many election coverage articles discussing these “undecided” centrist voters, and I feel baffled trying to imagine who these people are. Things feel (to me) so much more polarized in the US now, and I think that makes it easier for people to ignore the facts and just go with what they have always believed (on both sides).

  9. #3 “You’re correct that previously, people believed all sorts of wild and wacky things. ”

    And people still do, media or no. How else do you explain the claims that the US Government was behind 9/11? It doesn’t matter that all of the “theories” put forth can be debunked by science, the internet tells them that there are other people who agree with them and so, the 9/11 conspiracy folks MUST be right.

  10. The real problem that I see is this:

    No-one knows, or no-one agrees on, a method to determine truth that is automatically acceptable to all parties.

    Which is a diplomatic way of saying that, in a debate, if one of the participants has

    no shame

    no guilt

    no social repercussions and

    no insight

    then they will never admit that the argument they have put forward is inferior, and never admit the opposing argument is better.

    The only real way that I know of to address this is to educate the audience as to the manner of how to determine fallacies, how to determine whether something is PR / Spin / Bullshit, how to determine someone’s ulterior or hidden motive.

    Also, opposing sides are afraid to concede on /any/ point, because many people see it as an all-or-nothing competition – the Creationists /defined/ their argument as all-or-nothing, the American Presidential campaign is all-or-nothing, the Christian Dominionists have defined their movement as all-or-nothing.

    When the opponent truly is an opponent and not merely someone with a different insight, compromise becomes impossible.

  11. Well, come on. Both sides KNW FR FCT that the other side consists entirely of LYNG scumbags who’ll say anything to win the day, so why should you trust anything THY say? Why trust any evidence that comes from a lying scumbag?

    In my case, I suppose I’m a bit centrist in that I KNW FR FCT that both sides are lying scumbags, with the occasional deluded scumbag mixed in. bm hs ld (r t lst bn svrly msnfrmd nd nt pyng ttntn t wht h ws dng, whch s prbbly wrs trt fr ftr Cmmndr-n-Chf, sn’t t). Pln hs ld. McCn hs ld. bm’s VP hs prbbly ld, bt h’s nt ntrstng ngh fr m t knw r cr wh h s.

    nd Pln hs bn ld bt, by ppl wh blv th ls nd by ppl wh dn’t. Dtt McCn. Dbl Dtt fr bm Bn Hssn. Thy’v bn ld bt by slctv dtng ( jk prclmd s fct), n gd fth nd n bd fth… nd thy’v clld ppl lrs fr tllng wht sms dmnstrbly t b th trth.

    … but at the end of the day, what we end up with are two groups of people who KNOW the other side to be liars, and who thus have no reason to believe evidence coming from the other side, and every reason to believe evidence that calls them liars.

    The big problem is — once you know that, you’re left with no one to believe.

  12. @TJIC

    “small towns, religious sects and church revivals”

    Implies conservatives to you. It’s a truthy pre-concieved notion, if you will.

    Truth on the ground here is that my small town is crawling with religious lefties. The church in the center of town has a rainbow flag over the door.

  13. So glum. Post-fact societies are more fun, you know? With all sorts of weird ways of looking at the world getting to play around equally, we should be so lucky to be post-fact. Any non-normative behavior, whether it’s truthers or wizards or furries or obsessive steam-punkery are going to exist outside of a boring old fact vacuum, and if you’re not a participant, then enjoy it for the show. Cory seems too hung up on the political implications; maybe instead of a boring Headline News reality, we need a political system that is dynamic enough to respond to a post-whatever society.

  14. I for one know that one of the reasons im drawn to boingboing is because it’s full of like-minded people. I know that on some level I like getting pissed off at stupid surveillence tactics and gross civil rights abuses. (not to mention the gadgets, hackery, and unicorns)

    I think its natural that I stick to groups that share (at least part) of my own internal agenda and bias. I dont know many people who use the internet for serious discussion of opposing view points, I think most (myself included) use it to learn about, connect to, distract from, and enjoy the world.

  15. @9 Agreed. The ‘undecided voter’ is a casualty of the marketing-speak that pervades contemporary politics. Politicians talk to adults about issues as though they are children, soon enough those adults will think like children. Add to that a media that writes at a fifth-grade level and is obsessed with celebrity culture and you get an electorate that consistently puts father figures in the White House.

  16. A friend of mine once made a simple mathematical model that helps explain this… in many circumstances, it’s actually a good thing.

    Suppose there’s a spectrum of opinions and you want to change somebody’s position on it. Do you show them a new example that differs from their current position by a little, a moderate amount or by a lot?

    If the new example differs only a little, they’ll accept it, but it won’t change their position much, because that’s pretty much what they already believed.

    If the new example differs moderately, it’ll change their position more.

    However, if the new example differs by a lot, most people will simply discount it. Something that far from the expected is likely to be wrong altogether. It’s called common sense.

    If you thought you had $100 in the bank, $95 on the ATM slip won’t surprise you, but it’s not much of an effect. $75 is still pretty credible, and a much bigger change in your belief. However, if it says $2.15, something’s gone wrong, that can’t be right.

    Unfortunately, it means that if two people start with different positions and see the same sequence of examples which affect those positions, they won’t necessarily end up closer together. They might even end up further apart, if you’re unlucky or you’ve rigged the demo.

    (The actual mathematical model involved Gaussian and Cauchy distributions; Cauchy gives the common-sense behaviour described above, while the Gaussian takes the extreme example on its face.)


  17. Having spent more years in advertising than I care to enumerate, I confess that I have been aware of this issue for a long time. But, like Cory, I’m not so sure that this is an outcome of a networked society.

    This is an outcome of the basic human failing: our brains perceive not facts but differences. We process contrasts, and the bigger the contrast is, the more cognition we put towards it.

    That’s why we’ll see through a spouse’s little fib, but fall for a huge sturm-und-drang celebrity-endorsed dog-and-pony show Big Lie with ease.

    The bright spot in all this is that our aforementioned networked society exposes us to other views and, sooner or later we can work out the truth for ourselves. Or so I hope.

  18. It’s always been possible to ignore or deliberately misinterpret facts, but it’s true that the emergence of the long tail makes building a community based around ignoring or misinterpreting facts a lot easier and more sustainable.

    I think what we’re discovering is that free and easy access to information doesn’t by itself make for an informed public. Valuing reliable, reasoned information and analysis is not a universal natural drive, and many (most?) people simply don’t find it very important.

    It’s easy to spot this problem in people who disagree with you, but very difficult to spot in yourself. The same is true on the other side too.

  19. It appears we have reached the stultolarity.

    Time for us smart folks to put aside our differences and get into generation ships to colonize other planets. I suggest we name them after the signs of the Zodiac, just as an ironic commentary.

  20. Trt, shllw, nd slf-flttrng. Every version of this argument I’ve ever seen relies mostly on placing the word “know” in scare-quotes every time you refer to something someone else thinks is true, while holding your own views as above-the-fray and uniquely brilliant without ever specifying what they actually are. People should get over being amazed at the fact that different people say different things about things and get down to the actually meaningful work of distinguishing which of those things are actually, in fact, the truth, of the kind that doesn’t come in quotation marks.

  21. RadioactiveBoyScout @15, good observation, but I’d add I keep coming back to BoingBoing because there’s a certain shared level of critical thinking, a willingness to NOT take things at face value. Mark F’s calling bullshit on Obama’s support for NSA wiretaps comes to mind, for instance.

    I sort of hate to bring up the Violet Blue thing, but I think it does illustrate the Boingers’ willingness to re-evaluate how they and the site work, and to admit, “yeah, we coulda done things a LOT better there.” The resolution of the mess was not to all readers’ satisfaction, and there was a certain circle-the-wagons defensiveness / spin in some of the early public statements, but on the whole, I think they did an excellent job of admitting mistakes and developing ways of dealing with problems in the future.

    Of course, my assessment is tinged with a degree of partisanship–I like most of what the Boingers do here, and so I’m more willing to cut them some slack. But I wouldn’t say that’s the same as drinking the Kool-Aid and uncritically buying into groupthink–if they suddenly started stomping on kittens, praising our wise protectors at the TSA, or using Comic Sans, I wouldn’t hang around.

  22. Well, considering that a classical education consists of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, I’d say that people have been well acquainted with skewing facts to mean whatever they want for at least thousands of years. And who is it that writes history? Ah, that’s right – the victors.

    I think the only thing that’s relatively new is that many people actually believe we live in a more fact based world today than what used to be the case. I would attribute that change in perception to two things – science education, and really, really good and subtle propaganda.

  23. “True Enough paints a dismal picture of a species with a limitless capacity for self-deception and selective reasoning.”

    “This is an outcome of the basic human failing: our brains perceive not facts but differences.”

    i’m interested in all this talk of the human race as being empirically flawed – it’s as though the suggestion is that our cognitive traits as a race are somehow our own fault. we invented truth, balance, bias etc: its sort of the anthropic theory, but social.
    i imagine that this stuff results from socially essential (in a darwinian sense) characteristics that may mesh badly with super-connected omniscient modernity in certain ways.

    or maybe we’re all just gits.

  24. I think we’re increasingly living in a morocracy.

    Fifth 22:I believe it was Will Rogers who said “It’s not what people don’t know that hurts them. It’s what they do know that just ain’t so.” I’d add that in my experience people who are absolutely certain are almost always wrong.

    Also, in every case where ‘know’ (or ‘knew’) is in scare quotes in the main post, it names something that is not in fact true. This includes the implied use of the term at the end of the penultimate paragraph. Are you saying otherwise? If so, which of those things do you think IS true?

    I have been caught several times by the things I “know” that turn out not to have been true. For example, until quite recently I “knew” that nectarines were a crossbreed of plums and peaches. Until slightly longer ago the scientific community thought so too: genetic science has revealed that in fact they are a genetic sport of peaches; I think I heard that it’s just one gene going funny.

    Being in a perpetual state of doubt (that is, knowing that you could be wrong about almost anything) leads to being right more often, because you examine your assumptions periodically, and are ready to look at evidence that contradicts your beliefs about the world. Personally, I doubt everything except my own fallibility, of which I am absolutely certain! (Yes, I’m aware of the irony in that, but being wrong about being fallible leads to a contradiction, doesn’t it?)

  25. yeah, like I’m going to have time to read anything else now that Anathem is out. Great time to pepper the site with book links! Thanks, guys! Sarcasm off now!

  26. #11 — Bardfin — YES! And I lay the blame for this adversarial relationship to a winner-take-all mentality, and also the fact that there’s too much to lose. If one piece of your cherished world view gets pulled away, the whole thing might crumble. Not to mention that if your mix up your political ideas with religion, you will defend your politics more vigorously, fueled by religious fervor. My right-wing pals hated this argument being leveled at them, so they did what they do well: I-know-I-am-but-so-are-you. They claim that anyone who believes in evolution has made science their god, and is beyond the ability to argue with rationally.

    Finally, the law contributes to it as well. As more and more lawyers became our senators and congressman, they brought the adversarial advocate model of the court to our national debates. In court it’s not your job, you don’t get points for trying to find a middle-ground with your opponent. You must make your opponent the devil, and your client, the angel.

  27. No part of this is new – we (some of us, at least) are just realizing it more because networked modernity makes confronting and dealing with fundamentally different mindsets and cultures frequent, or perhaps inevitable.

    Different groups of people, whether separated by geography, time, or beliefs, have always had dramatically different conceptions of truth. However much members of Western culture and adherents of scientism would like to imagine that they have a privileged form of objective truth that everyone else is just biasing or approximating, it really isn’t supportable. Similarly, while liberal True Believers in naive pluralism love to think that all humans have essentially the same natures, dreams, and basic principles, that’s not realistic either.

    There are as many distinct realities – analogous to Foucault’s episteme – as there are people, groups, and historical periods. The information revolution has just made their coexistence a bit bumpier, and harder to ignore or sublimate.

  28. The only real way that I know of to address this is to educate the audience as to the manner of how to determine fallacies, how to determine whether something is PR / Spin / Bullshit, how to determine someone’s ulterior or hidden motive.

    That doesn’t even address the underlying issue these days. There was a time when people used things like logical fallacies and spin. Nowadays they don’t even bother – nobody checks facts any more, so they just lie outright.

    A politician can stand up and tell the whole world that they have cast-iron evidence which proves their statements are factually true. And not one person will ever ask to see that evidence.

    Nobody will ever dare to suggest that he might be lying. That would be “rude”. You can’t say things that are “rude”. Any person that is “rude” is automatically wrong.

    We have all collectively lost our minds.

  29. ACB @25

    Aren’t the old days, by definition, conservative?

    A present attempt to return to the old days would be, by definition, nostalgic or regressive. A present attempt to avoid or slow change would be conservative.

    A previous period in history could be marked by conservatism or progressiveness, depending on the extent to which people were welcoming big changes.

  30. Then how is it that I learn new stuff every day? It’s unavoidable, I think. If you don’t, you’re asleep and don’t know it. I also revise what I know, change my mind about what I know, and toss out things I thought I knew. It’s called learning; and anybody who is not busy learning is busy dying.

    #12 Trevel:

    Obama’s VP has probably lied, but he’s not interesting enough for me to know or care who he is.

    You don’t KNOW who Joe Biden is? What are you, a Trobriand Islander? Jesus H. Christ, I wouldn’t put my ignorance out in public, if I were you. You’re not even a troll — you’re too fckng dmb to be a troll.

  31. Obama’s VP has probably lied, but he’s not interesting enough for me to know or care who he is.

    Are you still on about the VP’s? That is so last week. But FYI – Joe Biden is the man.

  32. If you don’t know who Biden is, you don’t know enough about politics to matter. Do us all a favor and stay home on election day.
    BTW: He’s not the VP…yet.

  33. I think all the hashing out of events as they occur is leading to better hindsight. We don’t have to wait decades to gain important insights into an issue… just weeks. How much noise gets added along the way will vary greatly, however, much as in the old days of TV-based understanding.

    The main difference is that actual facts are easier to recover to people who are wary of groupthink. The attack on S. Ossetia is a fresh example: The “agressor” Russia turned out to be policing S. Ossetia not only according to the provinces popular will, but according to a long-standing international agreement. The aggressor, it turns out, was Georgia.

    Probably the worst thing (for them) that the fossil fuel interests like Exxon did was pass up the chance to frame the reporting of their climate-change denial activities as “conspiracy theory”. They may have won the debate otherwise. Today’s “conspiracy theorist” is a label one applies to people who are suspicious of the rich and powerful: regardless of the facts they command, just hold them up as an example right along side some of the most nonsensical and silly theories to get the full effect.

    As for all the wacky “truth” that appears online and in print, its mostly confined to the USA and increasingly other Anglo populations; the result of a culture inured in real ‘magic’. You can always get something for next-to nothing to “go out and make your own reality” because ones existence and even indulgent whims are materially subsidized by the rest of the planet. An indifference (or allergy) toward hard data, and a preoccupation with angels or Ramtha spirits over one’s neighbor takes root…

    Offtopic– If BoingBoing is going to insist on using XSS functions for posting comments, then it is opening up the participants on this site to an unacceptable security risk. Please stop using your website to run other websites’ code on my system. Thank you!


    I think your absolutly correct in saying that it’s this sites (and others like it) willingness to take a step back from even their own actions in order to make the experiance for all better, that makes me stay loyal.

    But where does that line exist between “drinking the kool-aid” and “being drawn to what we like”. As biased information consumers are we able to make that distinction? I hate to subvert the dominate paradigm here, but if we only surround ourselves with things that we agree with, then arent we getting a skewed sense of reality no matter how genuine we feel the source to be?

    I dont mean to suggest that boingboing is an evil committee of fat cats who love to watch us liberals chase our tails, but could it be that even they (who get the news from other sources) are shaping the messege in a way that we dont notice because we’ve already took a big ol’ kool-aid bath?

    As “free” and “self-critical” as boingboing is, i dont think its safe from reporting biased stories with “facts” that have been skewed and contrary view-points that have been ignored.

  35. Yay, humans!

    This is not new, this is our defining characteristic. We are the species that can get together and believe, really believe, in something more than the needs of our own immediate family, in the power of love and abstract causes. Evolution, red in tooth and claw, cries for us to promote our genes and we reply: “Millenium! Hand and shrimp to that!” We are mad and proud!

    Ok, so still collectively working the details, but I think the basic concept is sound.

  36. “The more thing change the more they stay the same.”
    I’m reading R. Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton and one of the prominate themes of the tale is Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson’s ability to manufacture and believe the most infamous myths of each other. Now arguably they were two of the brightest of the that era, well read, politically informed. However, having opposing visions of Americas they were ready to asign evil motives and there subsequent ‘evil conspiracies’to there opponent without in factual basis. Then publishing these skewered views as reality under immaginative names.

  37. BoingBoing is one of the best sources for articles about cognitive bias…and for extreme examples of cognitive bias in action.

  38. I look forward to the day when we create a real artificial intelligence with distinctly different weird mental quirks, so we can sit around and chat about how strange we are.

  39. MDH wrote, Truth on the ground here is that my small town is crawling with religious lefties. The church in the center of town has a rainbow flag over the door.

    Horrors! One suspects that they welcome those icky gay people, eh ? [/sarcasm]

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