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No Safety in Numbers

“While nobody knows what’s going on around here, everybody knows what’s going on around here.”

In his eerily prophetic 1975 novel, The Shockwave Rider, John Brunner describes the Delphi pool, a futuristic incarnation of the Las Vegas betting boards.  It works this way:

Ask large numbers of people questions to which they can’t possibly know the answers.  For example:  How many victims died from influenza in the epidemic of 1918?

Even though few of the subjects know anything at all about the question, their guesses will cluster around the correct answer.  In the novel, the principle held true even for things that hadn’t happened yet, creating a reasonably accurate window into the future.

As it turns out, Mr. Brunner wasn’t far from reality.  Although his system doesn’t hold true for actual statistics, it’s right on target when applied to human psychology.

In a recent series of experiments, marketing professor Gita Johar of Columbia University and her team discovered that people in the company of others are more likely to accept unverified reports as true than people who are by themselves.

More compelling still is that the company we are in doesn’t have to be physical to impair our natural skepticism.  Even in a social media setting – connected only virtually with other people – we are more likely to accept information at face value, especially if it fits in with our preconceived notions.

Professor Johar explains this as a manifestation of herd mentality, an unconscious response to the belief that there is safety in numbers.  We don’t feel the need to question or fact-check because we rely on the group for authentication, even as everyone one else in the group simultaneously relies on everyone else in the group.

Welcome to the modern Delphi pool for the dissemination of fake news.  The more people who hear a report, the more likely they are to believe it.  In no time at all, news becomes accepted as fact regardless of accuracy, even when it is easily verifiable as false.

With groupthink becoming the standard of our times, we not only become less able to recognize the truth – we become less interested in doing so.  We condemn reports as fake news not because they are factually incorrect but because they refuse to conform to our own vision of reality.  As long as we keep company with others who are similarly disinterested in the difference between true and false, we have no reason to question the status quo.

In fact, probing for the truth can be positively dangerous.  One word against the party line is guaranteed to bring down upon our heads the wrath of the ignorant majority among our own allies determined to hold fast to their fabulist misconceptions.

So as accusations of lying – real and imagined – fly back and forth across the aisle, we have to ask ourselves a question:  do we want to do anything about it, or have we become too comfortable with our culture of falsehood to seek resurrection of the truth?

King Solomon says, A sophomoric person believes every word, but an insightful person minds his every step.

If we want to live in reality, we have to break away from the delusions of the herd and follow the path that leads back to the real world.  If we want true answers, we have to be willing to ask hard questions – and then we have to be able to face up to the truth no matter how uncomfortable or how unpopular that might make us.

Published in Jewish World Review

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