Proud ignorance and the possibility of a free society

There is, of course, as Elon Musk has suggested, some likelihood that the assault on Mr. Pelosi is covering up an as-yet-unknown reality (Kurtis Lee, “Elon Musk, in a Tweet, shares the link to the site known to publish fake news”, New York TimesOctober 30, 2022):

In a response to Mrs. Clinton’s tweet, Mr. Musk wrote: “There is a small possibility that there is more to this story than meets the eye”, then he shared a link to an article by the Santa Monica Observer. The article alleges Mr Pelosi was drunk and had a fight with a prostitute.

To explore this possibility, however, one should not look at individuals and websites known to invent facts or accept them only if they fit their muddled ideology and implausible beliefs; one should not trust sources that have demonstrated a lack of rational methodology in the search for truth.

If we believe the NYT history, Mr. Musk, who later deleted his post, is not entirely immune to this flaw himself:

A 2021 Los Angeles Times op-ed on websites that “impersonate legitimate local newspapers” noted that the Santa Monica Observer, “owned by former City Council candidate David Ganezer, is known to publish fake news”. In 2016, for example, the publication claimed that Mrs. Clinton had died and that a lookalike had been sent to debate Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump.

But anyone unaccustomed to the discipline of research can be easily fooled by dubious sources.

A good story by Robby Soave in Raison gives an idea of ​​what Donald Trump himself thinks (“Paul Pelosi conspiracy theories are an embarrassment for the right”, November 2, 2022). In addition to lending credence to the gay prostitute theory, Trump repeated another “alternative fact” that appears to have been made up:

You know, probably, you and I better not talk about it. The glass, it seemed, was shattered from the inside out and, you know, it wasn’t a break-in, it was an escape.

The “it seems”, uncharacteristic of Trump’s intuitive certainties, seems contradicted by the rest of the sentence.

The rise of the internet and especially social media has revealed a disturbing fact: how ignorant the general public is and how easily they fall into implausible theories – that Sandy Hook was a government-sponsored hoax, that the 2020 election was stolen, etc. The awakened are no better, and generally don’t have the excuse of being uneducated – although perhaps “education” should be put in scary quotes. One can, I think, be knowledgeable and intellectually honest on either side of the orthodox left-right divide; but such is not the current state of public debate.

Suddenly, with the Internet and social media, the proud ignoramuses have become able, at next to no cost, to voice their muddled intuitions to the world. The big difference is this almost zero cost. The idea of ​​charging for effective access to social networks can be part of the solution (evolved by the private sector); maybe charging a lot more than Musk suggests for Twitter would be even better. The higher the price, the fewer individuals who think echoing implausible stories is worth it; they will go back to their televisions or their video games. Let’s be clear: these individuals are respectable as long as they don’t use their proud ignorance to forcefully impose their preferences and values ​​on others.

Where does the proud ignorance displayed by both the woke crowd and conspiracy theorists leave the Enlightenment promises of popular education, the perfectibility of humanity, and the possibility of a free society? On this difficult question, it is useful to read the little book by James Buchanan, Why am I also not a conservative (or, as a poor substitute, my Regulation exam).

Christy J. Olson