Thursday, December 15, 2005

Lost in the Fog
I've written here before that it takes a lot more work to be well-informed today than it used to. The world is more complex and it moves faster than it did a generation ago; plus, little things that happen largely out of public view seem to have greater impact now than when the world was (comparatively) simpler. The problem is that many people--perhaps most people--haven't adapted to this. They still think it's possible to be well-informed by skimming the newspaper at lunch or watching CNN for half-an-hour each night. Well, it ain't. That doesn't stop people from advocating simple solutions to complex problems. "Just say no" is a fine example--whether it's saying no to drugs, like Nancy Reagan recommended, or saying no to sex, like the abstinence education advocates recommend. Such solutions are destined to fail precisely because they're blind to the inherent complexity of the situations they're designed to fix.

The other way people respond to complexity is not to respond at all, but to partially opt out. This is the norm, I think--"yes, I know that it's important that I learn about budget earmarks and their effect on the deficit, as well as the disproporationate way in which they distribute federal dollars, but I've got to make cookies for the bake sale, pick up my husband at the airport, and finish a sales presentation before tomorrow morning. I'm sorry, but someone else will have to worry about it." They don't opt out entirely, because the next time they see something on the news about the federal budget process, they may remember something about the subject--"you know, it seems to me I read something about that not too long ago, but I can't remember what." But they don't know enough about what they seem to remember to act on it, or to know how it affects them.

Larry Beinhart has a name for these "I seem to remembers." He calls them "fog facts": Things that people know and which are easily verifiable, but have disappeared in the cascading sequence of news stories that follow, one by one, on any complex topic. But Beinhart also lays blame for the proliferation of fog facts on modern media and the way it structures its coverage of complex stories. Sometimes, Beinhart argues, the media doesn't want to report certain facts. Both of these tendencies play right into the tactics of the current administration, which is pushing programs and policies that couldn't be sold honestly. So it spins out a lot of fog which, given the way the media covers government, tends to obscure the facts within. And people think, "Gee, it seems to me I recall that somebody said that there were no WMDs in Iraq before the war started, but I don't remember for sure about it. But I know Bush said there were." Because he said it hundreds of times, but those who said there were no weapons got nothing like equal play for their stories.

There's an interview with Beinhart and an excerpt from his book, Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin at Alternet today.

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