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February 23, 2015

Guest Blog: Robert McLain Smith on The Democratization of Facts 

I had the amazing good fortune to be born into a family that, above all else, was endlessly interesting and curious. A prime source of both were my brother Rob and my dad who—though wildly different in many ways—shared a whip-sharp intellect, a love of debate, and a spirit of inquiry. Last week, Rob sent me an account of one of their conversations. Not only does it capture the two men, it captures one of the ironies of our times so well I thought I’d post it for you. 

Twelve years ago, just before my father died, he and I sat down to another one of our several-hour discussions (debates, really) to revise our list of the ten greatest inventions/discoveries to advance humankind. We held these sessions every ten years or so to provide for new insights and new developments.

To begin, my father recommended that we sustain some of our earlier submissions such as Johannes Gutenberg’s mechanical press with moveable type, which he credited with advancing the Enlightenment. I concurred. But to keep things lively, I proposed the internet as one of the ten greatest advances, and we were off to the races. While the internet was far from novel in 2003, the iPhone was still four years away and AOL but eight years old. So, my father stood somewhere between skeptical and aghast at my suggestion.

But that’s when I hit my stride: the internet, I claimed, would be the autocrat’s  kryptonite, scientists’ global lab, and a window on the world for schoolchildren. With the wind at my back, I finished with this: The internet will change the world by democratizing information. After much heated discussion, plus a few side trips to reaffirm the positions of fire and the electric light, my father agreed to grant the internet a “provisional” spot on the list—to be reviewed in ten years.

While my father didn’t live to reopen the debate, over the years I have often mused: “If he were alive today, boy, would he eat crow.” And I held to that view despite the recent decline in worldwide democracies—as the Arab Spring morphed into Springtime for Autocrats. Until two nights ago. On PBS’s NewsHour the Pew Research Center was reporting on its recent research into the gap between a strong consensus of scientists and the views of the majority of American citizens on a number of major issues. Some examples: 87 percent of scientists believe there is a connection between global warming and human cause; the American people, barely 50 percent.  An 88-percent consensus of scientists say Genetically Modified Foods are safe for consumption; only 37 percent of citizens agree. Eighty-six percent of scientists say that vaccines are safe and effective; only 68 percent of citizens agree.

Gads, how could that many people (the keepers of the world’s greatest democracy) have factual bases to confidently contradict a consensus of experts in the field—particularly given the power of the internet to disseminate information so broadly. Going further into their report, NewsHour anchor Gwen Ifill showed clips of interviews with a few people who held those contrarian views. In response to the question of why they disagreed with the facts presented by a consensus of leading scientists, one emblematic comment stood out: I disagree because I have my own facts.

I shut off the TV and sat in the dark to consider this contradiction. Quietly at first, then loud enough to make me bolt up in search of the source, I heard my father’s voice: Nice going, smart guy, you have democratized facts. I’m taking the internet off the list.



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