Fake News and the Authority Fallacy
Updated: Nov 21
David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, once said, "What is important is not who said it, but what was said." Indeed, in our time of fake news and a high level of free speech in many countries, it is often difficult to discern the truth from the subjective.
It shouldn't even matter that it was Ben-Gurion who said it. It shouldn't even matter that he was the first Israeli prime minister.
To overcome the tiresome discussions of things that we may not believe to be facts, we turn to professionals, or people whose education and experience are considered to be far superior to those of the general public. However, with this solution comes another problem, as Ben-Gurion also said, "If an expert says it can't be done, bring another one." This raises another question: what if the authorities we turn to are themselves not the holders of the truth, despite their hard-earned titles?
The whole problem with the notion of fake news is that we can never know for sure whether someone is actually right or not. The truth exists out there, beyond our minds, and it may not always be reached, no matter how many sources we cite in our arguments, or how much sense they make. After all, we lack omniscience, which means that our knowledge is always limited, regardless of our expertise in one or another subject. In the end, many subjects are up for debate, even when professionals are present. They may even argue among themselves on the very truths they are seen as authorities at.
Due to the difficulty in attaining the truth, many of us resort to fake news. Note that I am not talking about specific fake news, because in this world, many things we may believe to be true could be false. Even with such a vast research pool as the internet (or, even, specifically because of the internet), fake news are easy to find and believe in, whether the person creating them actually knows they are spreading falsehood or not.
When you succumb to confirmation bias, you may even spread false information without knowing it yourself!
It is really hard to distinguish between truth and falsehood, regardless of your age, experience, and position. Sure, academic success can bring you much knowledge, but as long as there is no certainty in some subjects, everything in theory shall be up for debate.
And yet, there are people whose titles attract audiences to listen to them, either with zealotry or even fanaticism, to the point that their power could give them certain privileges others don't, and might never enjoy. In an earlier article, I gave former President Donald Trump as an example. I was not necessarily referring to whether or not he gave fake news, but regardless of whether or not he did, he sure had the power of his title to attract an angry mob to the Capitol and even break in.
Such power, gained by the power of his image, is something that probably you and I could never have, whether or not we would wish for it. That's how powerful your image can be when you become a charismatic, adored figure of authority. Even if your image does not come from an actual position of power -- that image matters. Anyways, it is debatable if the reasoning behind Trump's inciting words was actually correct. Were the 2020 USA elections rigged, like he claimed they were? Either way, the fact that he was a president who was adored by many of his supporters was enough for his words to be valuable enough, far more than the words of you or I may ever be.
In Israel, we have certain people who are basically smaller versions of Trump in terms of questionable influence—the Rabbis, or in loose translation: "Masters"; for those who speak Hebrew—Rav is another word for Ashaf, which is synonymous to Master. Anyways, the Jewish "Masters" are often used to ask for advice, and some even lead entire communities of followers who obey almost, if not every, of their words; it is even common to call them "Your Honor" (K'vod Ha'rav).
While today we seek out authorities based on their professional and/or academic experience, a Rabbi's status comes from his merit to study the Jewish scriptures and teachings. Many of us seculars might believe that true knowledge comes from both empiricism, research, and academic proficiency, and yet, all the Rabbis have are the wisdom they were taught in the many writings of Judaism.
The reason why I'm bringing all of this up is simple: for many of us, it seems a much better idea to ask a professional for advice. But what if that premise does not stem from an objective position, but a collective construct, just like the Rabbis of Judaism?
Of course, that sounds ridiculous, at least to some of us. And yet, we have already paid attention to the fact that even a professional in their field might not know what they're talking about, as ironic as it may sound. So what makes one think a Rabbi (or any other kind of unorthodox figure of insight) necessarily knows less than the academic professional?
This all boils down to the initial quote of the article—it doesn't matter that Ben Gurion said it; it might as well have been said by Hitler or any other dislikeable or adored figure. What we should do, instead, is to "skip the middle-man", so-to-speak, and actually see for ourselves, with enough reading and questioning, whether or not that statement is true. Whoever said the statement cares less in philosophy, because the whole point of philosophy is to study the truth, and less-so, the personalities studying and/or providing it.
Since it's also true in philosophy, it's been given the title "the authority fallacy". Also known as the "Appeal to authority" or "Argument from Authority". Try it for yourselves — find a something on the internet that may intrigue your thoughts, and go for it—begin the race to find the truth. It won't necessarily be easy, nor you will necessarily succeed in your quest, but it is better to ask something, and even be laughed at, than to not ask something, and "remain in the dark".
Finally, a few words for those interested—Philosocom is all about me coming up with possibilities. I don't preach them as the truth because an honest philosopher will be as ready as possible to the ability they were wrong about something. Why, then, bother with prioritizing research over contemplation and speculation?
Philosophy might as well be a field whose issues will always be up for debate. At the very least, some of them will be, indefinately. As such, being a philosopher or a "master of philosophy" does not necessarily mean you have "all the answers" to philosophical questions. And even if you theoratically do, these answers can be doubted by contemporary philosophers or even by philosophers who will study you long after your death.
If at all, it is the interested reader who should think about these points of thought and use their mind—and the internet—to find out more about what has been said. A true philosophy reader would surely consider reading from numerous sources, as the philosopher would not try to prevent them from doing so. It is okay to think and to speculate; in the end, what makes a philosopher a philosopher is that they know nothing, and yet, their thoughts are still of value to some.
Therefore, we can conclude that a reader can only stop fake news by having an open mind and investing their time and energy in finding an opposing argument that could be truer than the original claims.
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