Thursday, April 01, 2021

'Disinformation'

If there's one thing that very much baffles me about the current cultural climate, it is the insistence of some people on talking like villains in a totalitarian dystopia novel. There have been many examples of this in past years, but one of the current examples is endless talk about 'disinformation'. Most things that get called disinformation these days are pretty obviously not disinformation, i.e., a form of deliberate lying for propagandistic purposes, but just people being wrong, or people being confused, or people being right but in a misleading way, or people just having views you don't think are right. But if you wanted to write a novel about a totalitarian dystopia, having the villains go around talking about the need to do something about the disinformation spread by their opponents would not merely fit into your theme, it fits into it so obviously that it would like be seen as a cliched trope.

There was a long period of time in philosophy of science where a great deal of work was put into elucidating the notion of 'pseudoscience'. The question of exactly how to draw the line between pseudoscience and science, known as the demarcation problem, sucked up a lot of ink and paper. Eventually, the widespread consensus arose that the demarcation problem was actually insoluble. There are just too many different factors involved to find any clear and method for drawing the line, and the problem becomes especially acute when you consider that some things that people now want to classify as 'pseudoscience' were original classified by people as 'science', and (much more rarely, but it happens) some things that were dismissed as pseudoscience made a significant scientific comeback when someone made a discovery that showed that it was not so off-base as it had originally been thought to be. And the term is easily highjacked for a very large number of very different purposes. Nowadays very few philosophers think that we can cordon things off in general as 'pseudoscience'; it's a still usable term, because in a particular context you can mean something very specific by it, but you're not going to find these very specific usable senses in very specific contexts to be generalizable. Of course, every so often you'll find academic philosophers trying to resurrect the demarcation problem and insist that it can be solved, because this is what academics do -- they never beat a dead horse only once if they can find a way to beat it from another angle -- but nobody except the people doing the resurrections are ever very impressed with attempted resurrections. It doesn't seem we can give a good account of pseudoscience in general; the demarcation problem doesn't really seem soluble or even to be easily formulated in a clear and consistent way; and even if it can be clearly formulated and solved, it's pretty clear that what we currently have in hand won't do the trick.

The same is true of 'disinformation', which I note is starting the make the rounds in the huge combinatorial machine that is academia. There is no way to draw any consistent, general lines between 'information' and 'disinformation', for much the reason there was no method of demarcation for 'science' and 'pseudoscience', namely, that there are just too many different things involved in those areas in which people wish to apply the term; what's being counted as 'disinformation' is often just old information; some of what has been called 'disinformation' has turned out to be right; a lot of the use of the term is in advance of actually showing it to be applicable, in service of the rhetorical goal of portraying one's opponents as people whose arguments don't even have to be considered at all. The term is easily highjacked. It can still be usable in specific contexts used for something like its original meaning of lying propaganda, but what makes something disinformation in one context may not make it so in another. I mean, I've even seen people accuse The Babylon Bee -- an Onion-like satirical humor site -- of being an outlet of 'disinformation'; this is a point at which it becomes clear that the word is not really being used in anything like its ordinary usable senses.

And it, again, sounds like something a villain in a totalitarian dystopia novel would label his opponents with. Stop flinging it around; it makes you sound creepy and untrustworthy.

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