Fighting Fake News With The Truth

January 3, 2017, 6:53 PM UTC

Most people enter a new year filled with new resolve and lofty goals. I’m sticking to my resolutions – reading new authors, eating right and running a mile a day, yay! – but I’m also going to think more carefully about what I believe and why I believe it. Partly because understanding bias is my beat, but also because it feels like it’s getting harder and harder to know what’s true.

In the spirit of bias-fighting and resolutions, I want to draw your attention to two items I found over the holidays. First, this piece from the BBC on the long, sad history of how people or companies with a particular vested interest purposefully spread ignorance. Turns out, there’s a word for it.

It starts as a short profile of Robert Proctor, a science historian from Stanford University, who began to study the marketing practices of tobacco companies that were designed to obscure the relationship between smoking and cancer:

“Proctor had found that the cigarette industry did not want consumers to know the harms of its product, and it spent billions obscuring the facts of the health effects of smoking. This search led him to create a word for the study of deliberate propagation of ignorance: agnotology.

It comes from agnosis, the neoclassical Greek word for ignorance or ‘not knowing’, and ontology, the branch of metaphysics which deals with the nature of being. Agnotology is the study of wilful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or win favour.”

Now that it’s clear we’ve become professional agnotologists, I’m thinking I’m going to need those resolutions more than ever. But I’m also thinking that the solution to massive systems of disinformation can come in humbler forms. And that gives me some inspiration.

Here’s another, very different piece, to consider.

Shortly after actress and author Carrie Fisher died, Ben Dreyfuss, the non-famous son of the actor Richard Dreyfuss, posted a short but devastating tribute to her on Medium. Far from the typical celebrity send-off, it was a story about how in the grips of a terrifying mental breakdown, he reached out to the only person he could think of who could help.

“I hadn’t seen her in years. I wasn’t even sure the fucking number would work. It went to voice mail. I left a message that didn’t say much. “Hey Carrie, this is Ben Dreyfuss. Richard’s son. I was hoping you could give me a call when you get a chance.” I might not have said “help me help me” but my cracking-voice probably did. I was crying in the back of a Beverly Hills Cab when she called me back and I let it all pour out and she asked me if I was currently medicated and I confessed I was not and she said “I’ve been there and I get it, but right now you need to be medicated.” And she told me what anti-psychotics she was on and forced me to direct the cab to a therapist.”

Fisher’s legendary candor about her own mental health was a beacon for many, including those who didn’t have her phone number. And her voice broke through the systems of fear, misinformation, and disinformation about mental illness that still stigmatize people to this day.

Ben’s story is powerful in part because he felt strong enough to pay the gift forward so that his candor might be a beacon to others who don’t have him on speed-dial. It reminded me of why small, consistent and personal revelations are so powerful. In the face of systems designed to shield people from unpopular or unprofitable truths, we can find both solace and strength in each other. It’s another benefit of inclusion that I plan to embrace and amplify in 2017.

Now, eat your vegetables and let’s do this.

On Point

Introducing the neuroscience of trust into the workplaceHigh-trust workplaces are measurably more productive, says Paul Zak, a professor of economics, a professor of economics, psychology, and management. He explores eight leadership behaviors that are designed to inspire trust in the workplace – and quite literally, oxytocin production in the brains of employees. Transparency and the open sharing of company goals, tactics, and strategies are vital, and the intentional development of social ties – particularly when managers are encouraged to express support for their team members - is key. And listen to employees. “When companies trust employees to choose which projects they’ll work on, people focus their energies on what they care about most.”HBR

Get serious about unconscious bias in 2017
CEO and consultant Gail Miller offers a rallying cry for eliminating unconscious bias in hiring that should help managers in companies of any size take an honest look at the way their culture may be unintentionally preventing quality candidates from thriving. First, acknowledge that even good people are biased, and training is an essential remedy. But, don’t stop there. “Like other functions in the workplace, hiring should be audited and improved continuously– not a once-and-done initiative, but an ongoing mission,” she writes. 

A hillybilly’s tribute to Barack Obama
J.D. Vance the author of Hillybilly Elegy, the stunning memoir of working class America, has written a poignant good-bye to Barack Obama, a man who has created a loving, devoted family from a seemingly impossible set of personal circumstances. The hardships of Obama’s youth, not unlike Vance’s own, should have prevented him from that part of the American dream, he posits. “Yet here was the president of the United States, a man whose history looked something like mine but whose future contained something I wanted. His life stood in stark contrast to my greatest fear,” he writes. That Obama’s personal strength is admirable yet dismissed, is a tragedy of this political age says Vance.
New York Times

Five ways workers over 50 can combat age-related biases
Writer and consultant Anne Loehr tackles some of the limiting beliefs that dog workers over 50 in the marketplace: They’re not adding new skills, they’re looking to coast until retirement, they’re not excited by their work. “[T]here is really no evidence that investing in a younger worker is a "safer" bet or offers a higher ROI potential than investing in an older one,” she says. Her tips include working your extensive network for either project or consulting work and updating your look - particularly in profile photos. And learn how to tailor your resume to get past digital scanners that may inadvertently be focusing on younger candidates, she says.
Fast Company

Lawsuit: Ranch owner demanded that chef cook “black people food”
It was fried chicken and corn bread or nothing for Madeline Pickens, the wealthy philanthropist and ex-wife of Oklahoma energy investor T. Boone Pickens, according to the federal lawsuit filed by the former chef at her tony dude ranch. Visitors to the Mustang Monument Wild Horse Eco-Resort in Nevada paid $2000 a night for the privilege of staying there, but chef Armand Appling, who is black, said he was fired in retaliation for complaining about the hostile working environment. In addition to the “black people food” directive, he was also forced to fire other black workers who “didn’t fit in” or had “too much personality.”

Finland launches universal basic income experiment
It’s a happier than expected new year for 2,000 down-on-their-luck Finns. Starting in January, the Finnish government is replacing an earnings-based social insurance benefit for jobless citizens with a basic income equivalent of about $600 a month. The people, chosen at random, are part of a two-year trial to study the effect of free income on joblessness, income inequality and society. The concept has become a darling of the tech and business worlds; people from Elon Musk to bond investor Bill Gross are fans of the idea.

The Woke Leader

How to write your truth when your truth might alarm your mother
If candid talk makes you uncomfortable – the author gamely confesses that he attempted to write bondage erotica at age 13 - then skip this essay. But if you do, you’ll miss an extraordinary lesson from writer and teacher Seth Fischer who talks about coming to grips with the courage it takes to tell a true story in a world that seeks to judge and criminalize all sorts of behavior. He was inspired by a teacher who wrote about same-sex relationships at a time when that truth could cost you your job, custody of your kids and your freedom. “This was the power of the personal narrative, I realized. It can create and mold and heal, and it can destroy,” he says. His first attempt, to share the contours of his own bisexuality, won him his first fan: His mom. A must read.
Lunch Ticket

The incredible life of the artist Tyrus Wong
Walt Disney’s “Bambi” opened to rave reviews in 1942, lauded in large part for its ground-breaking visual appeal. But the film’s spare and haunting aesthetic was largely the work of lead artist, Tyrus Wong, a Chinese immigrant and unknown artist of seemingly unlimited ability. Wong died last week at 106, but his story, dutifully told by the New York Times, is a harrowing tale of discrimination and poverty, and occasionally, the good fortune that sometimes smiles on a tenacious talent. After talking their way into the US, Wong and his father, “lived in a vermin-infested boardinghouse sandwiched between a butcher shop and a brothel.”  A junior high school teacher took note of his talent and helped him get an art school scholarship, where he labored as a janitor for years while he finished his studies. The rest is truly history.
New York Times

A year of reading books by black women
Alisha Acquaye begins her essay with a deceptively simple question: When was the first time you recognized yourself in the pages of a book? For many people living on the intersections of color, gender, class and identity, the answer is far too late, if ever. “I wonder what would have happened if I had been exposed to books by black women as a child,” she writes. “I didn’t know that black girls like me could exist in the stories I wanted to read.” What follows is a piece that not only doubles as a killer reading list but as a personal journey of discovery.


I feel I'm very sane about how crazy I am… Sometimes you can only find Heaven by slowly backing away from Hell.
—Carrie Fisher

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