Separating Fact From Fiction In the 'Age of Information'
WE are told we live in an "Age of Information" - a world in which more and more people have access to ever-increasing quantities of information from ever-growing sources: books, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and computer terminals. In theory, the better informed we are, the better we're able to make intelligent choices. But, one needn't be an unusually astute cultural critic to notice that this does not seem to be the case.
Some observers think the sheer amount of information is too overwhelming and confusing for most people to process. Others fear that mere information, without the moral values to help us make decisions, is of little use.
Yet there is also the possibility that a lot of the "information" we are receiving is "bad" information: trivial, misleading, or downright false. This last possibility is the subject of Jean-Francois Revel's forcefully argued and incisive account of "The Flight from Truth: The Reign of Deceit in the Age of Information."
A prominent French intellectual whose fame extends beyond the borders of his country, Mr. Revel is the author of more than 20 books on topics ranging from Greek and Latin thinkers to modern-day terrorism and totalitarianism. Three have been translated into English: "Without Marx or Jesus" (1971); "The Totalitarian Temptation" (1977), and "How Democracies Perish" (1984). Revel has repeatedly warned of the dangers faced by Western democracies, whose intellectual leaders, he avers, have too often disparaged
the tradition of liberal parliamentary government and idealized more "efficient"-seeming systems that actually turn out to be totalitarian nightmares.
In his latest book, Revel demonstrates the alarming extent to which many of us resist factual information when it contradicts our opinions. What Revel has in mind is not so much the couch potato who flips off the evening news in favor of watching reruns of "I Love Lucy," but rather, the people who choose what information is at the public's disposal: journalists, publishers, professors, television producers, editors, scientists, and others.
"The fact is," asserts Revel in his introduction to this English translation of his book (the French title is "La Connaissance inutile useless knowledge), "we do not use our minds to seek out the truth or to establish particular facts with absolute certainty ... in the great majority ... of cases, we use our intellectual faculties to protect convictions, interests, and interpretations that are especially dear to us."
The examples he provides of this sad tendency are legion, ranging from blatant political hypocrisy on the part of so-called liberals turning a blind eye to programs of mass killing in countries like Uganda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Burundi for fear of being tagged "racist," to the seemingly apolitical obduracy of scientists and scholars refusing to take account of data that would overturn a cherished theory.
Most of Revel's examples are falsifications and denials committed by the left, including the failure of many left-wing intellectuals to criticize the bloody repression of Communist regimes, the once-fashionable veneration in certain "radical" circles for Chairman Mao, and the automatic suspicion with which the left has regarded any attempts by the United States and its NATO allies to defend themselves and their interests.
Not surprisingly, Revel - a contributor to Commentary, Encounter, and the Wall Street Journal - has been called a conservative, but he considers himself a liberal - in European parlance. As he notes, however, a European or Latin American "liberal" has more in common with a certain kind of North American conservative or libertarian. Revel is not only anticommunist but also antisocialist, a believer in capitalist free enterprise, a market economy, and a government that interferes as little as possible with
the rights of individuals.
Revel lays himself open to the charge of practicing the very process he condemns: of presenting information in accordance with his political beliefs. Although some of his examples of deceit are politically neutral and a few are sins committed by the right, he chiefly concentrates on targets like UNESCO, third-worldism, academic Marxists, and Western journalists more suspicious of their own democratic governments than of foreign despotisms.
But the evidence he presents is very persuasive, and to discount the truth of a message because one disapproves of the political stance or personality of the messenger is also to flee from truth, as Revel warns. He is aware of the fact that his examples contain more left-wing distortions than right-wing distortions, but he believes that ever since the defeat of Nazism, the preponderance of intellectual dishonesty has been on the left. Indeed, as he ingeniously points out, "The old-fashioned Right ... tha t proudly asserted the right of an elite to govern all society in an authoritarian manner ... has been reincarnated in the ruling classes of socialist countries." (This characteristically sweeping statement would be a little more accurate if he had said "revolutionary regimes" in place of "socialist countries.")
Revel makes an important point when he reminds us that objectivity does not consist of balancing two sides of a question, the "pros" and "cons," but must be based on an honest attempt to discover all the facts and subject them to a rigorous analysis that will produce a conclusion as close to the truth as we can get.
The point is well taken. But as we head into an era where the enemies of freedom no longer seem to be massing under the easily identifiable banner of communism (Revel's book still views Mikhail Gorbachev with suspicion), and where much of the "conventional wisdom" behind our current political thinking is based on an unscrutinized faith in the benevolent workings of the marketplace, will critics like Revel continue to press for truth at any cost?
Or will they be too deeply enmeshed in the comforting rationales of neo-conservatism to count the number of unemployed and homeless people cropping up as stubborn evidence against their nostrums?