Your doorbell rings in the dark of night, so you quietly approach the peephole to size up your visitor. The porch light doesn’t illuminate the person well enough to see him clearly, but he’s definitely wearing a mask. You move your eyes lower to get a better look at the tall figure. He’s standing, waiting, on the other side of the threshold. He’s holding a machete.
On any other night, this scenario might send adrenaline coursing through your veins, fueling an almost palpable fear. But tonight is different. It’s Halloween. And rather than feeling scared, you casually open the door to discover that the dimly lit figure is the teenager from down the street dressed as the killer from a slasher flick.
We don’t fear a scary-looking stranger on our doorstep on October 31 because we know it’s very likely to be a friendly neighbor seeking sugar. This information, born of experience, empowers us to act rationally. It's possible, of course, that the machete-wielding figure really is a murderer going door to door — but the odds are against it, especially on this night of the year.
Imagine if you didn't know how to assess that risk. Imagine locking your doors, turning off all the lights, and cowering in the dark, waiting for all the trick-or-treaters to go away.
Unfortunately, this is the situation we too often find ourselves in when politicians and the media tell us to be scared — of terrorists, of deadly contagions from overseas, or just of each other. We know that not all of the threats can be real, but how are we to discern the true menaces from the false alarms?
When people are scared, they will support policies that promise to keep us safe, but end up costing us ever more—both in tax dollars and lost liberties. That’s why despots throughout history have sought means by which the masses could be intentionally kept in the dark: ignorance and fear give the despots power. It doesn't matter which political party is in power. The left tries to scare people with dark visions of unchecked greed and exploitation. The right wants people to fear alleged threats to our security, both abroad and within our borders. Fear pervades politics generally. As John Adams once wrote, it is “the foundation of most governments.”
We naturally defer decision making to those who have access to greater political and military intelligence than the general population does. Christopher Guzelian, a legal theorist, posits that politicians are so successful in their use of fear because of “risk information (whether correct or false) that is communicated to society.” In other words, we fear the hobgoblins we can’t see solely on the basis that we’re told they exist and are coming after us. Guzelian concludes that it is “risk communication, not personal experience, [that] causes most fear these days.” Without information, and lacking direct experience, we often respond irrationally.
What can we do when we are not ourselves scientists, soldiers, or spies? How do we protect our freedom from a political class that benefits from our fears?
We’re all familiar with the fable about the boy who cried wolf. A shepherd boy repeatedly tricked nearby villagers into thinking that a wolf was attacking his flock of sheep. After multiple “false alarms,” the wolf actually did attack. But this time, when the boy called for help like he had many times before, the villagers did not respond. What changed? This time, they had information. While they didn’t know if there was a wolf or not, they did have observational data informing them about the trustworthiness of their source.
Our lives are filled with supposed shepherds warning us about the terror du jour. This warning may be completely concocted for political gain, or simply amplified or misinterpreted as a prediction of how a potential malefactor might act. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in an analysis of predictions made by 300 subject matter experts — and summarized in his book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? — Philip Tetlock observes that “there is a tendency for experts to claim to know more than they do about the future.” Put differently, we rely on people who often do not know what they’re talking about.
While we may not have access to the information necessary to know whether a purported political, economic, or other threat is as bad as is claimed, we are not helpless. Some sources are more reliable than others. We can cautiously develop a sense of which sources to listen to based on their track records.
The US government's record is especially bad on foreign threats. "A few recent examples," writes historian Tom Woods, "include the alleged Gulf of Tonkin incident (Vietnam), babies being tossed out of incubators (Iraq I), 'genocide' (Kosovo, where 'hundreds of thousands' of dead turned out to be 2000 dead on both sides of a civil war combined), weapons of mass destruction (Iraq II), and many others."
Like the villagers in the fable, we cannot trust our shepherd — but what alternative do we have? Having grown weary of being duped by false reports, the villagers might have constructed a tower and employed an observer to stand watch and provide an accurate assessment of the surrounding area. The problem for the villagers, and for us, is that new infrastructure can be expensive. And, in the end, the new guardian may develop the same incentives as the old one.
Fortunately, modern technology offers us a superior strategy to combat those who wish to deprive us of the truth.
Prior to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1436, it was economically unfeasible for most individuals to own books, leading to widespread illiteracy. Without the ability to read information, let alone scrutinize and judge it, commoners had no intellectual defense with which they could combat falsehoods. The printing revolution empowered people to access and act upon truth, thus holding religious and political officials accountable for their misdeeds.
The Internet has similarly revolutionized information access and analysis. Leaks of confidential government documents have turned into a flood; firsthand reports from theaters of war circumvent government censors and combat propaganda; the proliferation of mobile devices has turned every citizen into an agent of accountability who can document the actions of police officers and turn their abuses of authority into viral videos. These and a host of other innovations empower the individual to obtain and act upon the truth. They also minimize the risk of our believing that something is a threat to our health, safety, or welfare when it really isn’t.
The most important and innovative byproduct of this technological advance is the decentralization of information, including inputs and outputs. There are now an abundance of sources and a variety of means by which we can listen to them. We’re not reliant upon a single shepherd. The world features observation towers in abundance—a marketplace of investigators, researchers, analysts, and commentators. Should one source prove untrustworthy, we have other options from which to choose.
Likewise, our ability to share the truth using technology ensures that controls and censorship will forever be circumvented; with the click of a button, we can now help countless others see that the emperor isn’t wearing clothes. Social media has radically altered the traditional news networks, and citizen journalists are increasingly empowered to identify, investigate, and report on an issue of concern. Worldwide dissemination of information is no longer a fanciful, futuristic dream—the revolution has become our reality.
We live in a dangerous world, where threats do exist and should be dealt with. We should be diligent, however, in figuring out what is or isn’t a credible threat. Imagine if your young neighbor was shot and killed by another homeowner unfamiliar with Halloween. Wouldn't we agree that more information would have caused that neighbor to respond differently?
We can’t expect people to act reasonably in the face of some purported threat unless they can access the truth and the context that surround it. Thankfully, today we have more tools than ever to check those who cry wolf and expect people to stay cowering in the shadows of the unknown.