Writing a book review after reading True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo is quite a fatalistic endeavor. You’re either going to like the book or you’ll despise it. But these comments won’t change your mind. They’ll enable you to feel good buying a book you already want or you’ll ridicule them for examining a book you already know sucks.
In True Enough, Manjoo, manager of the Machinist blog at Salon.com, examines how recent developments in technology have exacerbated the fractured nature of our antagonistic, skeptical, partisan, believe-whatever-outlandishness-you-want-to-believe-without-regard-for-proof society. He launches the book with the compelling case of three-year-old Eliza Jane Scovil.
The young girl came down with what three pediatricians thought was a simple cough or a case of the sniffles. They had all operated under the assumption that Eliza Jane was a normal young girl like any other. However, Eliza Jane’s mother Christine Maggiore had tested positive for HIV in 1992. In the ensuring years, Maggiore had refused the antiretroviral medications that are generally prescribed for fending off full blown AIDS. “Maggiore had come to accept the unconventional views of a sets of activists who argue that HIV does not cause AIDS,” Manjoo writes. The mother counsels HIV-positive pregnant women to decline prescriptions believed to prevent passing the virus to a fetus and she advocates breast feeding, something researchers have found transmits HIV from an infected mother to a newborn child. Maggiore and the child’s father did not have Eliza Jane (or her sibling) tested for HIV. After the passing of Eliza Jane, the grieving Maggiore argued that AIDS was not a factor.
Yet, medical examiners performing an autopsy on Eliza Jane found numerous items of medical evidence to counter the mother’s claims. The medical examiner ruled the little girl died of AIDS.
“The death of a little girl in Los Angeles may not look immediately germane to the thesis of this book: that the limitless choice we now enjoy over the information we get about our world has loosened our grip on what is—and isn’t—true,” writes Manjoo. “What killed Eliza Jane, then, was not only a disease but more precisely the lack of notice and care for a disease—a denial even, that her condition existed. What killed her was disregard for scientific fact. It was the certainty with which her parents jettisoned the views of experts in favor of another idea, their own idea, far removed from observable reality. It was a willingness to trade in what was true for what was merely true enough.”
Manjoo goes on to examine numerous other examples of how in today’s society we can select our own version of the truth. He looks at Fox News, Lou Dobbs, 9/11 theories, claims of fraud in the 2004 Presidential election, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, James Frey, All in the Family, and other examples of how we believe what we choose to believe.
Most relevant to the audience of Crunchgear, Manjoo discusses “a war that readers will be surprised to learn still sees much hot fire, but one in which, it turns out, combatants are surprisingly quick to mobilize against any perceived slight. It is the war over, of all things, computer operating systems.”
Recounting the experiences of David Pogue, technology critic for the New York Times, and Wall Street Journal reviewer Walt Mossberg, Manjoo examines the zeal of Apple proponents. In one instance, he dissects a 2004 Mossberg column about Apple’s iMac desktop computer. He points out that of the 900 words, “just 70 of them, or 8 percent, by my count, suggest anything even approaching negative criticism.” Apple was so excited about the review they included it in advertisements and Steve Jobs quoted it in speeches. But the hate mail Mossberg received over the review all demanded to know what, exactly, did he have against the company. Pogue’s email inbox has been similarly deluged when he commented on Apple products. Judging from these intense and unbalanced reactions, “fans of Apple often want more,” Manjoo opines. “They care little for honest opinion. They want to pick up the paper and see it in a reflection of their own nearly religious zeal for the thing they love. They don’t want a review. They want a hagiography.”
A tendency to believe what you want to believe is hardly a new phenomenon. A 1951 study involving a football game between Dartmouth and Princeton revealed that fans of the opposing teams blamed the other side for playing dirty and benefiting from biased referees. That’s not unexpected. But what the researchers found was that “the fans were not choosing to see actions in the game—or deliberately overlooking things—in a way that corresponded with their feelings,” Manjoo writes. “Rather, it was a matter of visual perception: their eyes were taking in the same game, but their brains seemed to be processing the events in two distinct ways.”
It is precisely this level of scientific research that makes True Enough interesting. Manjoo doesn’t simply say that we live in a fractured society where people can choose their own reality. He provides extensive psychological research that proves why our brains function that way.
The difference between this multi-reality-ed age and previous eras is that technology allows us to select –and even create – our own evidence. For example, the easy accessibility of image editing software makes it easy to challenge any image. “The real danger of living in the age of Photoshop isn’t the proliferation of fake photos,” Manjoo explains. “Rather, it’s that true photos will be ignored as phonies. When every picture is suspect, all pictures are dismissable, and photography’s unique power to criticize will decline.”
Add to those photo (and audio and video) editing capabilities a multitude of blogs, radio stations, and television channels and anyone can position themselves as an expert. “It’s a pressing problem of the fragmented age,” Manjoo writes. “Today, experts come at us from all directions, in every medium, through every niche… We consult experts specifically to learn something about which we are ignorant. The transaction is inherently treacherous because ignorance puts us at a disadvantage, too. How can we know whether the ‘experts’ who dominate the public discourse really are expert?”
About midway through True Enough, a certain paranoia sweeps over you as a reader. Let’s say you’re at page 142, just more than halfway through the book, and Manjoo has just thoroughly decimated the arguments of Kathy Dopp and Steven Freeman who claimed that George Bush did not truly win the 2004 Presidential election. And suddenly you start to wonder if you can believe Manjoo’s evidence. The whole book is about how “fact” and “reality” can be easily manipulated. When nothing is as it seems, then how can an examination of the phenomenon be trusted? How can you, as a reader, be sure that Farhad Manjoo is providing you with the whole story? How can you be sure he’s not coloring the evidence or selecting only the research that supports his theory?
Ultimately, you can’t. But you can be sure that True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society is an engaging and stimulating read, sure to generate conversation and arguments, that will open your eyes to how the kaleidoscope of our media and culture functions and how we process information that we agree with as well as that which we disdain.
Scott McKenzie runs Slushpile.net where he reviews books and media.