Infogrifter Essay


Factism is an insecure response to the demands of the Information Age. Infogrifter is a humorous response to Factism. The Information Age confronts us all with an impossible challenge, keeping up with all that information. The anxiety and insecurity this demand creates is the basis of our Infogrifter parody.

It is a truism of the Information Age that human knowledge is expanding geometrically, doubling every ten years, or seven years, or five years, or even, lately, every two years. There was a last moment, perhaps late in the 18th or in the early part of the 19th centuries, when a polymath aristocrat like Thomas Jefferson could aspire to, if not actually achieve, an understanding or appreciation of the state of knowledge of his culture. Today, no one can hope to come within laughing distance of a suggestion of a hint of such an understanding. And, of course, the situation worsens daily, hourly, so that no one can even reasonably hope to comprehend even the extent of what he or she doesn’t know.

And yet, the Information Age does not absolve us of the requirement to somehow be aware of the state of knowledge in all kinds of fields and to keep up with important new developments in everything. Indeed, it insists on this requirement; we dare not be blind-sided by an essential innovation or the dreaded paradigm shift. It is more important than ever to be a well-informed person, to be informed about information, to know about knowledge.

But what does it mean to be a well-informed person in this era? How much are we expected to know and about what? What can we safely ignore? Who is qualified to say? We cannot hope to comprehend developments in quantum physics, but shouldn’t we know why string theory is considered significant? Sure, no one expects us to really understand Derrida and poststructuralism, but shouldn’t a well-informed person be able to locate them in some meaningful context?

Since no absolute level of sufficient knowledge can be determined or probably achieved, an anxious would-be well-informed person tends to fall back on trying to attain a high relative level of knowledge. If we can’t know what we “should” know, we can at least aspire to know as much as, or little more than, our friends and associates. We can try to make sure that when a name or an event or an idea is discussed at a dinner party, we are not among those who will have their ignorance revealed. Seeming to know more than the person on your left and the person on your right is the best available substitute for knowing enough. The contemporary urban know-it-all is someone who copes with the anxiety of inadequacy and exposure by amassing a superficially impressive, hopefully intimidating, inventory of factual information, and this is the practice of Factism.

Thus, the psychological basis of Factism is the fear of being inadequately informed about the world and of having that inadequacy exposed. Factism is the basis of the enduring popularity of “Jeopardy!” and the persistent emergence of new general knowledge-based game fads, “Trivial Pursuit,” “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”, “The Weakest Link”, and so on. Let’s face it, most of these are mediocre games with dull, undeveloped strategic elements. [If you’ve doubled your opponents’ scores going into “Final Jeopardy”, keep your bet small!] Their appeal is the opportunity they present to re-assure participants of their adequacy as residents of the Information Age. The General Knowledge Competency Board with its quiz is a parody of these games and the psychological needs they fill. Our purpose is to offer know-alls the prospect of an extremely re-assuring experience but to deliver the utter, complete opposite: utter inadequacy of knowledge and complete exposure of ignorance.

About Facts:

“Just the facts, ma’am” was the mantra of that dreary, no-nonsense, TV police detective of the 50’s, Sgt. Friday, but we don’t subscribe to his or any other cultish adoration of facts. We don’t consider facts to be superior to other, less quantitative, categorical kinds of knowledge. One of the pleasures of infogrifting is the opportunity it offers to gently humiliate individuals who, like Sgt. Friday, tend to over-value the possession of “factual information” as a measure of learning and understanding. It’s a kind of “hoisting them on their own petard” (whatever that may mean) kind of pleasure.

Facts, moreover, are not the solid, objective things they appear to be, but slippery things, entirely dependent on the language from which they are constructed and the authors who give them attribution. On closer inspection, many of their claims of objectivity melt away, revealing shifting landscapes of subjectivity and paradox.

Here is one example of the ambiguity of facts: Throughout much of 2002, it was a “fact”, according to the most authoritative and widely cited arbiter of corporate size, Fortune Magazine, that the Enron Corporation was one of the ten largest corporations in the United States. The Fortune 500 listing did not revise its 2002 rankings to reflect the bankruptcy declared by Enron late in 2001; it took months for Enron’s demise to be formally processed into a new “fact”. But the tenuousness of the “fact” of Enron’s presumed great size goes much deeper than that, because Enron’s apparent immensity was always at least partly a sham, an illusion created by dishonest accounting. It never really deserved the status ascribed to it by Fortune, and Enron’s rankings were always facts living on borrowed (stolen) time. Many perfectly well made facts that we transact with today will collapse, like the notion of Enron’s hugeness, tomorrow. This is not a scandal but a something entirely to be expected as new information about the bases of flawed factual propositions emerges. The problem is that we can never tell which of the very convincing, validly constructed facts currently in use are destined to become inoperable.

We don’t consider something like the size of a corporation to be a matter of opinion, but something firmly in the realm of facts, yet this fact, like all others, must have an author. This is one of the great paradoxes pertaining to facts, they assert objectivity but cannot escape the requirement of having authors, something inherently redolent of subjectivity. Facts do not exist in nature; they are utterly human constructions. The determination of corporate size involves quite an elaborate process of construction. First, terms must be defined. Is corporate size a function of the market value of a corporation or the dimension of its profits or the number of its employees? Actually, the Fortune 500 listing determines size solely by the volume of a corporation’s sales. Defining this sort of term is solely the responsibility of its author.

After making definitions, a great volume of data from hundreds, even thousands, of businesses has to be gathered and analyzed, a process that requires the efforts of a virtual bureaucracy, an organization like Fortune Magazine. Obviously, a fact of this sort must be issued by an entity with a credible claim to authority in its field. In a similar way, facts about population are constructed by the Census Bureau or the United Nations and weather facts are issued by national weather services. And yet, legitimate authors of facts often disagree. UN and US census population statistics vary greatly; precipitation statistics for specific locations differ widely as compiled by various weather bureaus. The reality that facts often contradict one another emphasizes their essential authorial nature.

And yet, you may say, many facts perhaps do not have or need authors; they are entirely self-evident and unquestioned; the facts that John Kennedy was shot in 1963 or that World War II occurred in the 20th century are utterly secure and beyond the requirement to be vouched for by any authority. But wait. All historical facts are subject to challenge, even if the challenges vary in degrees of legitimacy. Holocaust denial is not really more credible than denying that World War II itself occurred; it is only that there are more people with powerful motives to deny the Holocaust than with motives to deny World War II. It is also probable that some published conspiracy theorist has promoted the idea that JFK is on life support in some secret hospital even now. More importantly, the passage of time and the passing of people with direct knowledge of an event throws increasing responsibility for validating historical events on authorizing agents. We do not feel the need to cite a source for the year of the assassination of President Kennedy, but a contemporary discussion of the murder of Thomas Beckett probably requires citations.

Upon reflection, it becomes evident that virtually every aspect of the language and wording used to articulate factual propositions are potential sources of great ambiguity. A seemingly simple proposition like, “our solar system has nine planets”, is actually mired in a lively controversy at present because the meaning of the word “planet” is not agreed to by astronomers. Some say Pluto is not a planet, giving us eight of them; some say that Xena is a planet, giving us at least ten.

The point here is that we ought not be overly impressed or intimidated by suggestions that there is an equivalence of facts and truth. Facts are not delivered to us from on high and they are not superior to the human beings who manufacture and consume them. Their validity rests entirely on the diligence of their authors and the clarity and transparency with which they are crafted. But well made facts, facts that acknowledge their sources and are aware of the potential weaknesses of these sources, facts that have thought through the ambiguities of the language they employ, can be very useful things. They are extremely useful for challenging solipsistic and narcissistic views of the world. They lend themselves to quantification, which is often essential for detecting patterns in all kinds of phenomena. And they are good for those purposes where you want to keep score.

Processes of common knowledge breakdown:

Without excessive soul-searching, let us accept “facts”, with all their epistemological baggage, as a legitimate medium for intellectual transactions. We all amass huge inventories of facts and use them as effective tools for navigating the world. And we don’t simply collect facts as isolated entities but learn how to combine them through syllogism and induction to reach new factual conclusions. These processes are indispensable and usually yield valid and useful results.

It is to be expected that the personal process of acquiring facts is far from perfect and that each of us has gathered up many factual errors along with the tens of thousands of valid bits of information we have taken on. There is an organic process of correcting these errors that is generally very effective. If for example, you somehow came to believe that Herbert Hoover was president before Calvin Coolidge and you referred to this idea in conversation with two or three people, each approximately as well informed as you, the chances are very good that one of these people would gently, politely correct you: “No, I don’t think that’s right. Hoover was the one that Roosevelt defeated. Coolidge was definitely before all that.” And if you’re initially unconvinced, the other people in the conversation will probably join in and confirm your error.

The basic task of Infogrifter is to identify anomalous “facts” and false factual conclusions that are resistant to correction by this process of peer review because most well informed people share the same error. If 80% of people with an opinion on some factual matter have the correct idea, peer review works. If 80% with an opinion share the wrong idea on a factual matter, peer review breaks down and the error can be sustained indefinitely. These anomalies are quite rare but they are significant nonetheless. How does a factual error become deeply established in the collective consciousness of a culture and the great majority of its well informed individuals? Understanding how this can happen illuminates general flaws in the way individuals and cultures internalize ideas about the world.

A factual error can gain ascendancy through a variety of psychological processes and often through a combination of two or more of these processes.

A leading source of prevalent false ideas about the world is the “Conventional Narrative Error”. This occurs when a story about the world becomes so well known and so compelling that it overwhelms details, exceptions, and weaker narratives with contrary messages. One example concerns the murder rate of New York City. Here, the strength of the current conventional narrative of a remarkably safe NYC is enhanced by its having replaced the old 70’s and 80’s conventional narrative of a city descending into anarchy. When this narrative is added to the conventional narrative of unchecked gun violence in Texas and the special barbarism of crime on the border with Mexico, it becomes almost impossible to draw the conclusion that El Paso has a much lower murder rate than New York.

Another example is provided by our conventional, sentimentalized narrative of the Indians of the Great Plains as nomadic people who followed the vast buffalo herds and lived in timeless symbiosis with the environment until their expulsion from Eden by the Americans. This account leaves little room for the fact that this way of life, hunting the bison from horseback, was invented only a few years before Anglo-Americans first witnessed it. The grandeur and emotional satisfaction of the narrative suppresses and crowds out annoying contradictions.

The process of composing a good narrative, like any kind of storytelling, usually demands an imposition of clarity and coherence on the raw material of the story. Inevitably, this involves simplification and the clearing away of “unnecessary” details that get in the way. The story of the transition from Dutch New Amsterdam to English New York practically requires editing out the tiny, brief interval when Holland re-conquered New York ten years after Peter Stuyvesant lost it, and imposed a new name on the City, “New Orange”. For narrative purposes, it’s all best forgotten.

A stronger story will crowd out a weaker one. Our idea of earthquakes in the United States is dominated by the compelling narrative of the San Andreas Fault, the great San Francisco ‘Quake of 1906, and subsequent California earthquakes. All these images overwhelm the duller, remoter narrative of the New Madrid Fault in Missouri and the stronger earthquakes it spawned.

Another related cause common knowledge collapse is the “Image Error”. None of our great, shared images of contemporary Japan would suggest that it is one of the most forested nations of the world. Our images of South Korea, to the extent that they exist, nowhere suggest that it should receive more international tourists than Brazil, a nation we associate with visions of Rio and tiny bikinis and large beachfront hotels.

The “Lazy Syllogism Error” allows powerful and correct general ideas to combine and defeat specific individual facts. (Gravity is a function of mass) plus (The Earth is small compared to the giant planets) equals (Gravity is greater on Saturn than on Earth). Or, (Red Square was the site of the major public rituals of Soviet Communism) plus (Red is the iconic color of Communism) equals (The Communists named Red Square to glorify themselves). Or, (Easter Island is part of Polynesia) plus (Polynesia is well to the west of North America) equals (Easter Island cannot share a time zone with Boston, Massachusetts). Syllogistic equations like these seem reasonable, and they are most of the time, but these particular ones are wrong.

An odd cause of a few breakdowns of common knowledge is the “Unoffical Conspiracy of Silence Error.” It serves no one’s interest to point out that there is no general agreement on the specific make up of the Ten Commandments among the religions and denominations that theologically endorse them. No one wants to remember that there was a moment when American racial mores would allow Pat Boone to have bigger hits with Little Richard and Fats Domino songs than they did. Until recently perhaps, no interest group had a stake in publicizing Bulgaria’s unique success in defending its Jewish population from the Holocaust. The communist government that emerged from World War II had no reason to glorify King Boris’ semi-fascist wartime government and Bulgaria’s Jews emigrated en masse almost immediately after the War, leaving no one in a position to promote this remarkable story.

All sorts of peculiar psychological “Conditioning Errors” shape and distort our understandings of particular factual matters. Our conditioning from life-long reliance on maps makes it extremely difficult to appreciate the actual spatial relationships of different points on the globe. Our historical conditioning causes us English speakers to tend to reflexively pronounce any foreign word as if it were French, resulting in otherwise inexplicable mistakes (such as Bei-zhing). The trauma of our initial encounter with edible raw fish causes us to mistakenly fix that definition to “sushi.” Linguistic conditioning makes it very difficult for Americans not to unconsciously change “The Bridge on the River Kwai” to “The Bridge over the River Kwai.” The important point here is that these kinds of mistakes are unrelated and arise from distinct, unconscious psychological experience; they are very hard to anticipate or detect.

Some particular breakdowns of common knowledge are perhaps inexplicable. It is difficult to understand why or how most people who use the word “nonplussed” have come to believe that it is a synonym for “unfazed”, the exact opposite of its meaning, No plausible theory to explain this situation seems to have yet emerged.

Crafting Infogrifter propositions:

An Infogrifter proposition must meet several strict criteria: It cannot concern arcane or specialized knowledge that the average well informed American could never be expected to know or have an opinion on. The crucial aspect of an Infogrifter “fact” is that most well informed persons must confidently trust their understanding of it. For some reason, people are always suggesting propositions that involve important facts that people ought to know, but that is not our business. We are only interested in “facts” that people already know.

Obviously, these propositions cannot involve matters of taste and judgment, only questions of fact. They cannot employ tricky semantics or unusual interpretations of language. One very well known betting proposition that we reject is, “Who was the first president of the United States?”, followed by the assertion that Washington was not the first, because other men held that title before him under the aegis of the Articles of Confederation. Technically, this argument has some merit, but it relies on a definition of “president” that is not generally accepted. No one should be able to avoid accepting that his or her answer is wrong because we used tricky wording in fashioning the question. To qualify as an Infogrifter betting proposition, a question should elicit an answer, rather than a “pass”, from a majority of well informed respondents, and at least 80% of those responses should confidently endorse an incorrect answer. Again, if you think that you may know of a factual proposition that meets all of these criteria, please send it to us and we will award you $50 if your idea is new to us and we include it in our Inventory.

There is actually a bit more to crafting an Infogrifter proposition than identifying and presenting the central common knowledge breakdown at its core. Whenever possible, we try to surround the correct answer with similar sounding but ridiculous wrong answers. For example, in the question “Before it was New York?”, the real name of the city just prior to its final re-naming by the British was “New Orange”. To make this option seem silly, another option, “New Apple”, is included, presumably a reference to one of the City’s most popular nicknames, “The Big Apple.” While the mark is dismissing apples and oranges, he is less likely to make the connection between “New Orange” and the Dutch royal House of Orange, which might actually lead him to the correct answer.

The main technique we use to encourage a wrong answer to our questions is to offer one option, and only one, that is irresistible, obviously correct, and that leaps off the page as the only reasonable available alternative. We want to limit both the time and the depth of consideration a mark gives to each question; a quick response is most likely to be the least thoughtful and the most prone to confident error.

The illustrations that accompany the questions are the most manipulative and deceptive aspect of our propositions. They are frankly intended, when possible and appropriate, to reinforce the stereotyped imagery and conventional narratives that underlie mistaken ideas on their various subjects. Our question about the most powerful earthquakes in the American experience is a collage bursting with images of the San Andreas Fault and collapsed California freeways. Our question about “Korean Congressional Medals of Honor” is a collage of Korean War images, with nothing included that would suggest a Korean conflict of the 19th century. Our question about the origin of the name of Red Square is accompanied by images of Lenin’s tomb. No, we don’t play fair with the imagery. Not every illustration is manipulative in this way; many are neutral, but only because we saw no apparent way to effectively propagandize them or if we thought that doing so might incite suspicion of our intentions and be counter-productive.