May 24 2018

Elon Musk Attacks the Media

When you are a celebrity billionaire, your Twitter rants tend to garner media attention. Elon Musk recently unleashed his true feelings about the media in a Twitter fight with various people. You can read the whole exchange, but here is the money quote:

Thought you’d say that. Anytime anyone criticizes the media, the media shrieks “You’re just like Trump!” Why do you think he got elected in the first place? Because no ones believes you any more. You lost your credibility a long time ago.

Let me start by saying that overall I am a fan of Musk. I love SpaceX, the whole idea of private space flight, and got choked up the first time I saw a rocket landing vertically. Musk has a vision and he is getting it done. Sure, he has made mistakes and there is a lot you can criticize, but I love that he is trying.

But one of the side effects of the internet and social media is that public figures have become much more personal. Prior to Twitter, you probably wouldn’t have had an opportunity to trade barbs with a famous billionaire. They no longer necessarily live behind a carefully crafted public image. This often means we get to see the good, the bad, and the ugly of these public figures.  As a result there are many instances where people we might admire for one particular achievement reveal themselves to have unsavory characteristics, or just to be the flawed people that down deep we know everyone to be.

This is healthy, in my opinion. Valuing hard work, skill, talent, and virtuous qualities is a good thing, but hero worship isn’t. It’s just another way to lose objectivity.

So, while I admire some of the things Musk has accomplished, I think his rant is a bit embarrassing, and I hope he ultimately uses it as an opportunity to evolve his opinions. The problem is not that there is no truth to what he says. The problem is that his views lack nuance. This may partly be an artifact of Twitter, which does not exactly lend itself to nuance, but I actually think that’s incidental. Even in the space allowed, he could have expressed more reasonable opinions.

The problem, as I see it, is the general human tendency for oversimplification. Taking a nuanced and balanced view of any complex topic is hard. It takes a lot of intellectual work, and often means accepting positions which are not emotionally pure or satisfying. It also means that our simple or one-dimensional narratives break down when confronted with reality, and then we have to modify them.

It is much more satisfying to think of something as all good or all bad. Such a view gives us moral clarity, and relieves us of the burden of confronting complexity, and the reality that there may be no heroes or villains, and no simple solution to messy reality. As an aside, this is why I love good fiction with complex characters, and no real heroes of villains. Everyone just has a complex set of motivations, and you can see things from their side.

So, for example, there are lots of problems with the media and journalism today. I spend a great deal of time criticizing the media, especially how they report on science and pseudoscience. But that doesn’t mean the media has no credibility or that they are worthless. There are also many good journalists out there honestly trying to do a good job. There is also biased media, but those biases tend to range the spectrum, and to some extent balance themselves out.

Rather than making absolute statements such as saying that “no one” trusts the media, or that they have lost credibility, it is more accurate to say that the media is flawed but necessary. There is a lot of good reporting out there, but no one person or outlet has a monopoly on good information. Every outlet has their editorial filter, their blind spots, and their perspective. But within those limitations, we may actually get some real information.

The key is, I think, not to trust any one source. Get information from multiple independent sources with balanced editorial views. I also filter out the extreme outlets that are overwhelmed with bias and propaganda, although I may occasionally see what they have to say. And of course you need to evaluate each claim skeptically – what are the primary sources, what do they say, what do we actually know and what is speculation and opinion?

I also find it helpful to identify expert sources of opinion and analysis that I come to trust because they have proven reliable over time. There is no one I agree with all the time, but there are writers whose opinions I find worth the time to read. But be careful here – don’t just read sources that make you feel good. Read sources that challenge you, but that you find well sourced, logically argued, and factually based.

So yes, the media is a mess, and it is more of a mess with social media. But it is a glorious mess, it is an essential part of our democracy, and with a little work you can find some useful bits in there. I therefore disagree with Musk’s simplistic dismissal and proclamations that the media is hopeless. The “media” is also not monolithic, and you cannot really make statements about all of media, or even “mainstream” media (whatever that is – that is also increasingly a fuzzy line).

I would assume that Musk would not like being lumped in with all billionaires, or even the “1%” and condemned along with the rest for their perceived sins. Someone could, of course, focus on Musk’s failures, false promises, and hyped claims and weave that into a simplistic narrative about Musk as a technocharlatan. But that would be just as unfair as his narrative about the media.

Many things fit into this mold – democracy is flawed but valuable, capitalism is flawed but a powerful tool, science itself has much to criticize in how it is currently done, but I would not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The bottom line is that humans are flawed, and as a result all of our institutions display those same flaws. The institutions themselves may be valuable, even essential, and may have features that are critical to our society. But we always have to be vigilant for human error and frailty, our propensity for bias and motivated reasoning. Therefore we should be critical of our institutions, but it should be constructive and balanced criticism. Not simplistic dismissal, conspiracy theories, or demagoguery.

It is too easy to use legitimate criticisms as a weapon against institutions that we feel are in our way. Pseudoscientists will often, for example, misuse legitimate and not legitimate criticisms of science in order to dismiss all of science, or any conclusion of science they find inconvenient. Autocrats will use criticism of democratic processes and the media, as a weapon against those institutions, in order to increase their own power.

Don’t buy into those simplistic narratives.


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