The Grand Illusion

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A couple of years ago I brought to your attention the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr. For those of you who missed it, brothers and sisters, I think that story bears repeating, especially in these turbulent times of information overload and, ahem, “alternative truth.”

If Frank Abagnale Jr doesn’t ring an immediate bell, perhaps you’ve heard of the Steven Spielberg film “Catch Me If You Can.” If you’re still drawing a blank, permit me to bring you up to date.

The story goes like this: back in the 60s Frank Abagnale Jr was a clever teenage imposter. By the time he was twenty-two he’d already successfully posed as an airline pilot, medical doctor, assistant attorney general for the state of Louisiana (where he passed the bar without any formal education) and cashed millions of dollars in bad checks.

After a turn in prison, the consequence of his one and only arrest, Frank saw the error of his ways. He wound up working for the FBI for 32 years as a consultant exposing fraudsters. Until the last couple of years Frank toured the country telling his story in prestigious venues, everywhere from “Talks at Google” to “60 Minutes Australia.”

It was a moving story brilliantly and poignantly related in a masterful style, a redemption tale rivalling “A Christmas Carol.” To watch Mr. Abagnale telling his story on YouTube is to be almost moved to tears. Frank Abignale Jr was truly a man transformed from a life of criminality to the very quintessence of righteous rectitude.

There’s just one problem. It’s all a lie. Frank Abignale Jr began his criminal career as a punk who quickly accumulated a long rap sheet from multiple arrests and convictions. He did, once or twice, wear an airline uniform as a disguise to pass bad paper, but he never jetted around the world for free, never worked as a medical doctor, never had anything to do with the Louisiana state AG’s office, never passed the Louisiana Bar and never worked a single solitary day for the FBI.

Despite all that, until recently Frank enjoyed the life of a celebrity. Even so, for the last ten years or so his was always a story fairly easy to refute. Five minutes on Wikipedia or a modest search on Google would have told you all you needed to know. Mr. Anagnale’s biggest and only real con was what he told you and me. He had us fooled for many decades. I know, he had me fooled for a while. Despite all the negative publicity he still has many people, possibly even most people, fooled to this very day.

We believed him because we wanted to believe him. His story is irresistible. It reinforces the appealing notion that eminent doctors and bigshot lawyers aren’t so special after all because what they do is easy to imitate. His narrative is that the real con is the idea of a hierarchy of skill. In short, we wanted to believe that, on some level, most people are the same, and the advantages brought by education and hard work are largely an illusion.

It is this kind of Dunning-Kruger phenomenon that makes it possible for a nation as large and sophisticated and scientifically advanced as the United States to elect a man like Donald Trump as president. For some reason many of us make the mistake of thinking that the job is mostly all for show, that it requires no real expertise. That’s why we are so quick to anoint people with no experience as “the next president” just because we happen to like them and, rightly or wrongly, they’ve earned our trust.

In keeping with the metaphor of Frank Abagnale, many of us, including me, are old enough to have lived two lives. The first half of our lives we lived in a kind of informational Dark Age, when truth was much harder to come by. Unless a reference book or a library was readily to hand, disputes over questions of fact were difficult to settle. It’s hard to believe but, easily solved questions such as what year Albert Einstein was born (1879) or who was the only US president to serve two nonconsecutive terms of office (Grover Cleveland) were not trivial to solve by people shooting the breeze over lunch or in your average American office.

Today, of course, a child with a phone can answer such questions with a facility that would have amazed us back then. The internet has brought the universe of facts to our pockets and purses. Despite this, ignorance is on the rise. How can this be?

It’s too easy to claim that, because the internet is so crammed with conspiracy theories and a variety of conflicting opinions that the truth is just as hard to come by as ever. Back in our day we had no such advantage. Ignorance, we might insist, was an artefact of too little information, not too much. Today the truth is buried in mountains of nonsense and is therefore just as hard to come by as ever.

I call bullshit. If you insist that the truth about Trump, for example, is supposedly just a matter of opinion, then you can turn to Twitter or “Truth” Social and find out what Trump really thinks — in his own words. You can hear him speak on YouTube and find out what he actually said — in his own words. Supposed controversies of fact are also easy to solve with a few minutes on Google. Most of the “stunning” revelations of your favourite conspiracy theory have been easily refuted — typically hundreds of times — with simple logic and science on websites and forums across the web.

The truth isn’t hidden on the internet. It doesn’t need to be. It’s there in plain sight for most of us to find. Fox News and the outrageous Republican liars in Congress get away with their lies because most people in their thrall simply don’t bother to check. The average person lives comfortably in their own echo chambers of confirmation bias, their own cosy little bubbles. It’s not because they can’t get at the truth, it’s because they don’t want to.

It turns out that the lack of information we thought we were missing in the first part of our lives was just an illusion. Too many of us liked our ignorance and we were unbothered by the fact that we had no easy way to the truth. Today the path to the truth is a golden and well-marked road. But human nature hasn’t changed, and the barrier to truth is artificial. It’s an illusion bubble that many of us don’t want to burst.

It turns out that letting go of our lies and facing the truth is hard work. Gaining knowledge and expertise is hard work. It goes against the grain of human nature to admit this, but if we are to survive as a species, admit it we must. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.

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