That does not compute

adding machine

Love them or hate them, there’s no escaping computers. They’re all around us… a constant part of our lives… even if we don’t realize it. They are marvelous tools when used correctly. The laptop, desktop, tablet and the smartphone are the most obvious examples of computers we tinker with daily. They may be the only ones you think of when you hear the word “computer”.

The first computer wasn’t electronic, nor was it connected to a power source. Essentially, a computer is, by definition, “a device that computes”. In addition to your Mac or PC, a calculator fits that description. So does an adding machine and an abacus.

Years ago, I had a cool coin bank that had four tubes, one each for pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. When I dropped a coin in the slot at the top of the bank, it would roll down a chute until it fell into the proper tube. Markings on the sides of the tubes told me how much money was collected. This was an ingenious and accurate machine that computed the amount of cash I had saved.

But let’s say I purposely dropped a fake coin in the slot, a piece of metal that was the same size and shape of a quarter but not a product of the US Mint. Although it was worthless, it would take the place of a real coin and mislead me into thinking I had saved more than was actually on hand.

In that case, I provided false data to a computer. I lied. I told the device that I was entering a quarter although I knew that was not true. There’s a common phrase to describe that action: “garbage in, garbage out”. In other words, if you, dear human, put in the wrong information… the computer will give you the wrong answer. But then, a computer is nothing more than a tool created by the ultimate device: the human brain. Our brains work on the same concept. Given false information, we are likely to repeat it, often without realizing that the data is incorrect.

Charles Babbage, the 19th century mathematician and inventor who is called the “father of the computer” because of his pioneering work envisioning a programmable computing device once said, “On two occasions, I have been asked [by members of Parliament], ‘Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’ I am not able to rightly apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.”  In other words, if you start with a lie, don’t expect anything else at the end.

Nowhere is that more obvious than the internet, especially on places like Facebook. There, you can tell a lie and your friends will not only “like” it, they’ll repeat it, often with a few embellishments of their own.

Politics and current events seem to be the most common topics of those who spread these wildfire stories. If it weren’t for the world wide web, I doubt any of us would have heard that President Obama was born in Kenya (false), that Vince Foster was murdered by the Clintons (not true), or that Oprah Winfrey has endorsed Donald Trump for president (not yet… and not likely). But there are plenty of people who hate Obama and the Clintons and, for reasons that defy all known boundaries of common sense, support Trump. For them, these and similar stories reinforce their closely held beliefs. Trying to convince them otherwise is a monumental task. It would probably be easier to convince Niagara Falls to flow uphill.

A recent article in Scientific American magazine explored the difficulties of changing minds. People with long-held beliefs resist information that conflicts with their already established opinions. We tend to settle into a comfortable narrative and refuse, possibly aggressively, to accept anything that doesn’t fit the pattern. So, if you have a history of partisan politics — maybe you’re a lifetime member of a party and usually vote for its candidates — you’ll tend to accept as fact anything that reinforces your stance and looks bad for the other side.

It’s our instinct, our human nature, to strive for success… to win… to be right. When faced with the chance of being proved wrong, we often avoid even the most logical facts and focus instead on a storyline that makes us comfortable. Over time, we feel more at ease accepting as truth anything that conforms to our beliefs, no matter how ludicrous. And if the guy on the radio or the lady on television says out loud what we already believe, even better.

Con men and cult leaders — am I being redundant? — gain the confidence of their victims by telling them what they want to hear. Is it any wonder that many political careers are built on the same foundation?

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald June 2, 2016.)

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