ERIE, Pa. -- To guide readers through his new book, “No Bull Information: A Humorous, Practical Guide to Help Americans Adapt to the Information Age,” John Gamble invented a character named Arnbi, a cartoon Aristotle who points to the truth of a given situation. When the “bull” in the book’s title gets deep — when the talk turns to politics, for example — the figure is drawn holding a shovel.
Gamble, distinguished professor of political science and international law and director of the honors programs at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, uses the character to lighten the tone, but also to focus readers on the book’s key points, one of which is that, when presented with information, we increasingly struggle to “separate the gems from the junk.”
“I have noticed this with my students, and it’s a symptom of the larger culture: Whatever they’re after, they want it to be brief and immediate," said Gamble. "There is little patience for anything that requires much consideration or reflection, or that is too complicated to be summarized in a two-minute answer.”
That mindset has led us to this particular moment in presidential politics, Gamble says, and to the bluster of the current Republican front-runner, Donald Trump.
“Listen to how he talks,” said Gamble, who describes himself as a political centrist. “He starts with an over-the-top premise, saying, for instance, that Hillary Clinton was the worst secretary of state in the history of our nation, and he resists any temptation to explain his statement. He doesn’t mention any of the other secretaries of state, let alone their accomplishments.
“The problem is, people don’t challenge him. They don’t force him to stop and explain himself, so we don’t get the context. We get gross oversimplifications: Everything is ‘terrible,’ or ‘stupid,’ or ‘the worst ever,’ or ‘wonderful’ or ‘great.’
“Simplicity is seductive," Gamble continued. "It feels good, and it provides security and peace of mind. But much of the modern world is not simple, and wishing and longing for simplicity does not bring it about.”
The source of the problem, Gamble says, is that too many Americans have lost the energy — if not the ability — to think analytically, both in and out of the voting booth. He writes about “fact traps,” which build an argument or sales pitch on irrelevant or misleading information. Many supermarkets, for example, sell single-serve coffee pods, such as K-cups, in 16-, 18- or 36-count boxes. The labels on store shelves list the price per ounce of coffee, rather than the price per serving. That makes it difficult to calculate the cost of each cup.
Companies also play tricks with statistics, Gamble says. For example, rival auto insurers can advertise that drivers who switch from the competitor’s service save money. That’s often because the drivers who were eligible for lower rates did switch. Those who weren’t continued with their existing policy.
The book’s final section begins with another cartoon Arnbi, shovel in hand. It warns of authors who write unnecessarily long books.
From there, Gamble offers a series of checklists — tips for choosing a physician, buying a car, using a credit card and resisting TV infomercials.
“It’s a way to look more carefully at what we do, what we buy and whom we vote for,” he said. “There are thousands of areas where even a little correction can make a real difference in our lives.”
“No Bull Information: A Humorous, Practical Guide to Help Americans Adapt to the Information Age” was published by Morgan James Publishing. It is available at Amazon.com and other retailers.
Assistant director, news and information, Penn State Behrend