How To Keep Your Head In A Post-Truth World.
In the internet era, there’s no belief that you can’t find support for. Do you believe that aliens are walking among us? This guy has been onto them for years. Are you convinced that the Earth is flat? These people are experts on the subject. Do you think that climate change is real or a hoax? Either way, the answer is a reassuring yes.
Some people have even gone as far as to call this the “post-truth” era. The foundation of objective reality that we’ve depended on for centuries to help us understand the world is crumbling in the face of ignorance, post-modernism, and our dwindling attention spans.
Where we might once have relied on the news to help us, they’re now part of the problem. News organisations were once able to rely on talented writers and the pursuit of truth to keep them in business, but now they’ve become increasingly focused on generating fear and highlighting our differences so that they can gain attention and sell our data to advertisers. The news presents an increasingly slanted view of the facts, which some have seized upon to suggest that there’s no such thing as facts at all.
The price of this uncertainty has been high. A reality TV host is the leader of the free world, our governments can’t decide whether we should wear masks during a global pandemic, the Arctic is quite literally on fire, and JK Rowling is being accused of hate speech for suggesting that men don’t get pregnant. But the greatest casualty of all in the war on facts has been our ability to trust. There’s a sense that in a world where it’s no longer possible to prove anything, there’s no point in trying to keep up. After all, what good does it do to learn about an issue if the information itself isn’t trustworthy?
So where do we turn when facts fail us? We turn to our feelings of course! If we can’t trust data, why not trust the people that make us feel good? Instead of considering the content of an argument we increasingly judge an argument based on who is making it. If that person is “on our side”, we’re eager to agree with them, often going to great lengths to see their point of view. If they’re not, we’ll go to equally great lengths to disagree with them (if we listen to what they have to say at all). Instead of following the facts as bestow can, we stick with people who have a track record of expressing views we like, and we continue to listen to them. But what happens when those people are wrong? How can we tell if we’re convinced of something nonsensical if we’ve already been convinced of it?
We all have a tendency to trust people who agree with us, the problem is that we’re less and less protected from this tendency as celebrities give their unsolicited opinions about global pandemics and football managers are asked theirs (seriously, watch this clip, it’s great). Once upon a time, we allowed experts to speak freely about topics they’d devoted their lives to. When we needed to speak about a different topic, we got a different expert. We didn’t ask economists about climate science, or dentists about structural engineering. We maintained a barrier between non-complementary fields which kept the information we received at least relatively pure. This barrier is breaking down.
Perhaps the best way to prevent it from breaking down further is to stop focusing on what we believe, and instead to ask why we believe it. Why are we invested in our opinions? Who do we place our trust in automatically, and who do we dismiss by default. What else would we need to rethink if a particular opinion was wrong? Taking inventory of beliefs can be incredibly difficult to do, especially if we begin not to like the answers. Still, we should ask it seriously. After all, there are almost certainly smart, well-informed people out there who disagree with us (if you don’t believe this to be true, I’d suggest that this be the first belief you take inventory of).
The issues facing the world today are too important to be tackled based on our feelings alone. Feelings are too unassailable. They can’t be argued with, they can’t be disproven, and all too often, we’re unwilling to even try to change them. But the price of this resistance is that we become more susceptible to bad ideas. Questioning our opinions doesn’t make them weaker, it strengthens them. In an age where information is so unreliable, the ability to question ourselves is the closest thing we have to knowledge. And knowledge, unlike an opinion, is not something everyone has.