Americans seem to agree that lies and fake news affected – or in my view, decided – the presidential election. The only disagreement is which news was fake and who was more corrupt.
This gives us common ground. The path forward isn’t arguing over which news is fake. It’s establishing how to know what’s real.
The phrase “There’s no such thing as truth” has been making the rounds. On one level it sounds almost wise, since the statement correctly suggests that achieving absolute agreement is the wrong goal. Every one of us has reasons for believing what we do.
But the statement is not true. And those who think it is true have fallen into a perplexing trap.
How can we ignore evidence, indulge our biases, and embrace only the conclusions we want to embrace? Easy: we only have to decide that “there’s no such thing as truth”.
It’s a natural step to take for those who prefer comforting fiction to the disturbing facts. The only test applied to new information is whether they want to believe it.
Anybody who believes “There’s no such thing as truth” cannot lose or win an argument. They can only drift further from mutual understanding.
Every human being builds an understanding of the world based in part on the opinions of our peers. We’re pack animals with a natural habit of seeking consensus – and accepting it from others.
“Consensus” and “hierarchy” seem like opposite things. The military works by hierarchy, while new-age hippies work by consensus. But nothing can get done without some cooperation and measured respect for vision and experience. Neither consensus nor hierarchy can function without the other.
A related habit is to assume that anybody we like and respect probably agrees with us. We fill in the blanks by assuming we’ve reached consensus where there may be none.
A consensus is much easier to manage than a skeptical focus on the evidence. This has always been the case: any individual who could embrace only what facts they had personally verified would not spend much time in the human gene pool.
Yet the opposite extreme is even more dangerous. Building a powerful consensus around groundless claims makes us extremely vulnerable to immediate dangers, manipulations, and cult-like delusions.
And the internet has made it possible for every one of us to custom-build an apparently worldwide consensus to show the world we prefer instead of the world that is.
Strangely, those who embrace fake news are being very skeptical – about more reliable news sources.
They use skepticism not to discern true from false, but to distinguish us from them – and prove their devotion to the tribe.
Rationality may be applied in the same limited way. Rationality and skepticism are among our most powerful tools, but neither guarantees us a complete grasp of the world around us.
When we experience the world through the news media, facts may not immediately affect our lives. But tribe loyalty does.
In this state, “There’s no such thing as the truth”. More basic human instincts are in command.
I recently stumbled across this conversation on the Cambridge Forum broadcast. The topic is loneliness, but it touches deeply on what we embrace, and what we reject, and why.