ADL International Leadership Award Presented to Sacha Baron Cohen at Never Is Now 2019
Today around the world, demagogues appeal to our worst instincts. Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream. It’s as if the Age of Reason – the era of evidential argument – is ending, and now knowledge is delegitimized and scientific consensus is dismissed. Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march. Hate crimes are surging, as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities.
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The post-truth prophets
Postmodernism predicted our post-truth hellscape. Everyone still hates it.
Technology and globalization were making the world infinitely more complicated and that meant more information to process, more dots to connect. And one way to manage this chaos is to lean more and more on narratives that strip the world of its complexity — and often reinforce our biases at the same time.
We need to celebrate this collaboration more than ever, because it doesn’t happen on its own. It needs an environment that encourages researchers to build international and interdisciplinary teams, to work in different countries, to attack problems that no one person, or nation, can solve alone.
Human cleverness arises from distributing knowledge between minds, making people think they know more than they do
The hive mind, with its seamless interdependence and expertise-sharing, once helped humans hunt mammoths and now sends them into space. But in politics it causes problems. Using a toilet without understanding it is harmless, but changing the health-care system without understanding it is not. Yet people often have strong opinions about issues they understand little about. And on social media, surrounded by like-minded friends and followers, opinions are reinforced and become more extreme. It is hard to reason with someone under the illusion that their beliefs are thought through, and simply presenting facts is unlikely to change beliefs when those beliefs are rooted in the values and groupthink of a community.
Why are people so reluctant to change their minds? This well-researched and well-presented cartoon delves into that very important question. It also helps elucidate the relationship between emotion and reason when our belief system is challenged.
Why bad ideas refuse to die
“They may have been disproved by science or dismissed as ridiculous, but some foolish beliefs endure. In theory they should wither away – but it’s not that simple”
“Many ideas have been brilliantly upgraded or repurposed for the modern age, and their revival seems newly compelling. Some ideas from the past, on the other hand, are just dead wrong and really should have been left to rot. When they reappear, what is rediscovered is a shambling corpse. These are zombie ideas. You can try to kill them, but they just won’t die. And their existence is a big problem for our normal assumptions about how the marketplace of ideas operates.
“The phrase “marketplace of ideas” was originally used as a way of defending free speech. Just as traders and customers are free to buy and sell wares in the market, so freedom of speech ensures that people are free to exchange ideas, test them out, and see which ones rise to the top. Just as good consumer products succeed and bad ones fail, so in the marketplace of ideas the truth will win out, and error and dishonesty will disappear.”
Personal beliefs versus scientific innovation: getting past a flat Earth mentality
“Almost by definition, the most important and innovative scientific findings often go against people’s existing beliefs. If research that conforms to personal beliefs is favored, then any research that is based on new ideas runs the risk of being passed over. It takes a leap to imagine a round Earth when everyone’s always believed it to be flat.”