At a time of anxiety about fake news and conspiracy theories, philosophy can contribute to our most urgent cultural and political questions about how we come to believe what we think we know.
Democracies are especially vulnerable to epistemic threats because in needing the deliberative participation of their citizens, they must place a special value on truth….Indeed, a striking feature of our current political landscape is that we disagree not just over values (which is healthy in a democracy), and not just over facts (which is inevitable), but over our very standards for determining what the facts are. Call this knowledge polarization, or polarization over who knows—which experts to trust, and what is rational and what isn’t.
Below are a few different resources from author Jonathan Rauch discussing concepts of truth, knowledge, misinformation and the roles of institutions in producing knowledge. His work covers a lot of important ground related to TOK.
When Americans think about how we find truth amid a world full of discordant viewpoints, we usually turn to a metaphor, that of the marketplace of ideas. It is a good metaphor as far as it goes, yet woefully incomplete. It conjures up an image of ideas being traded by individuals in a kind of flea market, or of disembodied ideas clashing and competing in some ethereal realm of their own. But ideas in the marketplace do not talk directly to each other, and for the most part neither do individuals. Rather, our conversations are mediated through institutions like journals and newspapers and social-media platforms.
Persuasion Podcast: Don’t Give Up on Truth
The very idea of truth and science, Jonathan Rauch argues, is now under threat from many quarters. In his latest book, The Constitution of Knowledge, he gives a novel account of the principles of science, and explains why democracies must strive to preserve the truths that bind us together.
(Passage from A Defense of Truth) Why Fake News Flourishes: Emitting Mere Information Is Easy, But Creating Actual Knowledge Is Hard
This raises a tough question. The ability to reason is meant to be humanity’s supreme attribute, the characteristic that most sets us apart from other animals. Why, then, has evolution endowed us with a tool so faulty that, if you bought it from a shop, you’d send it back? The French evolutionary psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have offered an intriguing answer to this question. If our reasoning capacity is so bad at helping us as individuals figure out the truth, they say, that’s because truth-seeking isn’t its function. Instead, human reason evolved because it helps us to argue more effectively.
How real are the equations with which we represent nature?
Physicists’ theories work. They predict the arc of planets and the flutter of electrons, and they have spawned smartphones, H-bombs and—well, what more do we need? But scientists, and especially physicists, aren’t just seeking practical advances. They’re after Truth. They want to believe that their theories are correct—exclusively correct—representations of nature. Physicists share this craving with religious folk, who need to believe that their path to salvation is the One True Path.
But can you call a theory true if no one understands it?
The Bari belief in partible paternity may be functional, but it is not any closer to truth than the stork theory of conception. Some philosophers with pragmatist inclinations might believe that truths ought to be defined in terms of utility. By that standard, if a particular belief is useful for the Bari, then it is true. But, that is sloppy thinking. A statement is true if and only if it corresponds with facts.
The Bari belief is clearly false, and for that very reason, it cannot be called “knowledge.” This also applies to the wide array of beliefs that in North American academia, are beginning to be honored as “indigenous ways of knowing.” The word “knowledge” has a very specific philosophical definition…
In 2014, a grad student made a joke video about a celestial body coming to destroy Earth, and got way more than he bargained for.
(click on image for full cartoon)
NYTimes Op-Doc exploring the psychological basis of our need for certainty and its pitfalls. Narrated by psychologist Arie Kruglanski who coined the term “cognitive closure.”
From 2016 but still offers meaningful insight into our current moment in politics.
“People who are anxious because of the uncertainty that surrounds them are going to be attracted to messages that offer them certainty. The need for closure is the need for certainty. To have clear-cut knowledge. You feel that you need to stop processing too much information, stop listening to a variety of information and zero in on what, to you, appears to be the truth. The need for closure is absolutely essential but it can also be extremely dangerous.”
We reveal how one of the biggest fake news stories ever concocted — the 1984 AIDS-is-a-biological-weapon hoax — went viral in the pre-Internet era. Meet the KGB cons who invented it, and the “truth squad” that quashed it. For a bit.
There are further episodes linked there as well.
13 minute talk that covers some interesting ground. What is truth? How do we arrived at it? Can there be multiple “truths”?
A couple of interesting quotes from his reflections on telling stories:
“…maybe I was relying too much on science to find the truth.”
“There were a lot of truths in the room at that moment and we were only looking at one of them.
He started to do stories where “everything is disputed all you can do is struggle to make sense. And the struggle kind of became the point.”
“We live in a world where truth is no longer just a set of facts to be captured. It’s a process. It’s gone from being a noun to being a verb.”
“I committed myself to doing stories where you heard truths collide.”
How do you end a story? Host of “Radiolab” Jad Abumrad tells how his search for an answer led him home to the mountains of Tennessee, where he met an unexpected teacher: Dolly Parton.
After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News, investigates the ongoing threat caused by the phenomenon of “fake news” in the U.S., focusing on the real-life consequences that disinformation, conspiracy theories and false news stories have on the average citizen, both in an election cycle and for years to come.