Popper’s vision is one of knowledge as useful information, by which we mean knowledge that solves a problem. Information counts as knowledge, therefore, if it fulfills this simple purpose.
For people living through a ruinous financial crisis or devastating climate change — or even through rapid social change that has no material effect on their lives — it can be hard to make sense of a cascade of events that seem to have no plainly evident causal chain, or even identifiable human authors. How do you account for a world we’re meant to master, but is so complex its workings seem essentially opaque?
“Human cognition is inseparable from the unconscious emotional responses that go with it.”
In theory, resolving factual disputes should be relatively easy: Just present the evidence of a strong expert consensus. This approach succeeds most of the time when the issue is, say, the atomic weight of hydrogen.
But things don’t work that way when the scientific consensus presents a picture that threatens someone’s ideological worldview. In practice, it turns out that one’s political, religious, or ethnic identity quite effectively predicts one’s willingness to accept expertise on any given politicized issue.
The question “What is truth?” is perhaps the hardest one ever posed. Science is based on the correspondence theory of truth, namely, that truth corresponds to reality. But others say that truth is based on consensus, while others say that truth is entirely relative. So, what’s the truth about truth?
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.
“It’s not about foreign trolls, filter bubbles or fake news. Technology encourages us to believe we can all have first-hand access to the ‘real’ facts – and now we can’t stop fighting about it.
“Contrary to initial hype surrounding big data, the explosion of information available to us is making it harder, not easier, to achieve consensus on truth. As the quantity of information increases, the need to pick out bite-size pieces of content rises accordingly. In this radically sceptical age, questions of where to look, what to focus on and who to trust are ones that we increasingly seek to answer for ourselves, without the help of intermediaries. This is a liberation of sorts, but it is also at the heart of our deteriorating confidence in public institutions.”
Science communication has lost its sense of empathy and misunderstands how fear can alter a person’s belief system.
When we feel so fundamentally disenfranchised, it’s comforting to concoct a fictional universe that systemically denies you the right cards. It gives you something to fight against and makes you self-deterministic.
It provides an “us and them” narrative that allows you to conceive of yourself as a little David raging against a rather haughty, intellectual establishment Goliath.
The dual nature of power and truth results in the curious fact that we humans know many more truths than any other animal, but we also believe in much more nonsense. We are both the smartest and the most gullible inhabitants of planet Earth.
Knowledge Questions: What is the relationship between reason and intuition? Do we use reason or intuition more when determining truth?
The following are passages from Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in cognitive psychology). They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people…
In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play.
This link is to the larger passage from the book.
“It’s something else — it’s feeling, emotion, preference, loyalty, convenience of the moment,” Mr. Hayden said. He quoted a former speechwriter for Mr. Bush, Michael Gerson, about Mr. Trump: “He lives in the eternal now — no history, no consequences.”