When Truth Stopped Mattering

Truth, Who Needs It? part 2

Human brains collaborate so well that we lose track of where our understanding ends and others begins. We divide cognitive labor so smoothly and seamlessly that there’s often no sharp boundary between one person’s ideas and those of other members of the group. We think we know more than we do because we treat knowledge in the minds of others as if it were our own. This borderlessness is crucial to the way we make progress. In developing new technologies, incomplete understanding is empowering.

In the course of collaboration, we reason with one another – we make arguments, drawing on agreed-upon evidence and linking (interpreting) that evidence to a conclusion. We do this in order to persuade, and the value of persuasion is in generating agreement. For a species whose survival strategy depends on ultrasociality, agreement is what matters, not truth. The group needs to share a basic representation of things so that, on the one hand, members feel bonded together, and, on the other hand, cognitive labor can be effectively divided based on a shared grounding. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. It’s what allows us to collaborate so extensively, to join together into something larger than we can be separately – something much smarter and much more creative.

So that’s the celebration. Yay for us! Cognitive biases and all, there’s a lot to love about being who we are.

The current situation, though, is distressing. Our relationship to truth has always been a relationship of convenience, but in recent years some things have shifted. In the 2012 presidential election, journalists were reporting that candidates running for office were lying in a new way. They’ve always fudged a bit, but, as journalist Kevin Drum wrote in 2012:
“It’s not worse than past attacks, but it is different. In the past, you felt that maybe campaigns were at least a little bit embarrassed about this kind of thing. They’d blame it on someone else. They’d try to produce some lame defense. They’d haul out some fake white paper to give themselves cover. They’d do something. [But now we’re seeing campaigns that] just [don’t] seem to care. If it works, they use it. It’s like the campaign is being run by cyborgs.” (Mother Jones, 2012 Aug 29)
Another journalist in 2012, David Roberts, described a campaign as
“not contesting the truth value of its assertions so much as contesting whether truth value itself is relevant....Political campaigns have always lied and stretched the truth, but when caught in a lie, would typically defend themselves (claim it was actually true), retract, or at the very least stop repeating the lie. Either way, the presumption was that truth-telling had some moral force; one ought to tell the truth, even if that commandment was often honored in the breach. What’s creepy about [what we’re now seeing is campaigns that] don’t do any of those things. They don’t deny, they don’t stop, they just don’t care at all. What they’ve realized is that, given today’s hyper-polarization and fragmented media, there’s no practical risk to lying. It doesn’t hurt them, in terms of getting votes, so why shouldn’t they do it?” (Grist, 2012 August)
That was 2012. Then came the 2016 elections. And the two years since then. Of course this is distressing. Our world has turned crazy. We can’t blame politicians for doing what gets them elected – if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be our politicians. It’s the fact that so many of our neighbors keep voting for politicians who so flagrantly and so utterly unconcernedly lie. Used to be a politician got defensive when accused of saying something false. Now they don’t even care to get defensive. They just carry on confidently repeating the falsehood. Our country – this land that we love – re-elects them. No wonder we are disoriented and distressed and feel lost.

Some beliefs are easy to change. I might feel sure the Phillies won the '79 World Series, but you say it was the Pirates. We look it up. You were right, I was wrong, I change my belief. Easy. It's even easier if my wrong belief was, in some sense, "close" to true. If I can say, "Oh, it was the next year, 1980, that the Phillies won it," or "I knew it was one of those Pennsylvania teams," then my prior conviction is more easily reconciled to, and more willing to accept, conflicting information.

Other beliefs are harder to change. If a weak belief doesn’t square with new information, I throw out the belief. But if a strong belief doesn’t square with new information, I throw out the information.

The strong beliefs -- the ones that are hard to change -- are the ones that become a part of our group identity. Belonging is such a powerful need for us. The need drives us to collaborate and engage together in fantastically complicated joint projects. The same need can make disregard evidence to maintain group solidarity and identity.

Consider the raw-milk movement.Some folks are saying raw milk is good for you. If this catches on, it could eliminate the public health gains of more than a century of pasteurization. The CDC says raw milk is one of the world’s most dangerous food products. By and large the general public is open to facts on this.

In contrast, for some of the anti-vaccine people, or the climate-change deniers, group loyalty has become a big factor. They are identified with “their people,” and that’s who they trust -- not the carefully examined data, which they discount. Their position on the issue has become integral to their identity.

Now, the two examples I just mentioned -- the anti-vaccine and the climate-change-denial positions – are generally not popular positions among UUs. But we have to keep reminding ourselves: we all do this. We all have some beliefs that are at the center of our sense of who we are. None of us is going to be open to evidence that challenges those beliefs.

The question of truth is the question of trust. Who will you trust? Do you find the New York Times and Washington Post are generally fairly reliable with occasional mistakes and a few blind spots, or, instead, are you more trusting of Fox News? Tell me who you trust, and I've got a pretty good idea of what you think is true.

If you have trust in some source that occasionally counteracts the direction of your confirmation bias, then there's a chance your views might evolve. Without trust in any source that might challenge our prejudices, we dismiss evidence that doesn't confirm them. Our era seems to be "post-truth" because the power of trust -- i.e., the general willingness to trust some source that occasionally disconfirms our prejudices -- has diminished.

Truth is determined by trust, and trust is determined by belongingness – not intelligence, not rationality.

When trust weakens, our norms weaken. Norms are grounded on trust. David Roberts wrote:
“One effect of the radicalization of the right over the last few decades has been the discovery of just how much our politics is held together by norms rather than rules. There’s no rule you can’t filibuster every bill in the Senate by default; there’s no rule you can’t interrupt a president’s State of the Union; there’s no rule you can’t hold the routine debt-ceiling vote hostage. It simply wasn’t done. But if you shrug off the norm and do it anyway, there’s nothing to stop you.” (Grist)
Norms are a product of and expression of trust, of belongingness together. The norms about what was and wasn’t done held because our legislators trusted one another. They might disagree on this or that policy proposal, but they had a sense of belongingness with one another. There were some problems with that belongingness: it was entwined with the legislators' shared value gap, valuing whites over people of color, men over women, the wealthy over the low-income. As problematic as the belongingness among members of the US congress has been, we may still mourn that their ability to have a basic trust and respect for each other has passed away.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Truth, Who Needs It?"
See also
Part 1: Hooray for Cognitive Bias!
Part 3: If You Want Truth, Build Trust

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