19 May 2023

A dangerous delusion

I sometimes see references to a "post-truth world" or a "death of truth", usually in reference to the tendency of some in the media to promote and assert claims which they themselves know to be false, as starkly confirmed now by the Dominion lawsuit.  But as Amanpour observes, the use of such terminology is lazy and implicitly concedes validity to the very nonsense which is causing the problem.

We are not dealing with a "death of truth", certainly not compared to some past eras or foreign countries, in which speaking the truth about certain things could/can get you arrested.  The distinctive current problem is a determined attack on the concept of objective reality.

In 1918-1920, there may have been different views about how to handle the influenza epidemic, but as far as I know, there were no influential voices claiming that the epidemic actually was not happening.  Such claims today about covid or anthropogenic global warming are bizarre, and at least at their current level of influence, relatively new.  The roots of this kind of reality-denial go back to the fundamentalist rejection of evolution and to the "post-modern" and "deconstructionist" horseshit that began to infect certain odd corners of academia several decades ago, but those things were confined to crank subcultures that didn't have much impact on the consensus on which actual public policy was based, nor on the serious media.  Today such reality-denial has gone mainstream.  The willingness to dismiss even easily-verifiable facts as "fake news" or mere opinion, and the deference of some of the media to such delusions, has become widespread enough to be dangerous.

It's important to distinguish between this and ordinary differences of opinion, even stark ones.  A person who believes Trump was the best president ever, or that different races should be kept segregated, or that Hitler was justified, is manifesting the kind of differences of viewpoint people have always had, even if extreme ones.  A person who insists that anthropogenic global warming is not happening is in denial about a verifiable fact of objective reality.  Normalization of such delusions is not a "death of truth", but it's a serious attack on the concept of truth.

This is why it's important not to make any rhetorical concessions to it.  Talk like "my truth" vs "your truth", "alternative facts", and suchlike must be forcefully denounced as the bullshit it is.  Claims about reality are either true or false.  A statement like "the 2020 election was stolen from Trump" is either true or not true -- it cannot be true for some people and false for others.  The Earth is not flat for members of the Flat Earth Society and spherical for everyone else.  And it simply is four and a half billion years old -- there is no sense in which it "is" six thousand years old "for" fundamentalists.  Those who believe things that are not congruent with objective reality don't have a "different truth", they're just wrong.  Any compromise on this point is a first step on the road to literal insanity.

When it comes to actual technology, most people can grasp this.  If you design an airplane based on some idiosyncratic "your truth" about mathematics and the laws of physics instead of based on the single, solid objective truth of those things that science has established, it will crash, if it even gets off the ground at all.  The ability of space probes to reach the planets they're aimed at, the correct functioning of everything from cars to light bulbs, the very computer on which you're reading this -- all of that depends upon the fact that it was designed and built according to hard objective reality as discovered by science.  If any of those things were designed based on somebody's "personal truth" instead, they'd be non-functional junk.  Except for those few who are already a long way down that road to insanity, people generally can understand this, when it's put to them in those terms.

And that hard objective reality would exist and be exactly the same whether we knew about it or not, just as it always has.  The Earth is not just spherical today, it was spherical thousands of years ago when most people believed it to be flat, and it was spherical millions of years ago when there were no humans living on it to have opinions about its shape.  The physical laws which we now use to build working aircraft were exactly the same a thousand years ago, or a million.  We discover such laws, we do not invent them.

It's precisely because reality exists independently of our beliefs about it that gobbledygook about "my truth" vs "your truth" and suchlike is so dangerous.  People who deny reality usually end up getting smacked across the face by it.  A lot of Americans died because they believed rubbish about covid and mRNA vaccines.  The virus did not care about the fake alternate "reality" in their minds.  It just went ahead and did what it does anyway.  Whoever spouts such nonsense is floundering in mental quicksand -- and is trying to pull you in as well.

[This post is largely an elaboration of this comment at Annie Asks You blog.  I consider the point important enough to merit fuller discussion.]


Blogger NickM said...

I'll take this one up later. Becasue it is important. I have things to do...

But this planet is actually an oblate spheroid. It bulges in the middle due to it's rotation.

And, there is no real explanation as to how planes fly...


And if you don't trust SciAm. Trust me. I'm a big aviation fan and a recovering fluid dynamicist.

19 May, 2023 08:35  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Oh, for fuck's sake. Of course I know the Earth is slightly oblate. It's essentially spherical, not flat, that's the point. You might as well object that it's not perfectly spherical because it has mountains. This is sheer hairsplitting.

About the planes, that post doesn't say we don't know how planes fly. It says we're not sure exactly what generates the phenomenon of aerodynamic lift, and there are multiple possible explanations, not no explanation. My point is that in order to fly, planes need to be designed in ways consistent with the known laws of physics, which is still true even if we don't yet have definite explanations of exactly why those laws operate as they do. (At a deep level it probably all depends on quantum phenomena which we barely really understand, but we still know what the relevant laws of physics are.) We know how lift works, even if we don't know exactly what causes it. If you build a plane with wings too small, or at the wrong angle, or otherwise unable to take advantage of how lift works, it won't fly. Ignoring the known laws of physics in favor of personal beliefs doesn't produce functionally-useful results, if the personal beliefs are too far off track. Again, this is hairsplitting and irrelevant to the point I was making.

19 May, 2023 09:06  
Anonymous Annie said...

Hi, Infidel. As I began reading your post, I thought it seemed familiar—and so it was. I appreciated your comment when you placed it on my blog, and this exploration strengthens it further. The topic is both timely and urgent.

What seems to be a growing cadre of truth deniers worries me. At a time when we need to strengthen students’ mastery of basic skills and critical thinking, educators and librarians are contending with well-financed forces attacking public education and historical facts. Putin’s assault on the Ukrainian children is intended to hobble that democracy’s future. I hope enough Americans grasp that serious damage can be done to our future unless we fight back against book bans and deteriorating education.

19 May, 2023 19:18  
Blogger Ami said...

I'm not gifted with words, and usually am unable to say the right ones when confronted with idiocy.

Most of the time, that idiocy is from the fundy side of my family. Sadly, my way of coping/fixing is to pretend like those crazy people don't exist. I guess I'm leaving them in their truth?

I'm still stunned at the number of people who present as intelligent then say things like Trump won and there was cheating. Or that there was no pandemic, it was just a way to control us.

I don't disagree with the things you've said, and with better words than I ever could. But how did we get here? How did it become acceptable to BE proudly stupid? (Thinking about my youngest brother and his Ivermectin, which he gave to his children and my mom's continued use of really stupid nicknames. Last week she answered a comment on my brother's social media about Hillary with 'don't you mean Killary Benghazi?'


19 May, 2023 23:30  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Annie: A lot of the problem does originate with education. I was in university in the early 1980s when the post-modernist etc gobbledygook was starting to take root in some of the flakier departments, and I remember being baffled at the time. Universities and elementary schools seem like worlds apart, but malignant ideologies and fads filter down from the former to the latter via teach-training colleges, which have acted as centers of indoctrination for decades. Things like book bans are certainly not helping, but as parents have been discovering that elementary-school kids are being exposed to things like gender ideology and near-pornographic literature, a backlash was inevitable, and it's going to get worse. We don't have an organized movement for reality in education, we have two competing movements of reality-deniers fighting for control.

I don't know how we can ever get all the ideology out of education and get back to just teaching reading and math and science and objective history, but a first step needs to be agreeing that that should be the goal.

Ami: When people have an entrenched set of delusions, any effort to bring them back to reality is likely to (a) fail and (b) prove to be exhausting and unpleasant. There's nothing wrong with recognizing that and avoiding such confrontations. I myself actively avoid getting bogged down in arguing and bickering, and disengage from any interaction as soon as I realize it's heading in that direction. You're not obligated to sacrifice your own time and energy to a near-impossible task.

Fundamentalists have been committed to reality-denial in at least one area (the theory of evolution) for far longer than the rest of this stuff has been going on, and trying to argue them out of it is almost hopeless. Sustained exposure to real science education, or even exposure to other religions, sometimes helps, but it tends to be a gradual process.

As to how we got here, I hinted at the roots of reality-denial in religion and academia. Trump's constant and flagrant lying probably greatly exacerbated the problem, by normalizing the declaration of belief in obviously untrue things, but other aspects of the problem, such as a general contempt for science and expertise, have been growing since long before Trump -- pretty much as long as those things became obviously incompatible with the fundamentalist, Biblical view of reality.

20 May, 2023 05:54  
Anonymous rick shapiro said...

It's not merely wingnuts and careerist post-structuralists who are responsible. Don't forget that several decades ago, authoritarian theorists like Steve Bannon were explicitly promoting Goebbels's "big lie" by name as a tacitic.

20 May, 2023 08:54  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

What an enlightening post. Thank you.

I have no idea nor explanation how we, as a nation, got to a point where our fellow citizens seriously argue over the shape of the Earth, the age of the Earth, and who won the last election.

I suspect religious conditioning that brings some people to believe myths are reality has something -- a lot -- to do with what many misguided people believe about the objective world.

Where we go from here and where we end up is a mystery for me.

20 May, 2023 11:41  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

What seems like truth to one person, is not to another. Truth is a persons belief instead of a fact now a days.

20 May, 2023 12:24  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Rick S: I think Bannon qualifies as a wingnut. A more theory-grounded wingnut than most, but still a wingnut.

Shaw K: Thanks -- I try. We've always had a substantial number of people who clung to the Bible view of the age (and even shape) of the Earth, but serious stolen-election claims are a new one. The bright spot is that the courts have mostly held the line and demanded actual evidence, which of course the election-denialists don't have. Kari Lake is going down in flames again right now.

It was Trump's willingness to lie so blatantly about the election that got that stuff started, and I suspect it will gradually fade after he dies or otherwise passes from the scene. In the meantime, at least people who believe elections are rigged are a lot less likely to vote, so (a) they're more likely to keep losing, and (b) Republican politicians have an incentive to try to dispel the nonsense, if they ever develop the guts to stand up to Trump.

Mary K: Except that that's not what "truth" means, even if people insist on misusing the word that way. That's what I'm insisting on here.

20 May, 2023 15:31  
Blogger Martha said...

In the past few years, I have been stunned by how many people have fallen down the rabbit hole - some of them people that I know personally! But then I wonder if they were always that way in one way or another and they're just now out in the open, openly sharing their bizarre and outrageous beliefs. I do not engage in these types of conversations anymore with people I know because I've realized it's a waste of time and energy. I cannot reach those who have fallen down the rabbit hole and I don't feel it's my responsibility to do so. It is exhausting.

My husband and I had an interesting discussion recently about the effects of AI, especially on those who are easily drawn into conspiracy theories and lies. What's going to happen when people create AI-generated videos or audio files that are so real (duplicating people's voices and images), that people won't be able to determine whether it's real or not? What are your thoughts on this?

21 May, 2023 06:38  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Martha: I think that in general the kind of crazy beliefs that people used to keep quiet about have become more openly expressed recently, because the internet makes it easier for people with odd ideas to find and interact with others who share them, and thus they come to feel that their views are more common, and more sane, than they really are. This makes them more confident where no confidence is warranted. See also my response to Ami above. It's certainly not your responsibility to pull people out of their delusions.

I'm not an expert on AI, but my general feeling is that, while it does represent a potential threat to the livelihood of artists and writers (because those who normally pay for such work won't realize that what they're getting from AI instead is junk), it's somewhat overhyped. It was always inevitable that advancing technology would enable people to create extremely convincing fake video (actually movie special effects have been doing that for decades, though it's too expensive for the kind of casual propaganda that political operatives would use). But just as people now realize that it's possible to fake still photos and thus aren't too trusting of them when they imply something implausible, people will soon realize that video can similarly be faked, and will become less trusting of it.

Nobody today would be convinced of the existence of aliens by somebody displaying a photo of a flying saucer hovering over his house, because everybody knows things like that can be faked. Soon nobody will be convinced by video of Biden announcing that he's a pedophile and wants open borders, for the same reason. And the people who want to be convinced of that already are convinced of it, without any fancy technology, because people like that believe what they want to believe, no matter how flimsy the evidence.

21 May, 2023 06:59  

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