The truth, we’ve been told, is out there somewhere and we can thank science for showing us how to arrive at truth, reject untruth, and most importantly to dethrone old truth’s that no longer apply.
This is good because the truth is much bigger and more unknowable than we give it credit for; that’s why we’re always throwing out old scientific beliefs and replacing them with something new.
Truth just cannot be reduced to nifty statements like “Coffee is good/bad for you,” “America is the greatest country in the world,” or “Terrorists are muslims.” Such stated “truths” require some thought to assess what exactly do these statements mean, and do they apply all the time.
Truth finding therefore requires us to think. But
thinking is hard work
And we know how we feel about work. We’d prefer to avoid it if we can, and to our credit, we do. We’ve found ways to avoid thinking altogether so that we can use our mental energy on more important matters like the Kardashians, or Naked Dating.
But seriously, there are so many things fighting for our attention, it’s smart to look for shortcuts that allow us to save energy or direct it to something else.
By far the most popular thinking heuristic is to adopt the opinions of people we trust: experts, authority figures, and our good (hopefully) smart friends.
Fast food thinking
But even those smart friends are so burnt out by modern living that they’re happy to ‘order out’ for their opinions instead of preparing them at home.
We shop for our opinions from our favourite media houses, TV personalities, experts and politicians just like we shop for stuff at our favourite outlets and grocery stores.
Carefully packaged, pre-digested thinking comes daily to our brains via, TV and the Internet and we adopt “talking points,” observations and accusations like a kid does a puppy.
Filter truth for bull-shit
Now there’s nothing wrong with looking to people we trust to tell us what’s going on.
There is so much information coming at us every minute that we couldn’t possibly make sense of it all on our own.
The problem is we are entirely negligent in our trust assessment criteria. Modern homo sapiens seem to be unable or unwilling to filter truth from bullshit as long as the speaker shares their beliefs and has a nice smile.
and the internet is to blame
Bill Maher’s Jan 29, 2016 show did a very funny piece called “Truth is dead and the Internet killed it.” (You can watch it below.)
The information superhighway has become bullshit boulevard and truth was roadkill.
In it, he gives examples of politicians on the American right telling outrageous pants-on-fire lies like Trump saying he saw with his own eyes how hundreds of Muslims celebrated when the Twin Towers came down, or Carly Fiorina saying that she saw a video of a living foetus outside of the womb with someone from Planned Parenthood saying it’s being kept alive so that they can harvest it’s brain.
The internet has given a voice to anyone with a point-of-view and that’s fine, but with millions of crazies on the internet the public seems to have lost sight of who or what to trust. A points-of-view may be valid, but often flawed in some way. Our job is to put them through our BS test and see what to keep and what to toss out.
Yet people seem to stop filtering altogether and are quick to pass around terrorist propaganda like beheadings, blatantly false public service alerts, and of course pictures of cute cats. The last may seem OK but the general effect is that we’re becoming more and more distracted and gullible with each passing decade of the internet.
In his book “The Shallows” Nicholas Car blames the internet for the demise of our humanity saying
One of the greatest dangers we face, as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is … a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.
In it he calls “the shallows” a “frenzied flitting from one fact to the next,” and he believes that “the endless mesmerizing buzz” of the internet threatens what it means to be human. (courtesy: Paul La Farge)
What’s fundamentally happening is that we’re losing or rather abdicating our capacity to think.
It’s now almost uncool to think
Confronting blatant lies with the truth has no effect on those who’ve lost their capacity to think. They react with indignation and say that the evidence is manufactured with digital technology, or (worse) it doesn’t matter. Their champion (the liar) just made an honest mistake and gets most things right.
Nothing seems to get through because it’s as uncool to think as it is for some kids to be seen studying. Not done, if you want to be with the cool kids.
What to do about it?
We need to make thinking cool again and unfortunately that may not be a quick fix. Building capacities to think requires earlier mandatory introduction of philosophy—particularly epistemology, the study of how do we know what we know— into our school systems.
In the meantime we could simply do the following:
- Remind ourselves that there is a lot of BS out there masquerading as truth and it behooves us to pay attention to opinion disclaimers, (if only they existed).
- We must all start thinking about the relationship of truth to belief. They are related but more like cousins than siblings.
- We can stop gossiping, and most of all we can stop taking things so personally. If you’re committed to truth you’re going to get things wrong, and that’s OK. It’s of course better to realize your mistake than to keep holding on to an untruth and attacking everyone who has moved on.
Let’s all start to exercise our magnificent capacity to think in more areas that clearly matter; starting with what our politicians tell us.
Here’s Bill’s video from episode 375 which aired on January 29, 2016: