How society survives the world after the Truth is set on fire

Respiratory Therapist Nirali Patel works with a COVID-19 patient in the ICU at Rush University Medial Center on January 31, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois.

Respiratory Therapist Nirali Patel works with a COVID-19 patient in the ICU at Rush University Medial Center on January 31, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. Getty Images

We are supposed to live in a post-truth world — I have said so myself, and more than once.

What does that mean?

Basically, that trust in our interpreters of truth — the elites, the mediating class, whatever one chooses to call them — has evaporated.

We haven’t believed our presidents for at least a generation.

We haven’t believed the news media and other organs of information since the advent of the web.

At some point during the COVID-19 pandemic, we stopped believing our institutions of science.

Truth isn’t the sum of many facts: It works the other way around.

We erect frameworks of understanding, which the facts must fit into or modify.

A healthy society will debate the relationship between a given fact and its role in our understanding of the world.

The catastrophic failure of the mediators means that we now debate the frameworks and their meanings among ourselves.

In this rolling chaos, interpretations have turned tendentious and partial.

Reality has splintered into a million pieces.

That’s the post-truth condition.

Mapping to Reality — and the Impermanence of Truth

Of course, many types of information will always have the function of mapping to reality: of representing accurately some state of affairs.

Sports information is always of this kind. If I ask, “How did the Nationals do last night?”

I expect a single correct answer: “They lost.”

A battery of official statistics, maintained by the various sports organizations, have the function of determining the productivity of individual players — which in turn determines how hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in the pursuit of top talent.

Any hint that these statistics have been subverted by bias would destroy a sport.

Change is suspect because it invalidates historical comparisons: Sports fans are the most conservative humans on the planet.

Yet the world is mutable — the game evolves — and the ability of the old categories to map to performance degrades with time.

Major League Baseball, for example, has promoted multiple changes invisible to the statistics: the hardness of the ball, the length of the season and the post-season, the monetary incentive to hit home runs, to name just a few.

Whether truth is eternal and universal is a metaphysical question I am happy to ignore.

But human understanding is always dynamic: a chase rather than a conquest.

So we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that baseball rebels dissatisfied with the traditional statistics came up with “moneyball,” a new set of performance measurements.

It was a sign of institutional vigor.

While the quarrel between baseball frameworks has lasted to this day, there can be no question that moneyball greatly sharpened the sport’s understanding of player ability.

Business and financial information must also map closely to reality.

The need to track shipments and markets, we are told by Andrey Mir, gave rise to the first newspapers in 16th-century Venice — a line of descent that continues to this day with The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the thousands of private firms that offer clients magical insights into the markets.

Governments at every level generate mountains of economic statistics: A case can be made that modern government is little more than a gigantic numbers factory.

The function of all this is to make money. Trillions are gambled on interpretations of economic data.

Yet official statistics focus largely on a moribund industrial society.

They measure the past.

The present-day economy is a monstrous global tangle of transactions conducted at the speed of light, and it could well be illegible: Whether these are the best or the worst of times, or both simultaneously, is up for debate.

Plainly, we need a money version of moneyball, but none has been forthcoming.

The experts, masters of the data, often tumble blindly into the abyss.

The disaster of 2008 was revealing: Over $12 trillion in household wealth vanished within weeks, and nobody could explain why.

Alan Greenspan, the closest thing to an infallible pope capitalism had at the time, believed the event represented “a flaw in the model . . . that defines how the world works.”

“I still do not fully understand why it happened,” Greenspan confessed.

At the height of the crisis, President George W. Bush turned to his experts and asked: “How did we get here?”

General bewilderment was the answer.

When it came to the economy, the federal government’s framework of understanding had lost touch with the truth.

Science as the Model — and the Corruption of Frameworks

The capacity of science to extract accurate knowledge about the world has inspired an almost religious awe — an awe magnified by the material improvements to our lives that have also come from science.

“The science says” is the enlightened equivalent of the word of God — whatever follows is beyond dispute.

Most Americans have viewed science as the model and guarantor of pure objective truth.

Scientific institutions have enjoyed enormous prestige among the public.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the dreadful performance of the experts and institutions, ended this idyll.

Health bureaucrats like Anthony Fauci preached from the mountaintop yet contradicted themselves regularly.

Many untruths were proclaimed.

For example, we were told that the virus couldn’t possibly originate in a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

That turned out to be false.

We were told that our government didn’t fund research on deadly viruses in Wuhan — that turned out to be false, too.

We were told that lockdowns and social distancing would bend the infection curve, that vaccination would protect against catching and communicating the disease.

None of that was true.

On the word of the bureaucrats, schools were shut down for a year or more, even though most children were spared by the virus.

In many cases, the falsehoods were deliberate.

At all times, government scientists seemed more interested in promoting certain storylines than in following the best evidence.

How are we to account for this behavior?

Or to put it differently: What was the function of dealing in untruth?

The answer can be traced to the fatal influence of power over information.

The pandemic was a post-truth event.

Predictably, it triggered a sociopolitical free-for-all.

Science was made into a weapon with which to terrify an unruly public, and the experts, a proud but obscure clique, suddenly found themselves celebrated as leading warriors in that conflict.

From the lockdowns and school closures to the censorship of social media, every mandate they ordained was an exercise in arbitrary power.

The scientific method rejects authority and invites criticism.

During the pandemic, this was turned on its head, as science was worn as a mantle of authority and invoked to crush dissent.

The practice of science is supposed to be neutral and impersonal.

The experts and their political patrons claimed science as personal property: They aspired to a monopoly of truth.

“I represent science,” said Fauci.

“We own the science, and the world should know it,” said a United Nations dignitary.

“We will continue to be your single source of truth,” said the prime minister of New Zealand.

“Unless you hear it from us, it is not the truth.”

Statements by government experts mapped less to virology than to political necessity.

They were hymns of self-adoration, meant to enhance the power and glory of the ruling class.

That was their function and the source of their untruth.

The effect was the opposite of what was intended.

The public’s contempt for experts and institutions has been magnified — and justified.

Many political actors who traded in untruth have gone down in defeat or disgrace.

Nevertheless, no lessons were learned from the episode. No mistakes have been admitted; instead there has been quite a bit of doubling down. No one has been held accountable.

We continue to depend on an establishment science that bears scant resemblance to the real thing — and only dumb luck will preserve us from an existential horror when the next health crisis strikes.

The Muddle of Moral Judgments — and the Psychotic Need for Control

The most prolific source of error today is the confusion of moral judgments with irrefutable truth.

This confusion is wholly intentional: It’s the ultimate weapon in the war between frameworks of understanding.

At every step, terms like “racist,” “fascist” and “colonizer” explode around us, inflicting their fair share of casualties.

The terms are meant as statements of fact and are usually taken as such.

If I said, “Donald Trump is an authoritarian,” the typical response would be, “Of course he is!” or “On the contrary, he’s a victim.”

This is a fallacy, mixing up facts with judgments about facts.

The consequences of an earthquake or a pandemic are brute facts, independent of human say-so.

The statement “Donald Trump is an authoritarian,” on the other hand, is a moral judgment: an appeal to a specific standard of value that can be true only to those who share that standard.

It’s stacked with value assumptions about the nature of authoritarianism, the fit with Trump’s actions and the proper attitude toward both, which one must accept before endorsing the proposition.

Morality is less like an earthquake and more like money or marriage: It exists only when a large enough number of people agree that it does.

The impulse, at all times, has been to expand the moral community: to make it identical with the human race. In our unhappy age, with nihilists smashing down Enlightenment ideals and traditional morality alike, the hunger for universality has declined to a dull repetitive collision of bloody fragments, each grasping for justification and finding none in a disordered world.

Such pressures have brought about the societal equivalent of a psychotic breakdown.

Truth has been buried alive under a mountain of subjective judgments: Even science, as we have seen, now yields to myth.

A subjectivized society requires a massive amount of control.

The slightest dissonance could shatter the shell of fiction and allow cold truth to blow in.

Protective measures are therefore necessary.

The public must be herded hard, lest it stampede in a panic.

Language must be policed.

The enemies who prowl both inside and outside the community must be identified and exposed.

Moral judgment can, on occasion, lavish praise on the hero or the saint — Fauci was canonized in the first days of the pandemic, for example.

Most often, however, it has dealt in denunciation, condemnation, anathema.

Given the precariousness of the system, the public incineration of heretics acquires tremendous importance.

This style of moralizing invariably ends in power politics and the advocacy of repression.

A cynic, I imagine, would say that’s where it all began.

How Cowardice Feeds Untruth — and the Way out of the Labyrinth

How can we escape the mass delusions enabled by post-truth?

A therapist would prescribe a return to reality — but the interpretation of reality is precisely what is in dispute.

We have to learn to orient ourselves inside the labyrinth.

At the individual level, we should remember that the function of moral judgment isn’t to represent reality but to shape it.

We should engage with the assumptions, not the conclusions.

The most fruitful response to “Trump is an authoritarian” and other such affirmations of doctrine is “What do you mean by that, exactly?”

The objective must be a modest one: to understand our differences.

The reaction, almost certainly, will be fear and fury.

Failure to agree unconditionally with “settled” judgments will unleash the convulsive forces of a psychotic society, and the risks — especially for those with something important to lose, like a job — aren’t trivial.

But the choice is fairly stark: Either we persist or we submit.

If we are too cowardly to defend truth as we understand it, we will get whatever untruth a sickly system sends our way.

The virtue desperately needed at the moment isn’t empathy or tolerance but courage.

At the political level, we must boot out of office the miniature despots who aim to control opinions and conversations by the application of state power.

The playing field of post-truth should never tilt in favor of official falsehoods.

Censorship of digital media, whether directly by the government or indirectly by means of winks and nudges, should be considered an outrage.

Science must break free from the grip of the ruling orthodoxies.

All frameworks and ideologies should be open to criticism — true of the old creeds like Christianity and Judaism but also of progressive faiths like sexual identity and climate change.

And it goes without saying — but must be said nonetheless — that we should begin by criticizing our own most passionately held positions.

The effects of post-truth aren’t universally destructive.

A robust skepticism of received ideas, for example, has been a sign of wisdom from Socrates to modern science.

A wider array of perspectives on every question can add insight as well as confusion.

Raising the importance of the public relative to experts when it comes to judging information shouldn’t be intolerable to a democracy.

The 20th century’s illusion of narrative integrity is gone forever.

We now stumble along in the dark, plagued by uncertainty — an accurate description, I note, of the human condition.

But if we take the function of information as the thread leading out of the labyrinth, we can still advance, however haltingly, in the direction of truth.

Reprinted with permission from Discourse Magazine.


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