Operating in a world with no truth

Dear readers: This is a somewhat different post than normal. It addresses a question that’s been on my mind for years (decades, really) but which seems more relevant and urgent this year: how do you operate in a world with no truth? The resulting essay is perhaps too long, overly philosophical, and more American-centric than typical for this blog, but it’s hopefully interesting nonetheless. – Dave

1. Multiple realities

Politicians and pundits like to talk about “two Americas”: often referring to the split between the haves and the have-nots, but often also the split along partisan or ideological lines. That latter division is more pronounced than ever. Americans are not merely divided in their policy preferences, but seem to be living in two different, irreconcilable worlds.

In one of them, a former Secretary of State offers a hopeful, if somewhat flawed and uninspiring, continuation of the country’s recovery from recession and war. She is all that stands in the way of authoritarianism, mainstreamed racism, and an oddly isolationist form of warmongering.

Meanwhile, in the other world, a reality television star and real estate businessman provides the only hope for stopping America’s descent into chaos and poverty in an increasingly hostile world. He would overthrow the corrupt elites who dominate politics, bring back the jobs that they traded away, and ensure that we win again. Oh, how we would win.

The people living in these two realities are incomprehensible to one another. Witness last week’s Presidential debate, where one candidate casually ignored the other’s attacks with the statement: “Well…I know you live in your own reality.” The audience laughed. Unfortunately, plenty of other people live in that same reality with him.

The people in both of these realities are equally baffled by those living in a third, where undecided voters have barely started paying attention to the election and haven’t been able to make up their minds—despite the planet-threatening consequences seen by those in the first two realities.

Actually, there’s a fourth reality and a fifth, populated by voters who are upset with their chosen candidates for any number of reasons, but who hate the other candidate enough to pull out all the stops in defeating him/her. Then there are the sixth through tenth realities, where people are either too young or too old to recognize how the world has changed (a portion of millennials and baby boomers, respectively) and unable to factor that into their decisions. Somewhere there’s a reality where voting for a third party makes sense. The differing political worlds number in the dozens, at least; maybe hundreds.

But let’s not get carried away. People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts—one hopes? We can all interpret the world differently so long as we’re working from a core set of common data—right?

Don’t be so sure. Many people, including the elite media organizations, have woken up to notice how Americans are living in wildly divergent political realities. They’ve dubbed it “post-truth politics”, and it’s not a uniquely American phenomenon: authoritarian regimes with more complete control over domestic media are even better equipped to construct alternate realities, scaring citizens with foreign boogeyman and drumming up support for the government, as needed.

The obvious antidote is to be “pro-truth”. However, while “post-truth” might be an accurate description of what’s happening in some of these realities, there’s a more general problem that permeates the worlds of even those of us who believe we are pro-truth: truth doesn’t exist, and it never has.

2. Constructed truth

We like to imagine that the border between truth and opinion is defined by objectivity: things are true if they’re true; truth is what’s really real; truth is what exists even when you’re not looking at it. Everything else is perception, opinion, interpretation, or conjecture.

That’s a metaphysical explanation. It works fine in the abstract, but in daily life, metaphysics isn’t much use.

In daily life, the border between truth and opinion is guarded by a simple principle: verification. That’s the sine qua non—the only necessary-and-sufficient condition—for identifying something as a truth. That principle is baked into the scientific method, which builds on previous findings to deduce new possibilities, then seeks data (observations) to verify or refute those. Journalistic and legal truth work in largely the same way: multiple witnesses, DNA testing, and video footage can corroborate a story. Until then, it’s just a story—an unverified opinion. Truth must match with other facts, other observations, other truths.

The verification principle of truth likes to imagine itself as a technical, objective process. But potential truths are not assessed on their own merits; they’re verified in relation to those that have already been accepted. The current stock gets priority in regulating the incoming flow. That means mistakes can build on mistakes, as we select new truths for entry and interpret based on what we’ve already accepted—a form of confirmation bias.

There’s a further feedback loop in how your stock of truth shapes your assessment of the messengers of potential truths. When your truths diverge from someone else’s, your natural reaction is to become skeptical of anything new they have to say. Trying to parse why they understand the world differently is cognitively hard. Instead of taking on that challenge, we drift toward trusting the people, sources, and interpretations that align with what we already know—like a second-order confirmation bias that trusts certain messengers more than others.

This drift toward sources we trust makes truth a social construct: we build a truth community that sees the same world as we do. The feedback loops drive initial differences in truths or interpretations into increasingly divergent world views. Over time, what any of us consider to be truth is correlated to our circumstances and relationships.

3. Fragmentation of worlds

This would be all fine if we lived in truly different worlds, interacting only with those who held the same truths or only with others in inconsequential ways. Small fragmentations of truths hardly go noticed; at worst, they provide fodder for lively conversations with our extended family members.

But when our worlds overlap and combine, as they do in the formation of a common polity or economy large enough to achieve anything of substance, then our truths may come into greater conflict. These conflicts over truth can quickly become conflicts over power. Truths are used to build power and power is used to shape truths, demonstrated most bluntly by the history of Christianity.

Medium-sized fragmentations can be drivers of progress, as a truth community works to build power and convince the wider society of its truth. Phrases like “speak truth to power” hold this idea: all concentrations of power create (and are maintained by) their own systems of truths, which other truths can disturb. Whether it’s the “real” truth that’s spoken to the powerful, or simply a differing truth, doesn’t matter as much as whether the truth spoken is collectively verified and validated by a larger group. Oppression is the act of silencing voices and truths to maintain private power; building countervailing power ensures that pro-social truths invade on those concentrations of power.

What America faces today may be a larger-scale fragmentation. When aligned with social, racial, economic, religious, or other fissures, large fragmentation of truths can become fault lines for civil strife, violence, and war. There’s probably a way to tell the history of every civil war as a conflict between two (or more) distinct truth communities, who lived in such different worlds that they were unable to speak to one another in a language other than violence. To extend on Clausewitz: politics is the reconciliation of conflicting truths through power, and war is the continuation of that conflict by other means.

America’s fragmentations of truth are an order of magnitude short of causing civil war, but other forms of violence at the border between truth communities are very real: hate crimes at an African-American church in South Carolina and against Muslim Americans, and clashes during at least 20 of Trump’s rallies.

4. Current drivers

Fragmentation of truths in various degrees have always been part of any society. What American media commentators are noticing this year is a confluence of mutually reinforcing factors.

The first factor is, of course, the internet and social media. The cost of connecting with like-minded individuals has dropped so dramatically that anyone can find their truth community. This works for pro-social causes (e.g. #BlackLivesMatter, in my view) as well as for the crackpots (anti-vaxxers, “men’s rights” movement, etc.). Add in the filter bubble effect—which is confirmation bias in algorithm form, showing us information uniquely shaped by our preferred truths and communities—and you’ve also created the possibility of efficient micro-targeted broadcasting: i.e. new media sources that don’t need to appeal to a broad audience, but instead can feed on and feed into specific truth communities (like the “alt-right”-enabling Breitbart News). These sources build audiences and capture revenue from exactly that audience, while driving it to become increasingly disconnected from other realities.

The second factor is a loss of trust in the previously dominant mediating institutions—those organizations that were both the media for distributing truths and the mediator among differing truth communities. The problems that news broadcasters and major daily newspapers face today are not limited to their lack of tech savvy or the inherent inefficiencies of journalistic integrity; their bigger challenge is dealing with a shift away from a world where they were the gatekeepers of truth, toward to a world with a very porous border between truth and opinion. They can still produce and distribute the news, but they’re just one voice among many.

In some ways, the media’s interpretation of its own role contributed to this: for years, mainstream media has often confused being unbiased with being balanced. Journalists should be unbiased in reporting, as close to neutral as possible on disputes, and without any vested interests in the outcomes. That may often mean teasing out the nuanced positions, interrogating the evidence, and highlighting any conflicts of interest behind those in the dispute. Unfortunately, being unbiased often gets replaced with being “balanced”: finding two sides to any issue, giving them equal time, and acting like a lazy boxing referee who simply monitors the fight. That approach promotes a false equivalency for viewpoints that lack verifiability—i.e. are barely even considered true by those promoting them. Hence we end up with corporate-backed climate deniers presented on equal footing with the scientific establishment.

This connects to the third factor: the undermining of other sources of shared truths. Specifically, the disparagement of science, academia, and even basic statistics (including public opinion polls as well as government data) has reduced the number of common verification points. When scientifically documented truths about climate change, pollution, or evolution are called into question because they challenge politically powerful truths, the social benefits of scientific knowledge are undercut across the board.

The fourth factor, stemming from the previous three, is the elevation of opinions and stories to the same level as truths and facts. Opinions and stories are fine for what they are, but in the public discourse they play a more dangerous role than merely fragmented truths—i.e. truths verified with reference to other sources—because they are unconcerned with verification. Think about the advice that political, charity, and consumer marketers be “storytellers”, and how the resulting stories are usually short on facts but high on emotion and “truthiness” (the quality of feeling true in your gut).

The final factor is generally more hopeful: the (painfully slow) crumbling of white supremacy and patriarchy in America. Oh, it’s still alive and well, as evidenced by the Tea Party, the “alt-right”, and the Trump campaign. But this week in the Vice Presidential debate we saw a pair of white men from traditionally conservative states talking about race relations, criminal justice reform, community policing, and implicit bias on primetime television. Though no one uttered the words “Black Lives Matter” and talk is just talk anyway, this is nonetheless a small step in dismantling the dominant truths that have supported oppressive power structures for centuries. In parallel with other social progress and the demographic trend toward a majority-minority country, the truths experienced by socially marginalized groups (which have long been dramatically different from the truths experienced by those with power) are better able to claim their space in the struggles over power. Counterintuitively, that’s both a sign of progress and a cause of fragmentation.

These factors didn’t quite come in this order. In fact, the confusion between bias and balance, loss of trust in media, and undermining of shared sources of truths were all pre-cursors to the splintering of truth communities, long before low-cost publishing platforms and Facebook’s algorithms drove the wedges deeper. The space created for pro-social counter-narratives has been a constant factor, but often below the surface.

However, regardless of their order, there’s no doubt that these factors have driven the truths farther apart, even while the current election creates a contest over political power that brings those differences to the surface. This is potentially a toxic brew.

5. New normal

The “post-truth” nature of the world shapes all of our realities, not just those who follow proto-authoritarians or lurk on conspiracy-fueled message boards. In fact, if we look at politics in countries that never had the same dominant media authorities, there are reasons to think that fragmented truth is the historical and global norm. The authority of mainstream media in 20th-century America may have been an outlier or even a mirage. If truth has always been a social construct, then the current fragmentation is more likely a regression to the mean rather than something entirely new.

What to make of that? Staring at a world with many truths but no truth would make one question whether truth has any value at all.

Truth matters, but not in the ways we typically assume. The social nature of verification is both a weakness and a strength. It means that building truth is intertwined with building social cohesion. Truth matters because it’s a necessary step in the iterative process of building inclusivity and social capital, upon which everything else we do together is built. It gives us common agendas and common understandings for making progress on the things that matter.

What we need is not stronger statements of pro-truth to beat back falsities or truthiness, but stronger capacities to build shared truths across communities. That means finding ways to speak the same language, to verify truths in terms of other people’s realities rather than our own, to pierce filter bubbles (or at least soften the boundaries between them), and to place previously marginalized truths on equal footing with others.

Big media outlets won’t regain their monopoly on truth, and no other institution will take on that mantle, but we may not need or want them to anyway. Corporate media’s stranglehold on truth may have kept the crackpots at bay, but it also reinforced existing oppressive structures. Social media feeds can carry stories on the national prison strike and Dakota Pipeline protests to people who wouldn’t see the same stories on CNN. Smart organizers leverage that to promote social justice.

If we can also use these forces to build common verification points, then we might not be able to stop the fragmentation of truth, but we can at least learn to live with it. We can turn it into something that facilitates progress rather than drives violence. That may not be inspiring or idealistic, but in a world with no truth, it’s the best we can do.

Also published on Medium.