As the Russian email scandal continues to unfold, I am reminded of the words of former FBI director James Comey when, not too long ago, he described President Trump’s assertions about the FBI as follows: “Those are lies, plain and simple.”
President Trump has told more documented falsehoods in his first year in office than any other president in my lifetime. By doing so, he has caused real damage to the office he holds. Trump’s repeated denials that his campaign had any connection, illicit or otherwise, with the Russians has now been disproven with the revelation of a series of damning emails. This is just the latest example of his seemingly insatiable appetite for exaggeration and outright lies. As this drama plays out in Washington, D.C., my apprehensiveness goes far beyond Donald Trump’s political career or anyone else’s for that matter. I am concerned that the real victim of these troubling times is Reason itself, destroyed by a new strain of irrationality; like an uncontrolled virus, it will lay waste to all forms of rational discourse.
The history of rational inquiry can be traced back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Not only were they courageous in asking controversial questions (Socrates was put to death because of his inquiries), but they also provided us with a methodology for rational thinking which is still useful today. Aristotle’s “laws” of reasoning are still employed by logicians thousands of years after his death: 1) a thing cannot be both true and false at the same time, 2) every proposition is either true or false, and 3) everything is identical to itself. For Aristotle, truth telling is not relative; there is no such thing as “my truth” or political “spin.” You can be honest or you can lie—it’s that simple.
A recent National Geographic production, Year Million, presented an optimistic and exciting view of the future but its assertions are predicated on the expectation that we will continue to progress. Yet that will only happen if we favor reason over emotion, our brains over our gut, and are willing to challenge our own beliefs no matter how painful.
Standing in the way of reason are the many forms of irrationality: hatred, racism, sexism, anti-intellectualism, the notion of us vs. them, etc. Their common denominator is a reliance on emotion rather than evidence. Yes, everyone is entitled to their “opinion” but saying “you’re entitled to your opinion” is bowing out of any reasoned exchange. Legally, you can take any position you desire, but your opinion is only as good as the reasons on which it is based.
Famous blogger and internet star Alex Jones has promoted without any justifiable evidence one outrageous conspiracy theory after another. His most hurtful and baseless charge could very well be his theory that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax to perpetuate stricter gun control and that the children on TV were “actors.” Another incendiary fantasy of Jones was that Hillary Clinton was running a child abuse sex slave scheme out of a pizza shop in Washington, D.C. In today’s terrifying reality of the power of social media, his message reaches millions of recipients (President Trump once claimed to be a fan), many of whom embrace his hurtful and provocative theories as “facts.” A North Carolina man, Edgar Maddison Welch, believing Jones, traveled to the pizza shop in question and fired his weapon at the owner. He will spend the next several years of his life in prison wondering why he accepted as truth the ranting of an unscrupulous scoundrel.
Any good philosophical discussion must begin with a definition of terms. So let’s give it a go. We can believe anything we want but that belief is worthless without evidence. I can believe that the moon is made of cheese or that ghosts come out on Halloween but the fact that I believe something, even ardently, doesn’t make it true. A “true belief” is a belief that actually matches reality. I believe that Jan. 1 is the first day of the New Year and I have evidence to back it up. What makes my belief “justified” is the level of evidence that I can bring forward to support it. The yardstick by which most philosophers suggest whether you “know” something is what is referred to as a justified true belief.
Julia Galef, the president of the Center of Applied Rationality brilliantly outlines the problems we face when we try to evaluate “information.” Galef correctly points out that our brains are wired to see evidence that supports our already held beliefs and to discard anything to the contrary. We are locked into a conclusion before we even weigh the evidence. To remedy this “confirmation bias,” Galef offers us a choice as we sift through the information before us in our search for the truth. We can choose to be a warrior, and fight for our beliefs irrespective of the facts or evidence to the contrary. Or we can be a scout, looking at reality as it really is, accessing new information, and formulating opinions based on our perception of the real world.
We are living in an age where we are saturated with overwhelming, free flowing and constant information. To be able to decipher fact from fiction is it critical that we become the truth scouts that Julia Galef talks about. If our species is to adapt and survive a constantly changing environment we must approach reality with an open mind, ready to see things as they are even if they force us to reevaluate our beliefs. Our commitment to a high standard of evidence (Justified True Belief) will allow us to echo, when appropriate, James Comey’s assertion, “those are lies, plain and simple.” This will permit us to confidently assert that our opinions are more than “gut feelings”; they are well reasoned, evidence-based “facts’ deserving of our precious belief.