The human race has always navigated somewhere between absolute rationality and madness. On an individual level, Plato’s model of the tripartite soul mirrors what takes place on a societal level. He imagined a charioteer (representing reason or intellect), trying to control a dark horse (the passions) and a white horse (man’s irascible nature). Only by controlling the two horses, can the charioteer navigate a course to the heavens and enjoy a banquet of divine knowledge. Accordingly, the key to a happy life is being able to restrain the inclinations of our passions and nature in the name of reason. That lesson, Plato argues, applies to society as well.
In 2020, borrowing Plato’s image, we seem to have lost control of our chariot completely. We find ourselves on a raft of uncertainty, adrift in a modern era characterized by a disturbing departure from the course of rational exploration that for time immemorial has been our compass. Why has this happened and more importantly how can we regain control?
One easy explanation is that our access to unfettered communication has spawned the publication of propositions whose relationship to the truth is strained at best. Instead of being the panacea we thought it would be, social media has facilitated the normalization of lies and toxic misinformation on an unprecedented scale. The result is a prevailing mood of uncertainty during a time of immense polarization, placing the very foundation of a democratic society, rational discourse, on tenuous footing.
This era of uncertainty manifests itself in all areas of society from the political to the scientific. When we begin to doubt all that we previously held as true, we become vulnerable to bad actors (and politicians) who exploit the information ecosystem to their advantage and place our ability to find the truth on perilous footing.
However, all is not lost. We have the power to find certainty in an age of uncertainty and gain control of our runaway chariot. The first step is to recognize how bad actors exploit the information ecosystem and the second is to mount defenses against their false narratives.
The most obvious example of the exploitation of our information ecosystem to spread false and destructive narratives is the unprecedented explosion of conspiracy theories. Until relatively recently, we received our news through the national and local news media, print, radio and television, which would report, hopefully based on first hand accounts, the news. The coverage and emphasis might vary among the various news organizations but there was, across the board, a commitment to a basic journalistic standard of vetted sources. Now that’s completely changed.
The result is the alarming propagation of claims that in prior years would have never seen the light of day but because of the internet have spread like an intellectual virus. Let me share some prime examples:
-Jeffrey Epstein was only dead a few hours when the Internet was lit up with the accusation (with no supporting evidence) that the Clintons had killed him.
-It has been alleged that the Sandy Hook massacre never took place and that child actors were hired to shoot the video we all saw on television.
-Hillary Clinton was running a child sex and kidnapping operation out of a pizza shop in Pennsylvania.
-Climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the far left with the assistance of leftist scientists.
-We never landed on the moon.
-September 11 never happened and the supposed dead are living underground near the old world trade center.
-September 11 did happen but it was orchestrated by the United States government.
-Our F.B.I. was part of a conspiracy to commit a coup to oust the present President.
-The holocaust never happened.
-The world is flat and the government is hiding this fact.
As we examine the conspiracies displayed above, some, of course, seem more outrageous than others. Further, I’m not suggesting that conspiracies don’t exist. What I am suggesting is that in an age of uncertainty, we have been bombarded with outlandish claims with either meager or no supporting evidence. What do all these theories have in common? They all claim that things are not what they seem and then they propose a theory, which like all propaganda, promotes a particular political point of view while denigrating a particular person or group of people. Their prime objective (like all propaganda) is to market a seductive explanation of a major event, which although unlikely to be true, is still likely to influence public opinion in their preferred direction. It saddens me to say that so many of us, on all sides of the political aisle, are guilty of taking the bait.
I remember watching a talk show where the highest member of the executive branch of our government attempted to justify one of the more outlandish conspiracy theories by saying, “but millions of people believe this.” The fact that even a majority of people believe something, even sincerely, doesn’t make it true. Neither do the assertions (or tweets) of an elected official verify the truth of a proposition without supporting evidence.
So what? There have always been conspiracy theories, why are they a problem now? I suggest for your consideration three reasons why this development is monumentally troubling. First, in the 21st century, we find ourselves at the crossroads of so many critical policies on all levels of society. It is extremely dangerous in a time when a thoughtful and reasoned based deliberative process is needed more than ever that we have false and destructive narratives published as truth to a large segment of the population. Second, the embracing of conspiracy theories and the concurrent dismissal of rational investigation in our search for the truth gives the government unfettered free rein as well as the ability to dismiss critics as “cranks” or worse “traitors.” Accountability becomes impossible. Third, even if we gain some amount of satisfaction by adopting conspiracy theories consistent with our particular political point of view (which is why they are popular), we do so at the enormous cost of abandoning a rational search for the truth.
Knowing that these theories exist and understanding why they are so popular is only the beginning in our attempt to gain control once again of Plato’s chariot. Our final step in our quest to weed out false narratives is employing our method of rational investigation to any proposed theory. That, my friends, is exactly what I intend to do in the next column.