Epistemology and Why We Need It Now

Let’s talk about the truth. I started writing this a couple of weeks before the historic breach of the US capitol building on January 6, 2021, Though the events of the day have seared themselves into the memories of all who lived through them, the battle began decades earlier with politically-based disinformation wars.

After spending most of my adult life committed to global transformation and a new social contract, I am watching the old one ripped apart before my very eyes. Dovetailing emotions and thoughts spin me about as air currents curl smoke. Torn between wanting to believe in all the prophecies of a new golden age and feelings of fear as my homeland grapples with harsh reality, I spent the weeks between insurrection and inauguration collecting scraps of news to assure myself that the star-spangled banner yet waved.

I present here the second installment of a series I’m calling “My Conservative Values.” In the first, I called for a return to communication, alleging that there must be values that we hold in common with those who disagree with us. The search for online validation led to this quote:

“There are still things worthy of our love. Honor, decency, courage, beauty, and truth. Tenderness, human empathy, and a sense of duty. A good society. And a commitment to human dignity.”

Peter Wehner, The Atlantic 12/20/20

            Fact v Opinion

Mr. Wehner is a conservative writer, and though I agree with all of the values he named in his statement, the word ‘truth’ stands out to me. Truth is essential to a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, yet it is under assault in our country today. We must learn how to recognize what’s factual and separate it from opinion.

The word ‘truth’ sounds solid, like ‘brick’ or ‘rock.’ But as we look closer, that which appears to be concrete turns to fog. Your verities sound like baloney to me and vice versa. We all know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but what about truth? In reality there are two kinds of truth; fact, or objective reality, and opinion, otherwise known as subjective reality.

The tendency to confuse fact with opinion seems to be baked into the human psyche. and our truths often collide. Some people say there’s no such thing as absolute truth, but I disagree. Facts represent objective reality. Snow forms when the temperature is below freezing, for example. In our numerical system three is greater than two. There is a correlation between burning fossil fuels and air quality. The goal of science is the discovery and sharing of objective truth.

Religious leaders, philosophers, and politicians deal more with subjective truth. Personal preferences, religious beliefs, and ideologies are all examples of opinion. Some people may think blondes are prettier than brunettes, but this is preference, not fact. The world is home to over two billion Christians. If you ask a true believer whether the virgin birth is opinion or fact, most would defend their faith as fact. We all have the right to believe anything we choose, but believing doesn’t make it so.  When we argue with others about our opinions, we might as well be children saying, “My dog’s better than your dog.”

Ideologies fall into the realm of secular thought, usually political. I think Jesus’ sense of humor has been underrated. Just think about his word picture of people who “strain at gnats and swallow camels.” Pretty funny when you think about it, but it’s all around us these days. Disinformation fuels conspiracy movements. It stretches my credulity to contemplate this, but recent polling, as reported online, indicates that millions of people currently believe the following: “Democratic politicians and Hollywood stars are part of a global network that tortures and sexually abuses children in Satanic rituals.”  Here’s the link if you’re interested.

          Barriers to Knowing the Difference: 1) Bias

Human thinking tends toward bias, a trickster that can cause us to confuse fact with opinion. We’re predisposed to accept or reject ideas based on how well they line up with our pre-existing beliefs. Bias can be validated and reinforced by disinformation, religious doctrines, and political ideologies. One’s social environment and conditioning shape preferences on such a deep level that they become as invisible as the proverbial air to the bird and water to the fish. People who have escaped to freedom from a communist country, for example, are apt to have a bias against socialist economic policies.

Scientists must always beware of their own biases when designing experiments and interpreting outcomes.  Prejudice can also affect the scope and design of research, limiting our knowledge base. For example, doctors currently know much more about how disease manifests and how to treat it in men than in women. This is because most studies throughout the history of medical research have focused on males.

The enticement of disinformation feeds on bias, seducing you to swallow fake stories you already want to believe like a fish taking the hook hidden in a worm. Make no mistake, there are movements invested in playing to your preferences. If you’re blind to them, you’re setting yourself up to fall for lies. We want reality to line up as neatly as a row of baby ducks, but in a global society as complex as ours, truth is far more nuanced than anything presented on the six o’clock news, let alone your favorite corner of the web.

One’s social environment plays a role, too. We’re all affected by the ‘group think’ of our communities. If you don’t know a single person who voted for the other party in the presidential election, (and many people in small-town middle America don’t) it might be hard for you to believe your candidate lost. This is only one of the many reasons millions of people believe that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent.

          Barrier 2) Propaganda

We all want to think state propaganda doesn’t exist here in the land of the free, but if you paid attention in history class you know better. An old saying alleges, “Truth is the first casualty of war.” Governments have used misinformation to control the masses since the beginning of civilization. The United States is no exception.

This is a two-pronged problem. The first is obvious. For example, before the US invaded Iraq in 2003, our intelligence agencies knew that there was no credible evidence supporting the assertion that they had weapons of mass destruction. Yet the media became the megaphone for insistence from the White House to the contrary, persuading public opinion in favor of invading. The cost has been tragic. Both sides have suffered the loss of many thousands of lives. Veterans come home with physical and psychological injuries. We still spend billions on warfare while saying we have no resources for basic human needs or infrastructure at home.

The second prong of the propaganda problem is less obvious, but perhaps more dangerous. People who find out they’ve been lied to feel betrayed by their own government and mainstream media. As they struggle to make sense of a world in chaos, they become susceptible to anti-establishment disinformation. It doesn’t help to know that all corporate media outlets are owned by half-a-dozen companies. This is something conspiracy theorists point out, and they’re right.

As a ‘boomer’ I have lived through so many events shrouded in corruption, conspiracy and conjecture that there isn’t room here to narrate them. I resort to bullet points to mention a tiny percentage of topics in truncated subject headings:

  • JFK’s assassination
  • Watergate
  • The Pentagon Papers
  • Iran Contra, Oliver North et al
  • International Trade Deals/World Trade Organization/The World Bank

Human minds want answers, especially explanations that line up with their own biases. When the official story seems questionable, people will connect the dots on their own. Disinformation sources take advantage of the vacuum, filling it with fantasy and conjecture. Social media allows for the uninformed to comments and share, thus further shaping a false narrative.

           Down the Rabbit Hole

Is it any wonder, then, that millions of people follow breadcrumbs down a rabbit holes that leave them believing absurd allegations? Believers don’t get there overnight. It usually starts when someone you care about shares something you question, and they’re more than happy to provide you with the links to their sources. If you already feel disaffected and powerless it’s easy to get sucked in.

It’s tempting to think that it happens to those with less than top-notch critical thinking skills, but in my circles, it’s the most intelligent who fall the hardest. This, in spite of the fact that some conspiracy claims have ancient roots. The Q-anon allegation that liberals feast on the blood of babies, for example, repeats assertions made against witches and Jews in the middle ages.

If you’re lured by a friend or relative to read one of their introductory offers, I suggest you read up on the response from more widely trusted sources before getting in too deep. Unfortunately, believers dismiss anything that contradicts their bias as ‘fake news.’ This is true regardless of the political track record or party affiliation of the person who dares to disagree with the lies they believe.

          The Cost

The cost is huge on all levels, from personal to national. Those who invaded the US Capitol building on January 6 believed themselves to be heirs of the American Revolution of 1776.  Most remain convinced that they were true patriots acting to defend the country from a stolen election. There’s a truth crisis behind the historic insurrection and coup attempt that happened on January 6, 2021. We know how it came about.

Months before the 2020 presidential election the incumbent started saying that he couldn’t lose a fair election. He would repeat this statement hundreds of times. When he lost, his most loyal followers had the only evidence they needed to prove him right. What irony that His lies became their gold standard of truth, making it impossible to counter their belief with facts. After 60 court cases presented to 86 judges, many of them conservatives, the administration failed to present credible evidence confirming allegations of election fraud. Thousands of people stormed the capital to ‘Stop the Steal’ based on unfounded allegations.

This is the cost of living in a society that treats truth like chewing gum. We don’t value it, and toss it aside or stick it under the table when it doesn’t taste good anymore. Whistle-blowers are subjected to incarceration and punishments more appropriate for murderous mafia bosses than truth-tellers.  The little boy who cried wolf paid the price for playing games with his words. In our case, the cost could be our democratic republic.

          The Antidote

The antidote is honesty. Regardless of your beliefs, you can tell the truth as you understand it, and acknowledge your own bias. But, like a vaccine, it will only help if enough of us take the medicine. All of us need to play by the same rules. If you seek good faith communication while the person you’re talking to only wants to dominate and win an argument, the angels cry for both of you.

Allowing bullies to win the day serves no higher purpose. This conversation brings to mind an episode of the original Star Trek TV series in which Captain Kirk becomes divided between his kind but weak self and his aggressive but evil aspect. Our society sees human relations through this flawed dichotomy. We can and must take a stand for compassion as well as truth, for mercy as well as justice. The future belongs to the peaceful warrior.

It hurts too much to keep things the way things are. I, for one, am no longer willing to tolerate the damage and the pain. Perfect communication is an ideal, and no one is perfect. Some topics arouse so much passion that objectivity seems out of reach, but we can make a start. We all need to learn to say what we mean and mean what we say, but to say it in a way that isn’t mean.

The more we communicate honestly with each other, the closer we can come to operating from a healthy shared reality. Let’s all practice separating fact and opinion. Our thinking will become more flexible, and we’ll get better at making informed choices. We’ll be less likely to fall for the rhetoric of those who appeal to our emotions with agendas which may not be in our best interests.

There is a word which describes the study of truth, epistemology. We need it now. Only when we take this challenge to heart will we be able to create a win/win world. Learning to communicate honestly from truth is the skill that will lead us from the slums of dysfunction to the alabaster city shining on a hill. Please join me in the quest to Make America Honest. We have nothing to lose and a government of, by, and for The People to gain.

Do your own research and use your judgement. Here are some resources you might use for starters.