Finding truth in a crowded world

The crisis of the contemporary American society is fundamentally epistemological. Despite similar upbringings, backgrounds, and values, two individuals can witness or read about the same event and have polarizing, contradictory, or irreconcilable interpretations. While such disagreements are inevitable, perception about world events has been increasingly distorted by human nature, American culture, and the mass media. Americans inhabit the same country, but they live in starkly separate realities.

Although objective knowledge exists, human bias makes impartial interpretation and communication of information exceedingly difficult. Cognitive biases enable quick decision-making, which though evolutionarily helpful, now blinds humans to their own capacity for error. Prominent examples include Confirmation Bias, the favoring of information that conforms to existing beliefs and the rejecting of evidence that does not, and False Consensus Effect, the overestimation of how many other people agree with an individual’s own opinion. These and other biases combine with overconfidence in a person’s own intelligence, capabilities, and competence via the Dunning-Kruger Effect to provide a multi-faceted and egocentric blindness to error.  

Modern American society and culture reinforce notions of consumer preference and individual subjectivity as the arbiters of truth. Together, they promote liberty and agency as the highest good but fail to recognize the detrimental effects of unrestricted freedom. Liberty without boundaries quickly devolves into relativism; truth becomes a competition between narratives. Narratives then compete for followers (i.e. Instagram likes) and popularity determines truth. In the past, publicly aired debates or trustworthy sources served as referees, forcing conflicting worldviews to acknowledge and confront the shortcomings of their own position and the strengths of the opposition. However, new technology has combined with consumer preferentialism to create online echo chambers, self-selecting and mutually reinforcing communities protected from alternative worldviews. Americans can choose their news and choose their truths. Since the customer is always right, consumerism, it seems, has helped devour credible information.  

Contemporary mass media further exacerbates this phenomenon. The 24-hour news cycle encourages the regurgitation of often inaccurate and unintelligible word salad intended not for clarity, but for viewership and ratings. Everyone has an agenda. Media platforms are analogous to political campaigns, catering to specific bases in their casual spin or omission of certain details to reach a preordained conclusion. As objectivity recedes from popular memory, the conscious cultivation of ideologically-tinged news promotes subjectivity as the overarching criterion for legitimacy. News is now right or wrong because it feels right or wrong. Logic is replaced by emotion. 

This is not to encourage apathy or callousness towards America’s current circumstances. Nor is it intended to reject all sources as inaccurate. All sources of knowledge, no matter how dull or uncontroversial, are susceptible to the same criticisms. The intention is the opposite; increased skepticism towards media of all varieties should make people more well-informed, self-aware, and open minded to contrasting views.

Knowledge from online sources today, especially about sensitive or controversial topics, is likely intended to elicit powerful emotions at the expense of a fair treatment of the facts. Directing increased skepticism towards the claims made in articles or discussions before accepting them as unquestionably true would increase thoughtful, meaningful debate. The fact that today’s globally and digitally connected society has the greatest wealth of readily available knowledge to which humanity has ever had access is no doubt worth celebrating. Yet the deluge of information requires careful examination in order to prevent falsity from drowning the truth. 

In an introductory philosophy class, one will be exposed to Socrates’ most famous paradox: “He who is truly wise knows that he knows nothing.” Although Socrates remains enigmatic, his paradox teaches that humility is the foundation of knowledge and wisdom. Perhaps the social media mavens shaping public opinion could learn a lesson from this and realize that black and white might be better seen in shades of gray.  

John Sullivan is a former editor of the Rover. Don’t worry, he realizes the irony of publishing this article in a newspaper.