The apparently falling standards for what people are willing to believe in seems to be the topic of the day. We have immense, well-capitalized media outlets like Fox News just making stuff up, crazy conspiracies on the internet, a refusal to accept scientific expertise on matters, like climate change, where it is as well established as it’s ever been. What’s up with all this?
I was provoked into thinking about this by a dreadful book review in The Nation: David Bell on Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and Truth. I haven’t read Rosenfeld, and maybe she’s pretty good, but it’s clear Bell is confused about the very starting point for thinking about the problem. He talks about “regimes of truth”, which he cribs from Foucault: there is no capital-T truth out there, just different views on it which possess more or less power/authority. We happen to suffer from elites or at least some portion of them, writes Bell, who have particularly dismal standards regarding what should count as true. The solution is to replace the bad authorities with good ones, more or less.
The error, which ought to be obvious, is that capital-T truth is irrelevant. It’s the wrong reference point, and it doesn’t matter that no one really knows (for sure) what it is. The real question is, what are the standards we hold ourselves to in learning about the world and minimizing error? For instance, do we honestly engage with those who disagree with us? Do we maintain a modicum of self-doubt and face up to the evidence that could show us we’re wrong about something? Do we respect logical consistency? These standards don’t guarantee we’ll arrive at the Truth, nor even that we’ll know it if we stumble on it by accident. They do reduce the risk of error, and that’s about all we can ask. By not centering the discussion on standards for argument and belief, Bell can’t even pose the relevant question.
So what’s distinctive about the current situation? I don’t think it’s the extent of dishonest and otherwise wildly erroneous argument and pseudo-facticity; there’s been an abundant supply of that over my lifetime (I’m on in years), and from what I’ve read it was abundant long before that. I can remember being furious at the Walter Cronkites and David Brinkleys of my youth for purveying news that was blatantly false.
Here’s a hypothesis. What has changed is not the amount of falsehood but the willful disregard for standards of error detection in order to disseminate it. We live in a world of greatly increased information flows, where a false news report can and will be contradicted within minutes by someone in a position to recognize it, document its falsity and post it on electronic media somewhere. A higher proportion of the population is college-educated than ever before, and even many reporters can understand budgets, follow basic statistical analysis, and make sense of scientific arguments. In other words, as standards have risen, standardlessness stands more exposed than it did in the past. It’s simply more blatant, because it has to be.
Take an example: the Gulf of Tonkin “incident”. This was, as all sides now agree, a direct, calculated lie. The administration of Lyndon Johnson wanted a free hand to wage war in Indochina; to get it they fabricated a fake attack by North Vietnam on a US navy ship. (The actual attack was us against them.) But it wasn’t transparently false. There was a tiny trickle of evidence from Hanoi and only much belated information from US sailors. It was a fog of war thing. Today, on the other hand, when Trump issues a lie, the counterevidence is in front of our eyes within minutes. To maintain his lie, Trump has to discard elementary standards of truth-seeking and reveal himself for what he is. LBJ had the luxury of being able to keep up appearances.
I don’t mean to come across as so cynical as to say there’s no difference. On the contrary, standards matter enormously. Both presidents lied, but only one directly and openly flouts the standard that evidence should count. My claim is that we’ve arrived at a point at which transparent disregard for logic and evidence is the only way to continue lying.