Seeing Is Believing?

Our basic defenses against deception are primitive. We’re taught as children to use our senses to ward off danger. In such cases, the senses we’re reacting to are almost always physical – we smell smoke, see a predator, hear a gunshot, etc. “Seeing, smelling and hearing is believing,” we’re told, although exceptions to this simple rule quickly mount.

As adults, we’re frequently called on to exercise “common” sense, a more amorphous sort of sense built on pattern recognition and whatever similar wisdom comes with age.

That’s it – the whole of our ability to detect all sorts of threats is based on a flimsy collection of physical senses and a vague and subjective sense of how the rest of humanity might view the situation.

It is, to say the least, an arsenal wholly inadequate for our times.  The hucksters, charlatans, snake-oil salesmen and hackers – in government and out – have every advantage. Their attack is on the very idea of objective truth, the idea that beneath our perspectives and biases lies an incontrovertible reality that cannot be denied.

The debate over climate change was their first great victory, and it paved the way for the more dramatic subversions of truth we’ve experienced since. It’s an indictment of our schools, our institutions, and society in general that a handful of so-called scientists on the payroll of interest groups can overwhelm the consensus of 98 percent of the scientific community that climate change is real, current, and caused by human behavior.

The media is a huge part of the problem. Rather than defending objective truth, they became cowed by assertions of political bias and decided that objectivity in reporting – a cornerstone of journalistic principles – meant giving both sides equal weight (and equal time) even when the evidence overwhelmingly supports one side. The he said/she said structure of modern reporting leaves it to the reader or viewer to decide his or her version of truth, regardless of the facts.

Social media is even worse. The “common” in common sense once referred to a collective in which differing perspectives were prevalent; now, it’s simply a reference to your friends, followers, and others who already think exactly like you do.

It’s a flaw of the human design that we tend to gravitate toward people who are already like us whether the commonality is race, education, politics, or income. It’s a flaw in human behavior that we’re content with this arrangement. For people who only watch MSNBC, or who only read the Wall Street Journal, the world often seems cut and dry; but try to mix a serious liberal source with a serious conservative source, and you will suddenly have a much deeper sense of a deep truth, not as the fixed certainty of a partisan prism, but as contentious, challenging assertion of competing facts.  It’s hard, to be sure, but whatever side of the political divide you live on, truth still matters.

Finding it isn’t a Democratic or Republican problem, but an American one.

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