How do we begin to heal as a nation? Ultimately, it comes down to finding common ground, shared truths where we can join together to solve difficult issues.
John Stuart Mill said, “The well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being (accepted) untested.” The world today is very different than when Mill said that. With today’s social media, there appear to be many “truths.”
Patrick Moynihan said “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts (truths).” Useful discussions work only if we share a general set of given facts about the topic under discussion. Otherwise, they become shouting matches where both sides are talking past each other. We all have had this experience.
Where we get our facts from is important in increasing social trust. Skepticism toward people in powerful positions is healthy in a democracy, but deciding whom to trust is crucial to having a common set of facts. If one group trusts in scientists and another trusts in the social media, there may be no shared set of facts. Without this shared set of facts, discussions become meaningless.
We all want to understand the world, and conspiracy theories are often a shared approach to making sense of what we see around us. But conspiracy theories are often guided by two elements: conformation bias (where we are exposed only to ideas that match preconceived ideas) and cognitive dissonance (where we only believe ideas that do not conflict with other strongly held beliefs). These two powerful elements narrow our ability to honestly evaluate new information.
Conspiracy theories are usually centered around the idea that the authorities cannot be trusted. This is where the danger comes in and two conspiracy theories in particular are causing great harm.
First, that climate change is not human caused and/or does not exist, and, second, that the coronavirus does not exist. And yet, there is plenty of evidence that both of these are real dangers to both individuals and society at large.
How do you decide “the truth of it” when we are introduced to new information? One way is to see if we are asking ourself, “Where does that put me?” That should be a red flag because we are asking how that affects us instead of if it’s potentially true. By asking where it put us, we have shut the door to new information before we have honestly evaluated that new information.
Some conspiracy theories do little harm. If you think the Earth is flat or the moon landing was faked, there is little chance for harm. But if you think that COVID-19 is fake or that humans are not causing climate change, there are real dangers to all of us. We need to start conversations about what these damaging rumors and falsehoods are doing to our lives, our health, our relationships and the effectiveness of our governments at all levels.
Trying to solve the issues around misinformation will not be helped much by social media forums trying to ban some individuals or censoring input, because this may just add to the conspiracy theory that some “deep state” is trying to control the media.
In this new age of social media, it will fall to each individual to become more science and media literate to become more effective and discerning users of that information.
To quote Gandhi, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
David Hart, Torrey, is a former physics teacher at Skyline High School and former junior high counselor. He has degrees in physics, sociology, psychology, education, sociology and social work. He is now retired and lives near Capitol Reef National Park.