We are facing a crisis of epistemology in today's world. How do we know things? How do we distinguish between true beliefs and delusions, facts and fiction? What can be trusted?
There are many angles we could explore in this crisis of epistemology. Here are just five:
“Post-truth” was Oxford Dictionaries’ international word of the year in 2016, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Clearly we are reaching a tipping point in rising uncertainty about truth in today’s world if “post-truth” was the international word of the year. But this is not a new concept. It has been a long time coming.
You probably remember the word “truthiness,” coined by Stephen Colbert more than a decade ago. Urban Dictionary defines it as, “The quality of stating concepts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than the facts.”
But it goes back even further than this. We have been living in a post-truth world for a while now, ever since we started living in a post-God world.
Time had a striking cover a few months ago which posed the question, “Is truth dead?” It is intentionally designed to mirror another cover they had 50 years earlier, which asked, “Is God dead?”
These two covers, 50 years apart, tell an important story. Without God as an ultimate standard of truth, without “objective” truth that is the same for everyone, all we have are “truths” as interpreted by individuals. And so we get to where we are: post-truth. An epistemological crisis.
2) “Alternative Facts”
“Alternative Facts” has become part of our cultural lexicon thanks in part to President Trump’s spokesperson Kellyanne Conway, who famously had this interchange with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press back in January:
Kellyanne Conway: “You're saying it's a falsehood, and [we are] giving alternative facts to that.”
Chuck Todd: “Alternative facts are not facts — they're falsehoods.”
But “Alternative Facts” is really about a bigger issue, which I think is about the nature of technology today, where we can curate our own experiences, surrounding ourselves with only the ideas and “facts” that we desire. We live in our own bubbles where we talk amongst ourselves about our own preferred sets of “facts.” If you have “alternative” facts to mine, that’s fine! I don’t have to listen to you.
3) “Fake News”
And then there’s “fake news,” the term that has become popularized by President Trump on Twitter, where he frequently calls CNN, the New York Times and any other news he dislikes #fakenews.
But really what Trump is tapping into, and using to his advantage, is a deep distrust of the mainstream media which has been around long before Trump.
Gallup research has shown that Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly" has been on a downward trend for more than a decade now, reaching an all time low last year with only 32% saying they have "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust in the media.
Pew research this summer showed that 63% of Americans say that the national news media has a negative effect on the way things are going in the country. But that has actually dropped 2 points since 2005, that same survey found that 65% say the national news media has a negative effect on the country.
What accounts for this distrust of formerly trusted news?
The mainstream media has for several decades now been morphing into a mutation of news and entertainment, a sort of trivialization of the news where the need for ratings and clicks creates a demand for a constant stream of engaging, entertaining content.
Neil Postman wrote about it way back in 1985 with his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, but the situation has reached crisis levels today.
The rise of 24-hour cable news and the explosion of web-based media means that there is huge competition for people’s attention, as well as a constant need for new content. This means “news” outlets must manufacture stories and sell “Breaking News!” even when there is none. There simply isn’t enough actual important news happening in the world to fill constant airtime, so what you have is a ton of commentary, debate and an elevation of trivia to the level of “important” news. But when everything is important, nothing is.
Add to this the way that we consume media: all at the same time, all in one place. Our feeds treat everything the same: political news, weather, personal rants, Bible verses, ads, movie trailers, cat videos. Everything fuses together so that we can’t distinguish between what matters and what doesn’t. What articles are actually worth reading? Which “breaking news” is actually news?
5) Unreflective Pace
On top of all this, the pace of our lives is so fast and unreflective. There is more to process than ever but less time to do so. We simply don’t take the time to sit with our thoughts, to reflect, to ponder. Our “in between” moments (waiting in line at the store, riding the train, etc.) are spent where? On our phones, scrolling and swiping.
This is a huge contributing factor to our crisis of epistemology. How can we know what is worth knowing if we never have any time to actually think critically about it?