In 2020 we have disagreements everywhere about basic facts about the world. Concern about fake news is rampant, stoked by those in leadership positions. Everyone is sure what reality is, but they all have different accounts and no one agrees. Collectively, society seems to have less of a grip on reality.
We are not on the same page
As one example of this toxic dynamic, I’ve found a number of people online lately claiming that COVID-19 stands for “Chinese Originated Viral Infectious Disease”. This claim is clearly false, since those who named it have said that it stands for Coronavirus Disease. In one discussion, those who pointed this out were accused of defending Chinese Communists, who had “launched an attack” on the United States. I want to be clear that this claim is absurd, and that the virus actually had a demonstrable natural origin, but that’s not the point of this post. What I want to explore is:
How did we get here?
We have to start with how we know any facts at all. The world is too complicated for us to know everything. You choose who to trust, and accept what they tell you. We’re taught that blind acceptance of other people’s views is a bad thing without investigating for yourself, but it isn’t that simple. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. On a societal level, most information is accepted, not proved for oneself and it unfortunately must be this way.
Have you verified for yourself that matter is made up of atoms and that the moon revolves around the earth? Of course not. But is that acceptance safe? It is, under certain conditions. We need three things to exist in our society for this to work:
- Competence (someone must be able of reaching the right answer in the first place)
- Communication (the competent must be able to transmit the information)
- Trust (you must be willing to accept what you hear)
If we think about how basic math is taught in schools, it is all three elements: competent mathematicians through centuries work to prove the basics; schools act as a communication method for this information, and people generally trust the schools to teach correct math, so they accept what they have been given. And so all of society benefits from math.
This triangle enables verification as well. At the higher levels of math, graduate students verify the math for themselves, further adding weight to the trust & confidence. Their trust is not misplaced!
In 2020 though, several pieces of this triangle have gone wrong, and that creates the situation we see today.
Trust Has Gone Wrong
Trust has several different dimensions, but all of them have been declining for many years. Person-to-person trust is less, and can be felt through social isolation, stranger danger, and an overall the decline in social capital. Many in the west live further apart from one another and see each other less than they used to. Institutional trust is far less, as seen in terms of public vs. private school fights, claims of “fake news in the mainstream media”, lack of confidence in government, isolationist policies in the west, and even the Catholic pedophilia scandal – indicating that we have less trust that institutions will teach us correctly and shepherd society wisely.
Communication has Exploded
Communication hasn’t gone wrong. It’s arguably gone too right. Older telephone communication was limited in how fast it could spread information by how fast people could have conversations with one another. Because we can blast messages to anyone, anywhere, instantly – if something goes wrong in Tokyo, a decent percentage of Europe can know in 15 minutes. That is a game-changer. The average working poor individual has better communication capability than the President of the United States in 1980. Let that sink in for a moment. Technology details like mobile phones matter less than the big picture: massive information velocity.
Communication itself does not care about information accuracy, or value. It’s just a pipe that moves information from brain to brain. So if we think about the “information economy” as having supply and demand for information – then in the Internet age the demand is much, much higher – but the supply is many times greater than that. Through the roof.
Verification has broken down
The Internet proliferated thousands of different sites and sources. And it has so much information on it now that you can use it to prove whatever you would like, including complete nonsense. Most people know this, and it severely damages verification. How can you know that your verification is good, if you could have verified anything? How do you know you aren’t just reading the same set of unverified facts, written by another person?
This is an information overload problem, combined with the fact that the average person isn’t trained as an academic to vet credible sources. While there is a “right way” to do this, it is extremely costly in time and resources, and most people simply won’t be able to do it. And so their ability to verify things objectively will tend to break down with information overload.
When verification breaks down, it undermines our ability to trust and makes the trust picture worse. Trust becomes a social influence game, because it’s too difficult to get the real scoop.
One of the reasons why social division and tribalism has been increasing is that it provides a neat solution to this information overload and verification problem. If you don’t know what to trust, hang with your local group. The group that gives you identity. The group that shares your values. This bubble of people will show you the way on what is true and what isn’t, because they already do in so many different ways.
No one is immune from this, we all have a tribe, and if we are to live as social animals and be interdependent on one another, we will derive parts of our identity from a tribe, and what they think matters: do not pretend it doesn’t.
Competence is unchanged, but we are unbalanced
We find ourselves in a situation where we have just as much competence as we ever did, but have far less trust, drastically more information, and a degraded ability to verify. This unbalances the triangle, representing how information flows in a good society.
Worse yet, it creates a self-reinforcing cycle that drives the dynamic further along. All the while, some of the factors which drive the cycle continue: information proliferates, leadership reinforces the message that news is fake (lowering institutional trust), tribalism increases, and so forth.
There is a way out
You can’t stop a vicious cycle, but you can step out of it. You can stop it because it’s too difficult to fiddle with the factors that drive it. We can’t take information off of the Internet to lessen information overload. You can’t teach everyone how to verify credible sources online and make them do it. You can’t convince people they should trust institutions.
We need a “come together” moment. A crisis.
When these vicious cycles have occurred throughout history, they never got “solved” – they got disrupted, by an external shock to the system. Like an economic depression, a major war, or a plague.
A shock presents a way out because it forces society to work together, and robs society of the ability to focus on the same old toxic dynamic. Shocks are an immediate threat: if you are worried that your son might die in a war, or of a disease, then you need to focus on that, and who cares what the opposing tribe is thinking or saying? Concepts like “fake news” become foolish trivialities. We have no time to bicker, we need to act.
In March of 2020, that external shock to the system has arrived. While COVID-19 is a tragedy, and an ongoing crisis, it represents a historical moment and opportunity for society to turn the corner, and rid itself of toxic patterns that have been accumulating for years now.
It is critical we seize the good in everything that comes our way. We have to fight COVID-19, but I am hopeful that in doing so, it will help focus our minds. The focus should not be on thinking and feeling, which throw us into the same negative cycle. The focus should be on acting. Help your neighbors. Help your family. Donate. Participate. Act. Suffer. Cry. Celebrate. Together. This is how we recognize each other’s humanity and rebuild the trust that we have lost.
At the end of the crisis, which we will with 100% certainty get through – we may find our neighbors to be those who helped us, and those who suffered with us. We may find ourselves no longer able to see “tribe labels” such as Republican, Democrat, libtard, RINO, MAGA crowd, and so on – they may have been replaced by neighbors and brothers.
And those are folks who can be relied upon for good information.