When it comes to the truth about science, we simply don’t know who to trust
(Featuring an interview with Professor Ryan McKay from Royal Holloway University of London)
What is truth? This is a question which has troubled philosophers since classical antiquity, and it is one which has taken on a renewed significance in our society. One of the earliest attempts at answering this question came from Socrates, who devoted his philosophical project to challenging and critically evaluating popular opinions on truth. He proposed an interrogative method called elenchus – a back-and-forth discussion prompted by thought-provoking questions – as the best method to discover truth. Just imagine a conversation with a kid who keeps asking “why?” But the elenctic method rarely produced any useful answers – instead, these conversations would mostly end in aporia – a state of confusion in which no answers are found – a state I’m sure many of us can sympathise with today.
And yet, though neither Socrates nor the other great ancient philosophers could answer the question of what really constitutes the truth, it would stop neither our predecessors nor our peers from claiming to know the truth. After all, we have always held some firm idea of what the truth is – some strongly held belief that we have an accurate grasp on reality that we might call knowledge – even if that knowledge has gradually changed over the years. But how is this possible? How could we arrive at such a point that we could reasonably take a claim as truth, when philosophers have shown us that we can know so little?
For one thing, the concept of truth is dependent on what exactly it is we’re talking about. In modern times, we have come to the general agreement that there aren’t really any truths regarding things like morals, ethics, social norms, and customs – that these are for the most part socially and culturally contingent. We have the post-modernists to thank for that. But we nevertheless maintain a degree of common sense regarding what we ought to do (for example, we know that we shouldn’t kill or steal or lie) and we are content to hold these conclusions to the same status as truths. But when it comes to science and questions about what constitutes our objective reality, we are still very much in the mindset that there is a truth which exists, and which can be discovered – even if we haven’t found it yet.
In the past, those periods in our history in which we have had something resembling a majority public consensus on scientific or natural science truths have coincidentally been those periods in which there have been a high level of trust in figures of authority. This is because our notions of truth are fundamentally interconnected with authority. This doesn’t necessarily mean political authority – though it certainly helps to have a government in which you can place your trust – but authoritative figures in every discipline and field of our knowledge. Kunjachan Koshy, a senior lecturer at the ACTS Academy of Higher Education in Bangalore, observes this relationship between truth and authority in as early as premodern Europe, a period when the truth was tied to Christianity (Koshy, n.d.). During this period, God was the ultimate authority, and so the word of God was truth. Combined with a high public confidence in Christianity, the result was that the truth was seen largely as fixed, objective, and discoverable, either through the Christian doctrines or the men who studied and interpreted them.
And, for the larger part of our history, we have carried this trust in authority as an important factor in determining truth. In later centuries, the authority on natural sciences would realign from religious figures to scientists and doctors – learned men and women who dedicated their lives to their professions in pursuit of the truth. We would trust in their work and in their expertise. But this relationship has become fraught with mistrust in contemporary society. Now, propelled by the proliferation of misinformation on social media, anti-science in public discourse, and claims of fake news in the media, we aren’t so sure who to trust anymore, and this has led many social commentators to the conclusion that we’re living in a world of post-truth.
But is this diagnosis accurate? As Professor Ryan McKay, a researcher in the psychology of post-truth at Royal Holloway University states, “it’s easy to exaggerate the extent and/or novelty of [the post-truth] phenomenon […] disinformation and propaganda have a long history [but] the main differences with previous eras are technological – with the internet and social media, disinformation and misinformation can spread like wildfire.” But even besides this, the idea that we are ‘post-truth’ – that we have somehow moved past needing it – is inaccurate. Instead, it might be better to view current society as one in which we have increasingly polarised opinions on what constitutes the truth, and what we take to be the truth is determined largely by who we choose to trust.
As Professor McKay states, “on the one hand, trust in the institutions and practitioners of science is essential for securing and promoting “truth”.” But what happens if you place your trust in the wrong people? Those propagating anti-science ideas, for example. Recently, Professor McKay completed a project funded by the Cogito Foundation which explored public understanding of science in a post-truth world. This project addressed how destructive “misbeliefs” about empirical reality persist and proliferate in the face of contrary scientific evidence. Amongst other things, his research found that some ideas – for example, that vaccines cause autism – spread and endure, in part, because their content resonates with culturally or politically entrenched intuitions and preferences.
The coronavirus pandemic is the perfect example. In the early stages of the pandemic, President Trump was seen to propagate flagrant lies and misinformation about the virus, from stating that “99%” of COVID-19 cases are “totally harmless” (Trump, 2020) to pandering media conspiracies such as “The media is overblowing fears about the virus ahead of Election Day” (Trump, 2020). In fact, The Atlantic recently compiled an article outlining all of Trump’s lies surrounding the coronavirus pandemic (Paz, 2020). But the more he would lie, the more his fanbase would trust Trump’s claims over the recommendations and advise of established medical officials. As McKay states, “the Trump phenomenon shows that there can actually be an inverse relationship between truth and trust. What I mean is that some of Trump’s base seemed to trust Trump more the more he lied” because what he would say would align better with their existing views. It’s a kind of mutually reciprocal relationship, in which supporters trust Trump because his claims align with their own, and at the same time, find verification in Trump’s authority.
Once upon a time, it was easy enough to trust the word of experts and officials, but skepticism, alternative facts, political agendas, collective narcissism, and all the plagues of the misinformation age have made it so that this is no longer the case. Our current society shows, if anything, that what we believe and take as truth is determined largely by who we trust – but how can we mend the relationship between the public and experts? The question is an important one, as our very future depends on it. From climate change deniers to anti-vaxxers, misinformation about scientific facts can have disastrous consequences. If we are to solve these issues, the first step is to start placing our trust in the right people.
Koshy, K., n.d. Truth And Authority In Postmodernity. [Online]. Available at: <https://www.academia.edu/8970176/ Truth_and_Authority_in_Postmodernity> [Accessed 17 October 2021].
Trump, D. 2020. 99% of COVID-19 cases are totally harmless. [Twitter]. 4 July. [Accessed 17 October 2021]. Available from: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/11/trumps-lies-about-coronavirus/608647/.
Trump, D. 2020. The media is overblowing fears about the virus ahead of Election Day. [Twitter]. 24 October. [Accessed 17 October 2021]. Available from: https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1320016181734993920.
Paz, C. 2020. All the President’s Lies About the Coronavirus. The Atlantic, [Online]. Available at: <https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/11/trumps-lies-about-coronavirus/608647/> [Accessed 17 October 2012].