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What Is Real in a World Where Americans Rely on the Media for Truth?

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Strange as it may seem, the most pressing political problem of 2021 is epistemology, which, broadly speaking, is the question of how certain we are about what we know for sure.

Most people have noticed that vision can play tricks. A straight stick submerged in water looks bent, though it is not; railroad tracks seem to converge in the distance, but they do not …

Although such anomalies may seem simple and unproblematic at first, deeper consideration of them shows that just the opposite is true. How does one know that the stick is not really bent …

It’s no longer merely a matter of academic interest. Recently, “fact-checkers” took to the front pages of social media to assure the public that a video of Joe Biden was definitely real. “Fact-checking site Lead Stories and journalists working for the BBC and Mashable said that President Biden was speaking from the south lawn outside the White House when he spoke to reporters on Tuesday. Similar claims about former president Donald Trump were debunked in October.”

Camera angles, scale expectations of objects featured in the image, and the difficulties of focusing on the texture of a “dead cat” microphone wind cover were cited as reasons for an apparent optical illusion showing Joe Biden’s hand seemingly passing through a solid.

But most culpable for the delusion of all was the power of suggestion, the inclination to conspiracy theories among the gullible Deplorables who see ghosts everywhere.

Many commentators on social media are worried that a large percentage of the public has gone crazy. Philip Bump of the Washington Post notes that madness is no longer, as formerly, confined to loners. Now it is an attribute of entire communities who look otherwise deceptively sane.

When we look at the fraud allegations as conspiracy theories, which they are, it becomes less likely that we’d assume adherents are isolated loners looking for community. They constitute a mainstream belief and, according to research from the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life, a belief more commonly held by people who are heavily engaged in community groups than those who don’t have such strong community ties. It’s more commonly found among people who are members of religious congregations than among those who aren’t.

The culpable communities may object: “No, no, no. You mustn’t think that because of course they are illusions.” And, indeed, they might be, but how do we know? That’s how we come around to epistemology again and the pesky question of what is real in a world where most of us rely on the media for truth.

Recall the scene from the movie “Gaslight”?

The prime driver of the protagonist’s doubt is her gradual discovery that she had been lied to before. Was she being lied to again? The film director’s answer is that we find out in the end which reality is real because the actual facts prevail. Events burn through the narrative. We learn the truth eventually though perhaps a little too late. So the best way to reassure ourselves that the narrative is real is for it to come true. Then we can recalculate the Bayesian. The problem, of course, is that it so very rarely does these days. It just moves on without resolution. Maybe the fact-checkers can tell us why. After all, they’ve never lied to us before.

BooksWake Up: Why the World Has Gone Nuts. Wake Up is Piers’ rallying cry for a united future in which we reconsider what really matters in life. It is a plea for the return of true liberalism, where freedom of speech is king. Most of all, it is a powerful account of how the world finally started to wake up, and why it mustn’t go back to sleep again.

When Politicians Panicked: The New Coronavirus, Expert Opinion, and a Tragic Lapse of Reason Hardcover – March 30, 2021. In When Politicians Panicked, economic commentator John Tamny tells the heart-wrenching story of a time when politicians were tragically relieved of basic common sense in their response to the new coronavirus.

Follow  Richard Fernandez at Wretchard.com