COLUMN: The search for truth in a misinformation age

We are living amid an epistemological crisis as knowledge is twisted daily

So far 2020 has been a bit of a disaster between a global pandemic and racial tensions leading to an existential threat to police forces across North America.

But throughout all of this is something even more insidious, I suggest, namely, an epistemological crisis in our world.

Epistemology is the area of philosophy that deals with the origin and the source and the nature of knowledge. What does it mean to “know” something? Where do you get your knowledge from? How do you know this or that?

These are questions that some of us are asking one another more and more every day as misinformation and, more insidious, disinformation, permeates the public discourse.

Have you ever noticed how the smartest people you know, either in person or through public networks such as the media, often express uncertainty, doubt, and even change their minds?

And have you ever noticed how the most ignorant people you know are steadfast and seem to know everything?

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The epistemological Catch-22 we find ourselves in is that the more chaotic our world becomes with pandemic fears, racial tension on the rise, and economic uncertainty underlying it all, the more people seek answers. But those answers are hard to find, and bad answers are worse than more questions.

Remember that episode of Seinfeld where the topic of abortion came up? The gag from the 1990s sit-com was that while the main characters constantly had different people they were dating, they were all quite superficial about the relationships so there was never anything serious discussed. But on the obviously controversial topic of abortion, and with Elaine dating a perfectly handsome man, Jerry asked her what her new beau’s thoughts might be on the subject? “I’m sure he’s pro-choice,” she awkwardly stuttered, soon to be proven wrong.

What does this have to do with anything these days? Well so many of us have social media relationships, in my case a pretty large network of local people on my Facebook account with whom I share Progress news stories, sometimes anecdotes about what I see around town, and many people interact with me. And while there are a great many controversial day-to-day subjects that come across my desk or my social media feed, the unintentional misinformation and blatant disinformation regarding this COVID-19 pandemic of late has been staggering, to the point where I have had to start “unfriending” people who share nonsensical memes and outright lies.

But I can’t keep up.

I’m used to kooks and conspiracy theorists and far right or far left trolls sending me messages or commenting persistently on matters they know nothing about.

But sometimes lately, with some otherwise rational and reasonable individuals with whom I’ve dealt with on news stories or community events, I feel like Elaine in Seinfeld not wanting to ask, but wondering: “You aren’t a conspiracy theorist, right? Oh no, you are!?”

With a desire for answers about why things are happening, in the face of terrifying doubt and uncertainty, far too many people are falling prey to the unintentional misinformation of the ignorant but worse, the intentional disinformation of the malevolent.

Public health officials and politicians are not getting this perfect, but they aren’t lying. The guy sharing memes mocking Trudeau is probably unintentionally spreading misinformation, and the gal sharing a link to something that you’ve seen over and over that contradicts what public health officials are saying is also probably unintentionally spreading lies.

As an optimist I think, sure, maybe we can’t get the malevolent social media users to change their ways, but I think if we all put our mind to it, we can help shift the narrative of the ignorant toward the truth or at least the pursuit of it.

The truth matters, right?

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