Incredulity and the Weird Skepticism Paradox of 2016

The first time you flew on a plane, it probably felt surreal. It can be scary. It can seem to defy the senses. Many tons of heavy machinery, passengers, and cargo are crammed into a tube and sent into the air. You've seen cars stall out, why is this way more dangerous scenario going to be OK? Air travel negates intuition.

But if you've flown many times, you may be tempted to roll your eyes at the overwhelmed.  Because you've come to realize that the material properties of matter and motion are more real than your gut feelings. And also that life is a numbers game; your senses have had time to catch up--to a small degree--with the statistics.

"Gullible" and "naive” don’t exactly have the same meanings. Gullibility basically means the tendency to be manipulated due to believing anything one hears. Naivete is more vague, and slightly less pejorative. Naivete can be, in a small way, worthy of envy. It connotes innocence. A lack of jadedness. Nobody wants to be gullible, and people brag that they're not. But there's a certain wistfulness regarding naivete. Part of us longs for a simpler worldview. Reality bites, and that's why the naivete of the very young is, somewhat, to be envied.

Here's the biggest difference: naivete is not one's own fault, but gullibility results from one's own stupidity.

That difference is the reason why belief in fake news and automatic rejection of mainstream media sources has a surprising root in identity politics--protection of my identity as not being a fucking rube.

And yet... Like Marion Cotillard's character in Inception, one can be so driven by skepticism, by not wanting to miss out on the real reality, that one creates runaway incredulity feedback, becoming the ultimate tragic moron. Jogging in place, churning harder and faster into skepticism quicksand, some people are exerting themselves into a closed cognitive loop, impenetrable by information and reinforced by their own ego.

This isn’t a partisan issue, we’ve seen toddler-rage stupidity from both sides. On the left it’s been anti-vax, 9-11 trutherism, naturopathy, pacifism, identity politics, PC radicalization, and organics-as-pseudo-spirituality. On the right it’s been anti-vax, creationism, 2nd amendment fundamentalism, anti-PC radicalization, and a bizarre willingness to believe that Hillary Clinton is a murderer and child sex trafficker -- which would be downright funny in a parallel universe with less horrific presidential election results.

What you’re witnessing is gullibility which is built, tragically, on a psychological foundation of anti-gullibility. It’s a penrose staircase of insecurity lifted up by its own bootstraps. A self-perpetuating dynamo of oppressive anti-oppression. And I fear there’s no cure for it, except for lobotomy, electro-shock therapy, and unforgettable personal embarrassment.

Somewhere around 2008, Sarah Palin disparaged the “lamestream media” for reasons that had inadvertent merit. It’s true that everybody has an agenda, and not everybody’s greatest priority is the truth. But the funny thing about truth… It’s different than fact.  I don’t mean that facts aren’t true -- they’re sometimes true sometimes not -- I mean that “trueness” has a different body than factuality, and a different relationship to the human psyche. Truth is alluring, mesmerizing. Anyone with half an inner life or spirit of curiosity has gotta have it. All of it.

Facts are boring. Unsexy. They can be misleading. They need to be interpreted. They have no soul. And they’re always disagreed on. The best quality a fact could possibly have is accuracy. If you can say with equanimity that a fact is the truth, this is the ultimate validation. On its own, facts can’t carry the truth’s jock strap. (And say what you will about the fairytale-addicted Christian right, at least they’re driven by a belief in universal, objective truth. An ultimate reality where the holy trinity is either real or it isn't, as opposed to the choose-your-own reality of the crystal-gazing far-left. If only Christians' applications of incredulity weren't so troublingly selective when it comes to things they hear outside the church walls on Sunday...)

The difficulty with truth is that--even though it never changes--it has no vessel. It’s a concrete abstraction which can’t be grasped with crude flesh. It’s the spiritual receipt of events in spacetime. It’s the only metaphysic which can’t not exist. Even if you’re standing right next to it, you can’t simply bring it to other people, it’s like trying to shove a ghost into a U-Haul. All you can give are brittle arrows pointing in truth’s direction. Facts. There’s not much you can do to expose real unmitigated truth except to keep heaping on these arrow-crumbs like throwing powder in the face of an invisible man to view his outline. You still don’t see him but you have enough to information about his position to make better judgments.

So what makes something a fact? It’s not truth, unfortunately. It’s testimony. It’s hierarchies of consensus that aren’t permanent and that are subject to all sorts of biases. The Boston Massacre of 1770 is only a fact because of enough different sources (perhaps witnesses, police and coroner reports etc.) It probably truthfully happened, but it definitely factually happened.

OJ having killed his ex-wife may be the truth, but it ain't a fact. It’s just not. I believe he’s guilty and it’s becoming something closer to a fact every year since he lost the civil suit in ‘97. It’s a fact that lots of people think he’s guilty. It’s probably a fact that most people think he’s guilty. But this lack of verifiability, this failure in the hierarchy of human knowledge is the plane crash that alarms the jittery new passenger. It creates a dramatic temptation to treat facts like useless garbage for their unreliability, and to treat intuition, or the “feeling” of truth as worthy of merit.

The next time you go looking for
the truth, get the whole thing.
It’s like a good fuck -- half is
worse than none at all.
I grew up a New York Jets fan, and part of being a Jets fan is doing that stupid (but fun) J! E! T! S! chant. When I got to college, I met a whole bunch of serious Eagles fans. Both teams play in green uniforms; when I heard their fans refer to the birds as Gang Green, I was insulted that they were stealing the Jets fan nickname for our team. Gang Green was our cute play on words. I began to hear the E! A! G! L! E! S! EAGLES! chant, and I rolled my eyes at their blatant ripping off of the Jets style. Then a much smarter sports fan reminded me that the Eagles chant is part of their fight song, which pre-dates the entire existence of the Jets franchise. I will never forget that day.  I was mortified that I had been so easily self-deluded and that I had been preaching with the mere sensation of knowledge. Is there anything more embarrassing on the planet than motivated reasoning? Than being wrong loudly? Than earnestly believing something based on years of incorrect information? We all know a sports fan who reacts to a penalty against their team as bullshit while a non-call against the other team means the ref needs to have his eyes checked. Can anybody look more stupid?

People are too uncomfortable with uncertainty, and I get it. Do I know for a fact that secret societies don’t run trafficking rings through pizzerias? Do I know the truth? Honestly, I can’t ever know, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Whenever I hear a conspiracy theory, some sick part of me wants it to be true. A tiny gland in my brain squirts out a little happy juice and some adrenaline. Conspiracy theories offer the promise of architecture. The promise of design. I can’t imagine anything more fascinating than a secret ruling elite participating in rituals behind closed doors. I would love to learn that Hillary rigged the primary election against Bernie, that Putin helped Trump rig the general election against Hillary, that reality is a computer simulation and on and on and on. And I’m not one of those hippies who believes in embracing uncertainty for its beauty. I hate uncertainty. But I have to embrace it because it’s the only thing that’s real.

If you’re like me, you don’t want to be made a rube. You don’t want to be gullible. A laughing stock. You don’t want to be manipulated or taken advantage of. It would behoove us all to remind ourselves every minute of every day that the only way to live the 100% truth is by saying “I don’t know".

No comments: