Against the “Post-Truth” Narrative

In 2004, I was 19, conservative, and a partisan for blogging in the then-raging bloggers vs journalists rivalry.

The incident that would eventually end Dan Rather’s career at CBS seemed to me the model of how bloggers would improve the news. A news organization is a relatively bounded thing with finite resources, even if it isn’t systematically biased. With the Internet, you only needed one person anywhere in the world with the skills or alertness (or both) to catch an error, and this could be communicated to everyone. It seemed obvious that this new, distributed feedback system would make news more accurate than ever before.

Moreover, it seemed obvious that there would be no place for the news organization in the new world. Who needed professional journalists when you had citizen journalists, with a wider range of qualifications? Foreign correspondents could be replaced by bridge bloggers, like Iraq the Model, who liveblogged the first free Iraqi elections.

I participated myself, rounding up blog posts and articles on the war, the economy, and the new media debate, and adding my own commentary. I imagined myself as a member of a new community which would eventually include varying contributions from most citizens in most countries of the world. Those contributions would add up to a well-oiled distributed feedback system that caught errors at a faster rate than they were made.

Time has not been kind to that vision.

Continue reading “Against the “Post-Truth” Narrative”

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trust

Two kinds of trust

In pre-modern, small scale societies, trust was multi-lateral: Everyone knew everyone. This was robust to any one individual being untrustworthy, but had real trouble scaling. If someone new came to town she would have to earn the trust of every node in the network—a problem that grew in proportion to the population.

So in the modern era (and long before it as well—the modern era is just when we mastered it) we replaced multi-lateral networks of trust with bi-lateral trusted intermediaries. This was an incredible innovation from the perspective of scaling cooperation. Persons A and B could trade and borrow from one and other while being total strangers, given their mutual, bi-lateral trust of C.

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Who or what is C? C has represented many different things throughout history. The state. Markets. Banks. MasterCard. Uber. With the help of lots and lots of Cs we were able to scale from simple gift economies to the complex and deeply integrated society we have today.

This change occurred must faster than our brains could adapt. As apes evolved for smaller scale society we have therefore not extricated our craving for microcosms of multi-lateral trust: family, friends, community, and so forth. This seems to be what social scientists are measuring when they report some countries as “higher trust” than others. These are societies that have, to varying degrees, decentralized the bilateral institutions in order to promote greater multilateralism. In doing so, these societies trade-off some scale efficiency and assimilative capacity in exchange for greater robustness and, presumably, reduced feelings of social-alienation.

Yet if this is right it is incredibly misleading to call such societies “high trust” as if the others are not. Rather, they are high in a particular kind of trust. It’s only the bilateral model that lets two complete strangers engage in a multi-phase, high stakes project without having to trust each another one bit. Instead, each trusts the underwriting of the intermediary institutions. There is the same amount of effective trust, as manifest in productive cooperation, but it comes with much less cognitive burden. You don’t have to keep mental track of your colleague’s reputation, or whether their ideological and cultural preferences match yours. Nor do you have to worry about collecting debts or punishing bad behavior. That’s all been offloaded and outsourced. The trust, in other words, still exists, but is embodied in the environment and institutions, rather than in our heads.

Even in so-called high trust societies, this latter sort of trust is still doing most of the work in the background. We just don’t notice it by design. Conversely, many societies measured as low trust may in fact be quite high in multilateral trust, but in a way that is localized to pockets without the bilateral institutions needed for effective interfacing.

Thus when a country is described as low trust I stop and ask myself “what sort of trust?” There may be a lot of virtue in an, as measured, low trust society if it better facilitates the rapid integration of newcomers, a greater diversity of lifestyles, and larger scale cooperation. After all, impersonal interactions are not a bad thing. They’re the stuff of civilization.

When No Argument Can Save You

This week I had the pleasure of listening to my friend Noah appear on EconTalk to discuss the status of economics as science with my former professor in that discipline, Russ Roberts.

I would characterize neither of them as epistemologists or philosophers of science, but perennial practitioners. The chief difference between them, other than age or Noah’s ability to draw on a knowledge of physics as well as economics, is one of faith.

Noah himself brought this up: all science requires a leap of faith somewhere, as he put it. The example he used was Galileo’s experiment demonstrating that two balls of different mass will fall at the same rate. There’s only so far you can go to prove that this represents a universal law, or even a very general one. What if it only applies in our part of the universe? What if it only applies when there is a human observer?

Noah isn’t saying this makes us helpless or that we have to willfully ignore such thought experiments—nor should we.

The arc that Russ Roberts has gone through on this subject since I took his class during the crash in 2008 to the present can be characterized as a loss of faith—rather than the embrace of a given intellectual framework.

Russ has become unwilling to make that leap of faith when it comes to economic methods and arguments. But more importantly, he has lost faith in the sense of trust—trust in his fellow economists. Most importantly of all, he has lost faith in his own judgment.

The questions that he seems to come to again and again—why economists can’t agree on the effect of the 2009 stimulus, whether any study has ever completely won over people whose perspective was at odds with its conclusions—are attempts to establish, or prove once and for all the absence of, the credibility of economics as a field.

I’m not sure there’s an answer that could satisfy him. There’s a certain self-fulfillingness to losing trust in this way, much as widespread generosity in granting trust seems to perpetuate itself. How such trust can get established in the first place is a mystery, one that I’m certainly not going to get to the bottom of in a blog post.

The Empty Defense

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While searching for wisdom on the subject of trust, I turned to a book by that name by Francis Fukuyama. This is where he popularized the idea of “high trust” and “low trust” societies, characterized by the ability of huge numbers of strangers in that society to cooperate.

Fukuyama begins by saying that neo-classical economics is right on most things, but is missing something important—the way sociology shapes economic relationships. So far, so good. But his approach to this “non-economic” determinant of economic behavior is vulnerable to Deirdre McCloskey’s critique of the neo-institutionalists in economics (see Paul and my discussion of that critique).

For Fukuyama, trust is simply the thing we accumulate in order to build social capital. What is social capital, you ask? Why it’s just the thing that allows us to cooperate on a large scale rather than free-ride or otherwise defect.

It is basically a black box. Just like tradition, as understood by Burke, was just a black box, irrationality and prejudice that formed the basis of rational behavior. And indeed Fukuyama explicitly defends religion as an irrational basis for economically and socially rational behavior.

But tradition is rational, not irrational. And so is religion. Religion and tradition writ large have inner logic—or internal narratives—that are not separable from the so-called functional aspects or power relations (perhaps more properly, relations of authority). Instrumentalist analyses like Fukuyama’s give you a decent approximation of the machinery—Joseph Heath, to my mind, takes this about as far as it can go in his analysis of norms and choice. But ultimately this machinery is not content-neutral, and to call it machinery or functional or instrumental leaves out an important part of the picture. To my mind, the most important part.

If the only defenders of religion left were people like Fukuyama, who simply see something instrumentally useful, religion would be doomed to fade into oblivion. Once religion becomes nothing more than a club, a vehicle for community building, it is destined to lose to organizations that compete specifically on that margin. Or simply to the desire to not be bothered by other people at all; perhaps to sit at home writing blog posts instead!

I can hear my fellow nonbelievers giving a shout of approval—so be it! But this problem is not restricted to religious apologetics.

I believe that the basic ideals of our way of life in this country are rich, meaningful, and important. The particulars of this are, to me, the core answer to a number of very important questions: what is the point of America as a political entity? To protect our way of life. What value does “American” as common cultural identity hold?  It connects together hundreds of millions of people who share a commitment to the same basic outline of a way of life, and fosters an ongoing conversation about the best particular ways to fill out that outline.

In short, politics, society, and commerce, all have value in the way they come together to form and preserve a way of life.

But the empty, instrumental pluralism that has become increasingly popular among intellectuals and elites will not suffice to preserve that way of life. In as much as such people continue to go to bat for our way of life, it is a fragile, tenuous defense. Their commitment is like a lapsed Catholic who continues to go to church because they like the people there. As I said above, once a church becomes entirely full of such people, it cannot last. Nor can our way of life persist, if these are our only defenders left.

Because people do have substantive beliefs about what a good life should look like. And many of them are quite hostile to ours. I’m not just talking about groups like Al Qaeda or ISIS, which constitute one answer to the modern world cosplaying as pre-modern. I’m also talking about others on the radical left and right who see our way of life as fundamentally and irreparably immoral. Whether because they reject the tragic nature of the world and so blame any ugliness that exists on the status quo, or because they just have different answers to important questions than our way of life allows, they are not going to be satisfied by aspirationally neutral functional arguments.

Because in truth those arguments aren’t neutral at all, but presuppose some notion of the good. And unless that notion is defended directly, it will not last.

Even then, there are no guarantees.

 

Good Faith

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A lot of philosophy and social science boils down to the quest for the right standards.

  • What standard of measurement shall we use for overall or even individual well being?
  • What standards of behavior should we hold ourselves and one another to?
  • What standards of justification should we use to undergird our use of the other standards, and how could these standards of justification themselves be justified?

The standard, as an ideal, is supposed to be something set apart from our particular interests, biases, and social status—in short, they’re supposed to be fair, and perhaps even neutral.

I was recently reminded of a metaphor my dad had for standards internal to most bureaucracies: the treadmill.

The ideal is for the treadmill to be used to determine whether or not you qualify for something. A baseline standard of health is set, and everyone gets to be tested against it. It sounds impartial, even egalitarian. It doesn’t matter who you are—so long as you can pass the treadmill test, you qualify.

Unfortunately, the people who run the test are part of the political machinery of the bureaucracy, and it turns out to be quite easy to put their thumb on the scale.

When the powers that be want someone to qualify, they are given a much less taxing experience on the treadmill. Meanwhile, if those powers are determined that you will not qualify, they crank up the speed and leave you on until you die of a heart attack.

Standards can never be neutral, but they can be fair. But only when we’re able to trust one another to act in good faith.

Trust

I am fascinated by the questions that philosophers have asked for thousands of years, but amused by how completely worthless all our answers are without a foundation of faith.

Increasingly I’ve come to believe that trust is the most important aspect of faith in this respect. How is coordination and cooperation among millions of strangers possible? A widespread trust. How are we able to learn anything? By trusting in certain authorities and in the authority of certain sources. How has science advanced? By creating specialized communities of inquiry who trust each other enough to learn from each other, and develop standards of evidence that they believe will be employed in good faith.

What you believe is, I think, much less a factor of your theoretical pre-commitments, or your religion, or your politics, than of who you trust. Indeed, your pre-commitments, religion, and politics are largely determined by a combination of who you trusted in the first place and your own judgment.

The so-called culture war is nothing more than the professionalization of political mistrust, the monetization, glamorization, and weaponization of bad faith. We are more likely to trust people we don’t know who espouse beliefs similar to the ones we do, than people we don’t know who disagree with us. If people in the first group are pouring a lot of energy into portraying people with different beliefs as untrustworthy and cynical opportunists, then the already existing divisions in trust will only grow wider.

I like to use the example of anti-vaccine people, something I trust most of my audience will agree is an instance of a group being simply wrong about something. This piece depicts how often this group makes other choices outside the mainstream, opting, for instance, for alternative forms of education for their children. When it comes right down to it, trusting the authority of doctors and medical researchers is conventional. It therefore makes sense that communities who reject big, central conventions in one area (like the standard American education) would also be more likely to mistrust those who are conventionally trusted.

Note that even a fairly nuanced piece on this group is entitled “Vaccine deniers: inside the dumb, dangerous new fad”. The intended audience is clearly not the “deniers”. And any denier who saw this piece would no doubt dismiss it out of hand, without reading it, since it leads off by insulting their intelligence.

Imagine you wanted to persuade a member of this group that they are mistaken about vaccines. Would you lead off by demanding that they prove they even care about their children’s health, or the health of the larger community? Of course not. No amount of “proof” could suffice; trusting that they do care about such things is always a leap of faith, one that can only be given and never earned.

The problem is precisely that they trust sources that spread skeptical narratives about vaccines and the authority of mainstream medicine, while mistrusting the conventional authorities on the subject. Any hostility directed at them from people whose trust is more conventional only reinforces their belief in the bad motives of those people, and their defensive responses surely only reinforce the reciprocal assumption of bad faith on the other side.

I have no solution to such deficits of trust, other than to do the best you can to be worthy of trust yourself—by striving to act in good faith—and to start from an assumption of good faith on the part of others. If you can’t grant this assumption, if you can’t extend your trust, then there is no point to having a conversation at all.

If my father is correct, then we are living through a time when trust in conventional authorities is bleeding away at an alarming rate, with no clear successors in sight. I hope he is wrong, or at least that the trajectory can be reversed or a better one found. Such a path cannot lead anywhere good.

Responsiveness to Reasons

The ends do not justify the means. Getting the right results does not automatically make you a good person. Depending on what you did, and why, it might even make you a pretty bad one. A good person doesn’t just have good goals. He also acts the right way, given the circumstances, and for the right reasons.

What does it mean to act for the right reasons?

Consider a parent who breaks their back every day, working long hours at a job they hate so they can save up enough to send their daughter to college. This seems admirable, right?

But consider different sorts of reasons for doing this. Imagine if they want their daughter to be able to make more money because they feel entitled to whatever she earns—that is, they’re treating this like an investment for their own long-term earning potential. Or imagine the parent who desires the status among their peers that a college educated kid brings, or to avoid the embarrassment of a grown child without a diploma. That’s a better reason than personal gain, but it isn’t great.

Now imagine a parent who simply wants a better future for their daughter, as well as for her to develop as an independent person capable of making her own choices. These are admirable reasons, and the parent who is truly responsive to them is worthy of their role as parent.

Responsiveness to the right reasons is an important part of virtue as such. This is about much more than an intellectual exercise. Prudence (or phronesis, practical wisdom) as an intellectual virtue does involving being able to grasp what the right reasons are. But courage, temperance, charity, faith and hope all involve at least an element of wanting to do the right thing for the right reasons. It comes more naturally to some than to others. But often those who struggle at first end up the most virtuous further down their journey, for they had to grapple with the difficult task of making the path of righteousness their own. Those who have it given to them sometimes wander off and are less certain how to find their way back again. This is precisely Aristotle’s distinction between natural and true virtue, this element of making it your own as opposed to being born with it.

Like Aristotle, and Julia Annas and Daniel Russell, I think that you must grasp the reasons in order to become fully virtuous. Unlike them, I think a substantial part of this understanding—the largest part in fact—is tacit, rather than explicit. This does not mean they are completely inexplicable; it’s just that people vary in their ability to articulate their reasons, and it has not been my experience that eloquence and clearness of explicit thought go hand in hand with goodness. Often such people are able to talk themselves into perfectly ridiculous perspectives, or worse. The USSR and Maoist China were creations of highly educated people capable of being very articulate about their reasons, and equally capable of filling mass graves with the bodies of the innocent dead.

It is the rightness of the reasons, and the responsiveness to them, that matters. The ability to explain and defend them is absolutely a valuable quality, and especially crucial in a liberal democracy where talk and persuasion are paramount. But that does not detract from the fact that many truly good people are bad at rhetoric, and many skilled in that art are quite rotten.

How do we know what the right reasons are? Our whole lives are a joint investigation and negotiation of the answer to that question.

From childhood, parents and other adults, peers, and all of the stories we are exposed to, attempt to impress upon us an understanding of what the right reasons for acting are in a variety of situations. We are increasingly expected, throughout the course of our lives, to take more and more responsibility for grasping it in a given situation and acting accordingly.

Adulthood just is the moment when we take full responsibility for our part of any situation, for acting for the right reasons and doing the right thing. To rely on others to determine this for you is in some sense to remain a child.

That does not mean that there are no authorities that you defer to on rightness or any subject. It does mean that you hold no one responsible for this deference, and the trust that it implies, other than yourself. If your trust is misplaced, it was you who misplaced it.

Trust, and therefore faith, is the foundation upon which our grasp of “right reasons” rests. We have to trust not only the people we consider authorities, but all the people who are and have been in our lives and influenced our notion of goodness. Most of all, we must have faith in ourselves. The most central and unwavering faith of the Enlightenment was faith in one’s own ability to read the evidence and make a rational judgment. If our faith on this score is and should be more tempered than that, we still ought to believe in our own ability to become knowledgeable, to learn from mistakes and advice alike, and to become a good person.

If faith is our footing, hope pushes us forward. Hope that we will obtain an appropriate understanding of the right reasons to act in a given situation, and that we can act on them the way a good person would. Hope that if our trust is ever misplaced or abused, we will learn of it and learn from it, without losing our ability to trust entirely.

Gaining experience so that we can develop our grasp of the right reasons for acting over the course of our lives, working to be the sort of person who wants to respond to the right reasons, trusting and believing in our potential for goodness—these are the beginnings of virtue.

 

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A World Without Trust

Imagine two worlds. In one, everyone keeps their promises, honors not only the letter but the spirit of agreements, and are broadly reliable and trustworthy. In the other, promises are just empty words, and people are as opportunistic and as spiteful as they impulsively desire to be in a given moment. Which people, from which world, do you think is more capable of accomplishing anything?

In the very first episode of the popular Netflix series House of Cards, the main character, Frank Underwood, has a promise to him broken. Underwood marvels at it because he didn’t think they were capable of it—he admires it in a way, as though breaking a promise was something hard, and keeping it was something easy. This kind of cheap imitation of Nietzschean cynicism is all about having a will to power which allows one to overcome conventional morality.

But the real accomplishment is not overcoming your own trustworthiness, but the fact that such a thing has enough weight that even cynics feel they must “overcome” it. There are many parts of the world where trust and trustworthiness are not the default outside of the close circle of family or clan. A society in which relative outsiders and strangers are able to make promises to each other and trust they will be kept is a tremendous accomplishment.

Whose accomplishment is it? Hard to say. But it certainly isn’t the accomplishment of any cynical would-be despot. If anyone deserves the credit, it is the countless millions of ordinary people, across many generations, who have strived to live decently and treat each other fairly.

The utter hell of a trustless world cannot really exist for long in this one. But we should thank those decent people who came before us, for putting as much distance between us and it as we’ve got.