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  • Writer's pictureCrone

The 'value' of knowledge

There's been some brouhaha across the pond about a documentary called Plandemic about the former scientist Judy Mikovits, in which she puts forward a whole mish-mash of conspiracies about coronavirus, Big Pharma, China and, probably, aliens. I listened to an edition of the superb Open Source Radio podcast on this subject. Just a note - Open Source features excellent journalism and some peerless journalists. The whole thing is fascinating in the light of much I have been thinking about recently.

OK, where to start - this is a nine-headed Hydra of a topic and I could come at it from one of many directions, cutting off one head just to see a load more sprout forth.

Maybe I'll try to address points rather than present an argument.

1) In times of uncertainty, conspiracy theories have more traction. Scared people, faced with threat and confusion, want certainty. They want to make sense of things.

2) People have lost faith in many of the institutions of the state and they are sceptical of the media, too. Such concerns are understandable. They know, for example, the lengths that the USA went to in order to cover-up the My Lai massacre. They're aware of wikileaks and other whistleblowers. With that as evidence of 'institutionalised corruption', they can come to believe that the death of Princess Diana, the assassination of JFK and even 9/11 were all state-directed conspiracies. They can be led to believe the media is if not just out of touch, is in cahoots with governments or that it is too scared or stupid to find 'the truth'.

3) The proliferation of alternative voices on the Internet dilutes the value of fact-based reporting: it is just one of many 'sources' of information.

4) Conspiracy theorists are persuasive, passionate and adept at creating satisfying narratives that are redolent with meaning and seem to tick all the boxes that need to be ticked.

5) People prefer stories to facts. They want simple cause and effect tales. They relate emotionally to the idea of heroes and villains, evil and good, perpetrators and victims. they seek intention where they may just have been ignorance, failure and folly.

6) Because they feel 'unheard' by the state and that their views often seem to be regarded with a conspicuous lack of respect, people find alternative voices, from the margins, more sympathetic.

7) The inclination to think critically has to be trained. In a world where there is so much, often contradictory, information available, critical thinking would be a valuable habit. But if they do not know that some sources are less reliable than others, because it's not like they flag up 'I'm a pack of lies!', how are they to know how to seek truth? Consequently, people do not to investigate answers for themselves - they get it packaged into a digestible serving.

8) Reality is more complex and nuanced than story and is less emotionally satisfying and less likely to provide reassuring certainty.

9) Where facts (logos) can seem to be phenomenologically empty, without emotional triggers, and fail to conform to rigid dichotomies of right and wrong, there is a powerful attraction to stories (mythos), which may or may not represent or strongly correlate with the available evidence.

10) The claims that, say, Vitamin C protects against the coronavirus or that MMR vaccines lead to autism, which are swathed in pseudo-science and discredited research, lead to deadly health outcomes. This trend is worse than dangerous: it is immoral.

11) There is a long tradition of ideologues using myths (in Nazi Germany and in post-Soviet Russia in recent times - see Timothy Snyder's The Road to Unfreedom for a chilling account of the latter) to mobilise a passionate following or to give rhetorical impact to political ideas.

12) Where stories and science are intermingled, the fault-line between fiction and fact is obscured. The stories can over-emphasise aspects of reality, devalue others and manipulate reality for a selected purpose. In turn, the selected facts can make an argument appear far more persuasive than it deserves.

13) There is a belief that science 'has led to' various modern evils: nuclear warfare, the Holocaust, the social media campaigns that influenced Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Thus people are inclined to see science as 'bad'. In fact, while the science was used as a tool, the driving force in all these situations was the story, the ideology - that communism presented an existential threat, that Jews polluted the Aryan race, that Russia, to protect herself from the corrupt West, had to disempower decadent liberal democracies.

14) While ideologies and myths present 'meaning' and truth' as given constants, critical thinking and integrity are a process that only ever takes you closer to meaning and truth, as they recognise that the quest for meaning and truth is an ongoing investigation, demanding commitment, that takes lifetimes and will lead to false turns, culs-de-sac and brick walls along the way. Who wants to put in that effort when Alex Jones can come out with a damn good story that presents 'us' as the unwitting, innocent victims of evil, powerful 'them'?

15) Social media monetises popular, digestible, simplifying, emotionally satisfying messages; those which tell us what to think rather than how to think; those which offer a pathway into more of the same, rather than a deeper quest for evidence-based knowledge.

16) People can inadvertently end up in an echo-chamber of like-minded deluded people, who will confirm each other's beliefs, with a powerful sense of being the few enlightened victims of a malignant deceptive corporate culture.

17) Because the limitations of such neatly-packaged ideologies would be diluted were the 'followers' to explore the sources and the evidence for the claims made, the makers of these documentaries and videos do not encourage us to investigate beyond what has been presented.

18) Further manipulations on the part of the distributors of this material - such as claims of victimhood, of being threatened, of the 'state' or the 'SJC' wanting to shut them down - make the information appear more precious and urgent.

19) With all the distractions out there, all the long series of YouTube videos proselytising a given world-view while also validating our alleged individuality, our intuitions and our currently adopted perspective, and also making us feel part of the enlightened gang, it is more alluring to keep watching than to start thinking, questioning and exploring. Unless, of course, it is an investigation into the readily available world-within, that is conveniently stock-full of all this received wisdom rather than anything genuinely creative or unique.

20) It is more personally fulfilling in our atomised, individualised culture to feel that personal integrity or authenticity is more valuable than an external investigation of reality.

21) We can thus, while claiming to value our authenticity, also be a part of a group of like-minded empowered 'fans', feeling that we are in a superior and meaningful subculture.

22) We become closed-minded, defensive and easily manipulated, feeling that we have to defend our 'tribe' and its static received doctrines in order to maintain our authenticity.

23) Polarisation is the norm.

24) It is uncertainty, the realisation of not having all the answers, that fires creativity and inspires science. An assumption of having the complete picture ends the quest.

25) Knowledge has the peculiar status of being not a concrete goal but something fueled by ignorance and curiosity and leading only to further ignorance, as we see the limits of possible knowledge expand further beyond is. This can make it frightening and even undesirable. It can feel safer to remain in a bubble of assumption.

26) Truth and meaning have come to be regarded as doxa (what 'we' commonly believe), rather than episteme (evidence based truth) or, more importantly in my personal philosophy, praxis (what we do).

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