Humankind: The Post-Truth Species
We are told repeatedly these days that we are living in a new and frightening era of “Post-Truth.” So when, exactly, was the halcyon age of truth? In the 1980s? The 1930s? The 18th century?
Ever since the Stone Age, self-reinforcing myths have served to unite human collectives. Indeed, Homo sapiens conquered this planet thanks above all to the unique human ability to create and spread fictions. We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them. As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws, and can thereby cooperate effectively.
Cooperation among other social mammals such as wolves and chimpanzees relies on intimate knowledge of one another, which is why they can never cooperate with large numbers of strangers. Just try cramming 50,000 chimps into Yankee Stadium, Wall Street or the Vatican. Yet if you put 50,000 humans in Yankee Stadium, Wall Street or the Vatican, you will get extremely sophisticated networks of cooperation, provided all these humans happen to believe in the same stories about baseball, stock markets or Christianity. Needless to say, the laws of baseball, the laws of the stock market, and the laws of God are all human inventions that exist solely in our own imagination. But so long as many people share the same imaginary story, they can collaborate very effectively.
You can never convince a group of chimpanzees to attack a distant chimpanzee group by promising them that if they die in this holy war, they will go to Chimpanzee Heaven and there enjoy countless bananas forever and ever. No chimp will ever believe this story. Humans, in contrast, develop deep and abiding faith in such myths even in the absence of any confirming empirical evidence. That is why we rule the world rather than the faithless chimps.
So if you blame Facebook or Vladimir Putin for ushering a new and frightening era of Post-Truth, just remind yourself that centuries ago millions of Christians locked themselves inside a self-reinforcing mythological bubble, never daring to question the veracity of the Bible, while millions of Muslims put their unquestioning faith in the Koran. We have zero scientific evidence that Eve was tempted by the Serpent, that the souls of sinners burn in hell after they die, or that the creator of the universe dislikes homosexuality -- yet billions of people have believed in these stories for thousands of years. Some fake news apparently last forever.
I am aware that many people might be upset by my equating religion with fake news, but that’s exactly the point. When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month -- that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years -- that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it “fake news,” in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath). Note, however, that I am not denying the effectiveness or potential benevolence of religion. By bringing people together, religious creeds make large-scale human cooperation possible, and inspire people to build hospitals, schools and bridges in addition to armies and prisons. Adam and Eve never existed, but Chartres cathedral is still beautiful.
Ancient religions have not been the only ones that used fiction to cement cooperation. In more recent times, each nation has created its own national mythology, while movements such as communism, fascism and liberalism fashioned elaborate self-reinforcing credos. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda maestro and perhaps the most accomplished media-wizard of the modern age, allegedly explained his method succinctly by stating that “a lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.” Another pearl of wisdom ascribed to Goebbels says that “the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly -- it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” Can any present-day fake-news peddler improve on that?
The truth is that truth was never high on the agenda of Homo sapiens. Many people believe that if a particular religion or ideology misrepresents reality, its adherents are bound to discover it sooner or later, because they will not be able to compete with more clear-sighted rivals. As Abraham Lincoln said, you cannot deceive all the people all the time. Well, that’s just another myth. In practice, the power of human cooperation depends on a delicate balance between truth and fiction. If you distort reality too much, it will indeed weaken you by making you act in counterproductive ways. For example, when the Soviet Union adopted the bogus evolutionary theories of Trofim Lysenko and punished any deviation from his mistaken dogmas, it crippled Soviet agriculture and contributed to the economic collapse of communism. On the other hand, you cannot organize masses of people effectively without relying on some mythology. If you stick to unalloyed reality, few people will follow you.
Suppose we used a time machine to send a modern scientist to medieval Europe. In theory, her superior knowledge should make her the most powerful person around. In practice, she would not be able to seize power by exposing the fictions of the local priests and lecturing the peasants on evolution, relativity and quantum physics. Of course, if she could use her knowledge in physics and chemistry to produce a few rifles and artillery pieces, she could gain a huge advantage over all the kings and bishops. Yet in order to mine iron ore, build blast furnaces and manufacture gunpowder, the scientist would need a lot of hard-working peasants. Do you really think she could inspire them by explaining that energy divided by mass equals the speed of light squared? In order to gain and hold political power you need to supplement facts by myths.
That’s true in the 21st century as much as it was true in the Middle Ages. Consider that when President Donald Trump took his oath of office on Jan. 20, he did so on a Bible, just as Barack Obama, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln did. Similarly, in many countries around the world, including the U.S. and the U.K., witnesses in courts still put their hand on a Bible when swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Isn’t it ironic that they swear to tell the truth on a book brimming with so many fictions, myths and errors? They might just as well swear to tell the truth on a copy of Harry Potter. (Some people may be offended by my comparison of the Bible with Harry Potter. Devoted Jews and Christians may explain that the Bible was never meant to be read as a factual account, but rather as a metaphorical story containing deep wisdom. But isn’t that true of Harry Potter too? Indeed, maybe it is J.K. Rowling who should be offended by the comparison. After all, how many human beings have so far been persecuted or killed in the name of Harry Potter?)
Of course, 2017 is different in some respects from the Middle Ages. First, fictions and myths are reinforced today not through strict censorship, but through flooding people with irrelevant information. Inundated by funny cat videos, we just don’t know what to pay attention to, and often spend our time investigating and debating side issues. In ancient times, having power meant having access to information. Today, having power means knowing what to ignore.
Secondly, technology makes human fantasies more powerful than ever before. In ancient Egypt, the pharaohs dreamed of living forever in paradise, so they built pyramids and had their bodies mummified. In the 21st century, tech moguls who dream of living forever in paradise are investing billions in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and virtual realities. Within a few decades perhaps they could really extend human lifespans and create paradise by rewriting our DNA code or by directly connecting brains to computers. People expect reality to eventually burst the bubble of fiction -- but in our century, the bubble might end up engulfing reality. As technology makes humans more powerful than before, it also makes our fantasies and myths more potent than ever. If you dream of a society in which truth reigns supreme and myths are ignored, you have little to expect from Homo sapiens. Better try your luck with chimps.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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