Trust me, truth is more fun than its opposite

Trust me, truth is more fun than its opposite August 1, 2019

Before reading this post from perfectnumber, I was unfamiliar with the fandom sphere of the Pixar Theory — an elaborate attempt to map all of the animation studio’s movies onto a single timeline involving a single fictional universe. Considering the varied scope of Pixar’s output — from the Toy Story and Cars franchises to things like Up and Wall-E, Brave, Coco, and The Incredibles — this “theory” obviously involves a great deal of stretching and straining.

Perfectnumber links to this amusing video in which proponents of the idea ask “Could Onward Break the Pixar Theory?” Spoiler alert: No. No it won’t because it can’t. Onward will force the theory to stretch and strain even more to accommodate the suburban fantasy realm it portrays, but that’s OK because that stretching and straining is the whole point. It’s what makes this whimsical grand unified theory of Pixar fun to discuss and to play with as a kind of fragile, ever-more-complicated construct.

As John Carlin says in that video: “Let me let you in on a little secret: There is no disproving the Pixar theory. If you found a plot hole, good for you! That just means we all need to come up with a new way to explain it.”

It is, as perfectnumber says, a game. And that game is unfalsifiable for as long as anybody wants to keep playing. She compares this to the young-Earth creationism taught by Answers in Genesis. That’s apt, but there’s an element of this game-playing at work in every conspiracy theory. The same dynamic of play is part of what motivates flat-earthers and chemtrail enthusiasts, cyptozoologists, anti-vaxxers, and QAnon devotees. This is part of why they’re so eager to corner their co-workers and other acquaintances to confront them with this stuff — they’re hoping those poor folks will raise yet another objection that’ll give them something to play with for another round of the game.

Such games can be fun. They can involve delightful forms of creativity and puzzle-solving. This is part of the appeal that entices people to enlist in the weird funhouse-mirror worlds of conspiracy theories: You get to play a game. And the fun of the game is increased because it’s usually collaborative — because, on some level, embracing the world of a conspiracy theory involves being embraced by that world. It involves joining a conspiracy yourself, a conspiracy of game-play (among other things). We are, after all, social animals, neighbors, brothers’ keepers. We need community and conspiracy theories are one unfortunate place we sometimes find it.

Granted, the appeal of such games is diminished once you recognize the internal and external consequences that come from playing them. Those consequences include, for example, the real-world effects of things like how the anti-vaccination game results in real children really suffering and sometimes really dying from preventable diseases. And they include the voluntary moral and cognitive impairments you impose on yourself by choosing to prefer a game to reality.

Happily, the same game-playing delight can be had through the collaborative fun of debunking conspiracy theories. Deconstructing these elaborate houses of cards involves many of the same engaging and amusing forms of collaborative creativity and puzzle-solving that constructing them offers — and it does so without all those nasty side effects of harming real people or of choosing to stunt ourselves morally and intellectually. This is, again, one of the reasons I enjoy Joel Duff’s blog, where he dives deep into the hallucinogenic logic of “creation science” to dismantle it piece-by-piece, taking it seriously enough to demonstrate that it cannot survive even on its own terms. (See for example this recent post on the, um, evolution of creationism during recent decades: “Stranger Things — Creationist’ Views of Speciation and Natural Selection in the 1980s.”)

Libby Anne recently looked at an inadvertently revealing piece from an Answers in Genesis “scientist” that illustrates the role that game-playing and puzzle-solving fun plays in making both conspiracy theorizing and conspiracy debunking attractive. The AinG post involved a young-Earth creationist responding to what he saw as an alarming increase in the popularity of Flat-Earth conspiracy theories among his constituents of white-fundamentalist literalist anti-evolutionist Christians.

“Flat earthers, it turns out, have gained enough of a presence in fundamentalist Christianity that Answers in Genesis feels the need to counter their arguments,” Libby Anne writes. “Pot, meet kettle.”

It’s a fascinating, frustrating, Moebius-strip of a discussion. The Answers in Genesis guy is teetering on the brink of a liberating epiphany but somehow manages to just barely keep his balance. One has to hope that the skills he’s acquiring and practicing here to dismantle the elaborate anti-factual construct of Flat-Eartherism will nag at him until he realizes where else they might be directed. And I wonder if that’s more likely, in part, because he’s also learning that the game-playing delight in deconstructing conspiracy theories is a more rewarding substitute for the delight he’s sought to find in desperately patching and repairing the collapsing construct promoted by his employer.

Here’s where some dim troll will inevitably pop in to suggest that I’m in the same boat as this AinG guy because I “believe in talking snakes” and an “imaginary friend” etc. etc. I suspect such trolls are required to do this, somehow, to earn points for merit badges or because their religion requires it the way Jehovah’s Witnesses are required to go door-to-door. Or maybe they’re just desperate to demonstrate, once again, that they can’t grasp any difference between belief in something that can’t be proved and belief in something that can be disproved, and that they imagine the inability to understand that hugely obvious thing makes them especially clever. Or something.

Those trolls are not entirely wrong, however. They’re right to remind me that I have to be wary of the same semi-willful blindnesses and coping mechanisms that hobble this poor AinG dude’s ability to acknowledge what’s right there in front of him. We all have to be wary of that — jackwagon nihilist trolls included.

That’s why I recommend this fascinating interview with Åsa Wikforss, a philosopher from Stockholm University who leads an interdisciplinary project on “Knowledge Resistance: Causes, Consequences and Cures.” Wikforss begins by describing the problem:

Ignorance involves having a false belief, or no belief at all, on a topic. This can be the result of a simple lack of information. In that case, as soon as we read up on the topic we have knowledge. What distinguishes knowledge resistance, by contrast, is that it cannot be fixed by supplying information. It is, as it were, a type of ignorance that is not easily cured.

Knowledge resistance is a matter of believing what one wants to believe rather than what one has evidence to believe – it is a matter of resisting information, rather than taking it in. This happens to all of us, from time to time, and it has a variety of psychological causes. It may be that I hold a cherished belief about being an excellent driver (most people do) even though the evidence points the other way. …

A common cause of knowledge resistance is identity protection. This happens when we hold a belief that is central to our cultural or ideological identity. For instance, there is a lot of evidence that when it comes to factual questions that have become politically charged (such as about crime rates or immigration) we are quite adept at finding ways of resisting the evidence. In general, knowledge resistance is not simply a blunt emotional reaction but involves reasoning of a certain sort – skewed reasoning used to protect the cherished belief.

The mechanisms of knowledge resistance are, she says, “complex” — often involving stuff that lies “under the surface, not really conscious and not really the output of any vices.” This is why Wikforss says “I hesitate to make knowledge resistance a moral question.”

But just because it’s not entirely a moral question doesn’t mean moral choices, vices and virtues, don’t play a role here. The “cures” Wikforss commends, after all, involve cultivating habits and we cannot speak of habits without speaking of choices and practices and virtue and vice, which is to say morality. Self-deception is, after all, still a form of deception — a form of bearing false witness. (This is where, again, I end up shaking my head and muttering like Digory Kirke, “It’s all in Niebuhr, all in Niebuhr; bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?”)

I’m not inclined to emphasize the moral dynamic here because I’m a moralizing religious scold — well, at least not only because of that. I think it’s particularly important because it’s the simplest (not easiest, but simplest) step available to us. It is one aspect of this that we can control, one area in which we can choose and act and thereby change. (Here we’ll elude the inevitable detour into Calvinist/Augustinian skepticism about our capacity for such choosing by just noting that we all more or less agree that grace is available and awaiting and that grace affords that capacity, so let’s not get bogged down in trying to parse exactly how that functions.)

The moral element may not be sufficient for overcoming knowledge resistance, but I believe it is necessary — that it cannot be overcome without it. As Wikforss notes, knowledge resistance is distinct from simple ignorance. And therefore, as Douglass said, “It is not light that is needed, but fire.”

My favorite part of this interview is probably this section, wherein Wikforss discusses the all-important role of trust and distrust:

A central component in knowledge resistance is trust, or rather, the lack of trust. Most of the things we know we do not know on the basis of direct experience, but on the basis of “testimony” from others who know more. The current crisis of knowledge, I believe, is largely a crisis of trust. Distrust yields doubt, which is sufficient to undermine knowledge. For instance, the number one argument employed among climate deniers is a conspiracy argument about the climate experts. Since trust is not an intellectual virtue, but an emotional one, I think that the focus on intellectual virtues and vices is not very helpful in this regard.

… We are all connected through a complicated net of trust. It is not as if there is a group of people, the non-experts, who have to trust the experts and the experts do not have to trust anyone. Everyone needs to trust others since human knowledge is a joint effort. The most poisonous effects of social media may not be the spread of disinformation per se but the undermining of trust that comes from anger and division. It is well known that low levels of trust in a society leads to corruption and conflict, but it is easy to forget the very central role that trust plays for knowledge. And knowledge, of course, is essential to the democratic society. As the historian Timothy Snyder has said, post-truth is pre-fascism.

Trust is also, I think, inextricably bound up with morality. It is shaped by the moral choices we make ourselves — as in the sin of pride that Niebuhr describes so well, which tempts us not to trust anyone but ourselves and therefore cuts us off from the joint effort of human knowledge. But even more it’s shaped by the moral choices made by others — and by still others who allow them to get away with those choices.

Distrust is, after all, a rational and often necessary defense mechanism in a world in which the wicked prosper. We are, save for the luckiest of us, “once bitten, twice shy.” Our trust is something that others can and will prey on, so we know that some level of distrust is necessary for our survival. But where and how should we direct that distrust?

That, I think, is another large part of the appeal of conspiracy theories — an appeal shaped by fear rather than by fun. We know that some things can be trusted and others can’t, but we don’t know who or what to trust to help us know which is which. Conspiracy theories settle the matter with the false promise of telling us where to direct our distrust.

I’ve found it (somewhat) helpful when responding to conspiracy-enchanted friends to start by acknowledging and commending their suspicion and skepticism, and then, after that, encouraging them to redirect that skepticism and suspicion — channeling some of it toward the conspiracy theory itself in just the way that poor AinG guy desperately needs to do.

There’s always a tension, in X-Files terms, between the cautious prudence of “Trust no one” and the motivating idealism of “The truth is out there.” The latter is, after all, a statement of faith — an expression of trust that something, somewhere, is trustworthy and worth seeking out. But we’ll never be able to find or accept that trustworthy truth if all we have is the distrust we’ve cultivated and trained ourselves to apply to everything.

So I suppose what I’m saying here, 2,000 words in, is nothing more than what it says there at the top of the page: “Test everything. Hold on to the good.” Both of those.

Oh, and have fun.

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