What is “Fact in the Head”?
Fact in the Head is a my attempt to answer a simple question — why do intelligent and well-meaning people on both sides of politics come to believe things that simply aren’t true?
In an age where we can access the entirety of human knowledge through a device we carry in our pockets and we are exposed to more accurate facts, data, and scientific knowledge than ever before. However far from moving towards consensus we seem as far apart as ever on trade, immigration, welfare, taxes and gun-rights, climate change, vaccinations, GM food and nuclear power. We don’t just have different opinions, we have completely different sets of “facts”. In the words of podcaster Dan Carlin, society is becoming like a book club where no one has read the same book.
My instinct is that the answer lies in moral psychology, and how what feels like reason and objectivity is often our brains subconsciously pulling us towards pre-determined emotions and intuitions. I want to explore the scientific foundations of our disagreements and look at how our moral beliefs shape what facts we accept. The aim is not to get us all to agree, but to understand the causes and mechanisms of our disagreements.
There are potentially huge consequences when democratic societies can’t agree on matters of verifiable fact. We need public support for science in order to recognise environmental threats, take advantage of technological innovations and take steps to combat disease. On a social level the polarisation, distrust and hatred that stems from having such different conceptions of reality can undermine the sense of shared purpose that binds nations together. The existential threat facing liberal democracies may not be climate change, immigration or terrorism but in managing our disagreements on these issues before we tear our societies apart. To do this we need to uncover the mechanisms that are driving our us towards different sets of facts, not in the false hope that we will all agree, but to expand the common ground on which civil disagreement can proceed. This means working within the constraints of the brain. We may wish it was designed to discover truth but it’s actually only evolved to help us survive and this often means rationally processing information in ways that conflict with reality. Post-truth society is just a bunch of pre-truth human brains and while facts aren’t dead we need to understand what they’re up against.