Why Truth Doesn’t Change People’s Minds (and What Does)

Maarten van Doorn
Jun 5 · 6 min read

Today, everyone can get more information than ever. Paradoxically, this has made the truth less — not more — accessible.

As ‘information’ became ideological, ‘the facts’ can no longer referee disagreements but are themselves contested.

It’s easier than ever before for someone to live in a world built of his own ‘facts’.

You might say: what happened to us? Why do facts not matter anymore?

I think the narrative is a little different.

From anti-intellectualism…

This is because the pursuit of knowledge doesn’t, in fact, have a rich history as a virtue.

From roughly the Stoics to the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, curiosity — the fundamental virtue that can lead to knowledge — was considered stupid, or worse, a mortal sin. For centuries, the motto was, as Stoic philosopher Seneca writes:

As widsom grows, so does pain.

For instance, there’s a revealing anti-intellectualist story that came down to us from ancient Greece.

Told by Diogenes Laërtius, it features Thales of Miletus, one of the Seven Sages. When poor Thales was studying the stars during a nightly stroll, head tilted towards the sky, he forgot to look where he was walking and tumbled into a well. A woman saw it happen and mocks him for his naiveness.

“O Thales, how shuldest thou have knowlege in hevenly thinges above, and knowest nat what is here benethe under thy feet?”

She rescues him and scoffingly remarks it would be better to keep one’s mind on the earth.

The Roman poet Ennius summed up the lesson to be learned from The Astrologer who Fell into a Well as “No one regards what is before his feet when searching out the regions of the sky”. There’s a risk in being an intellectual.

The 18th-century translator Samuel Croxall draws a more cynical conclusion in his edition of the Fables of Aesop. The moral of the tale, he concludes, is “mind your own business”.

And foreshadowing today’s crisis of expertise, a 1531 poem inspired by Thales infamous fall concludes: “Let the astrologer beware of predicting anything. For the imposter will fall headlong, so long as he flies above the stars.”

Already in the 1950s, in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out that the friendly kind of ridicule considering the intellectual that had been common for centuries has been turning into bitter resentment.

A contemporary version of Thales’ nose-dive would have him almost-drown in a lake full of piranha’s begging the bystander for her hand.

… to fact-free bliss

The truth — as the domain of facts — is a difficult muse. We do not always want to hear her, nor do we want to bow for her.

In that sense, ‘post-truth’ is nothing new. It is more the fact that they rejoice in this situation, that folks now embrace and even affirm the situation of fact-freedom that is so annoying.

And, even more frustratingly, it is a mentality that appeals to many more people than we — intellectuals — tend to think.

It is, for example, a strong motive for millions of citizens all over the world to vote for Trump, Orban, Erdogan, that Polish dictator, and that Egyptian despot, and all the rest.

Their reasoning: the intellectual also sees shades of gray between black and white and, with that, he undermines his tribal reliability and therefore also his character. Not knowledge, but perseverance and, indeed, decisiveness are characteristics many consider morally good.

Aside from contemporary North-West Europe (where I’m from), there is, and always has been, worldwide doubt about the supreme value of curiosity, intellectuality, rationality, and truth.

So ‘fake news’ isn’t new.

Now, let’s switch gears and think about why truth gets outweighed by other considerations so frequently.

Tribal priorities

One explanation for this sentiment, I suggest, is that, for most people, truth is less important than tribal loyalty, which includes adherence to shared stories.

For example: people who, at the time, went against the church and followed Copernicus in insisting earth wasn’t the center of the universe, weren’t welcome at parties, to say the least. (In fact many of them were burned alive.)

That wasn’t the church being an evil mastermind. That was the church channeling how most of its followers felt.

These radicals were undermining core beliefs of the dominant religious-metaphysical narrative of the time. That’s a threat. And something one ought not to do. As wisdom grows, so does pain.

This is what alt-right thinker Curtis Yarvin gets at when he claims that truth is bullshit.

Truth proves nothing. It means nothing in social traffic. People need to know what belief you’re basing your actions on, not what belief you take to most accurately reflect reality. What does prove something, is to be willing to believe the nonsense someone advocates. That’s what tribes care about.

And without our tribe-membership, we would be worse off. So we accept ‘the good with the bad’.

What’s more, searching for truth undermines devotion. Just ask Copernicus about his faith in the truth of Genesis after his discovery about the true astrological role of the earth. Or think about Darwin’s personal struggle — known as “Darwin’s Delay” — to accept how his data showed creationism to be incorrect, thereby contradicting many of the Bible’s claims. Or, thirdly, consider the example of the United States:

“Even if America never was quite the land of the free and the home of the brave, it helped that most people believed it was.” — Tyler Cowen

Most people’s values

To put the last section in a slogan: loyalty to people is usually more important than loyalty to the truth.

The intellectual tends to forget the basis: we can be more loyal to tribes than to the truth, because we prioritize people over accuracy. And why wouldn’t we?

Loyalty gives life meaning purpose.

Despite the technological progress of our age, our lives today are in the end no less subject to accident, frustrated ambition, heartbreak, anxiety or death.

The answer: comrades.

Even in modern times, humans still have a great need for myths, good stories, strong images and beautiful concepts. For belonging and transcendence.

The solution: tribes.

Too much truth

The first clarification of why truth isn’t so important to most people was that social values matter more to them.

Another reason why anti-intellectualism is so widespread might be, as economist Tyler Cowen suggests, that the contemporary world is giving us more truth than is good for us.

It’s hard to stay idealistic these days, as information indeed is the enemy of idealism.

Today’s elites are no longer protected by the cultural shield that once made it harder for outsiders to take a crack at them. Elites are held responsible for the success or failure of the larger society, and the world of the internet — fundamentally a world of information — is reporting on their shortcomings 24/7.

An informed people can become a cynical bunch, and be willing to support reactionary leaders. The world might be better off with a hint of the “moonshot” optimism of the 1960s:

If you doubt that truth itself is the problem, just ask yourself: How much would it demoralize you to read the truth about yourself, all day long? Even if most (but not all) of those reports were positive? Pretty demoralizing, I’d bet. That, in a nutshell, is the predicament of the West. Tyler Cowen, How Real News Is Worse Than Fake News

How to change people’s minds

All this points to a strategic-psychological lesson for those on a mission to change the world.

People can be willing to give up their reality, but that usually starts with stimulating their imagination.

If we want to change not just high school textbooks but the reality people experience and live, then it is good to realize the first step might start with an image or a myth rather than with a fact.

For most people, in most tribes, the desire to remain comfortably untouched by reality is just as deeply entrenched — to say the least — as the wish to get things right.

As such, whoever claims to have found the truth does not automatically have something that’s interesting for others. Being maximally truthful is not automatically an achievement everyone is happy with.

And pleas for positivistic service to facts will not help in a world dominated by a species that is unable to tolerate much truth.


There’s more to that

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Maarten van Doorn

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PhD candidate in philosophy. I write to change common sense about education, success and (post-)truth. Get ideas that make you think: maartenvandoorn.com