Notes from the Truth Cocoon
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; I lift my eyes and all is born again.
— Sylvia Plath
My father is a retired engineer, a math and physics guy. He is a lifelong fiscal conservative, a Larry Kudlow devotee, an admirer of Ayn Rand and Jack Welch. About a decade ago, I began to suspect that I was losing him to Fox News programming. He would pick fights with me about politics, current events, and generational trends. On its own, this isn’t cause for alarm — there comes a point in all our lives when we no longer recognize the music on the radio (or that music now comes from phones) and settle in for a long season of grumbling and fist-shaking at kids on our lawn.
Things changed, of course, when I had kids of my own. My father and I met for breakfast one morning, a regular ritual, and talked about the news of the day. When the topic shifted to the new film An Inconvenient Truth, my father’s eyes went cold and his voice dropped to a low growl.
“It’s made up,” he said.
“Global warming. It’s a hoax.”
Many of my age-peers have similar stories; it’s so prevalent that it’s spawned a library of memes. The crazy uncle with the Facebook circle pinballing email chains around the internet. But the man ordering wheat toast across from me wasn’t some flimsy caricature. He was my father.
Over the next several months, the topic came up frequently, sometimes because he was reacting to the news, sometimes because I would bring facts of my own to breakfast. I became obsessed with rescuing my father from his delusion, and I armored myself with the latest climate research. I read books and articles, spoke with scientists, watched programming, and learned the parlance well enough to recite the evidence, chapter and verse.
My father was unmoved. He had his own research, his own anecdotes and experiences. A lifetime working for an oil company had hardened him against the EPA, and a healthy skepticism against institutional inefficiency had calcified into a sort of informational barrack. What’s important to recognize was that my father was not making an emotional argument — he had his own statistics, his own research, his own findings. He remained — incredibly — a man of science. There were facts for both sides but no ruling body to determine which weighed more decisively.
Finally, I gave up. He had his truth, I had mine. We sat across from one another in hostile silence, one of us growing warmer each year, the other staying exactly the same.
* * * *
Like many people these days, I am trying to figure out what is true. This is not a new problem. The fifth century BCE philosopher Parmenides decided that the world presented to our senses was an illusion; the actual universe is timeless, uniform, and unchanging. Descartes famously staked truth to the appearance of rational thought; Hume, to observation and recollection. For modern empiricists, we must “measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not.”
That’s all well and good when getting the temperature or determining the weight of the gummi bears we dumped on our yogurt from Red Mango. Those are facts. But the big decisions we make — how to treat others, how to orient ourselves in society and civilization — depend on more than just measurements. They depend on the relationship between facts and opinions, a relationship that grows more difficult to describe with each addition to the Twittersphere.
“You are entitled to your own opinions,” senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once quipped. “But you are not entitled to your own facts.” That’s a pretty sick burn, and I would imagine the audience probably went nuts at its invocation. But the horror of modern society is that people today feel entitled to both their own opinions AND their own facts. In an excellent recent story in the New Yorker, American author George Saunders recounts encountering a pair of Trump supporters who challenged Saunders’ assertion that the economy had improved under Obama’s presidency. Like my father and I, Saunders had his facts; the Trump supporters had theirs. What Saunders discovered with some painstaking research was that both views had credibility:
“Yes, true: There are approximately seven million more Americans in poverty now than when Obama was elected. On the other hand, the economy under Obama has gained about seven times as many jobs as it did under Bush; even given the financial meltdown, the unemployment rate has dropped to just below the historical average… Yes, the poverty rate is up, but the number of Americans in poverty fell by nearly 1.2 million…”
Saunders’ point is not just that there is a difference between simple facts and complicated truths. He’s getting at something more elemental. He performed this feat of research not as a public service to truth or patriotic defense of President Obama. He did it because he wanted to prove the Trump supporters wrong. More pointedly, he did it so that he could continue believing himself right. “The couple’s assertion was true but not complexly true,” writes Saunders. “It was a nice hammer with which to pop the enemy; i.e., me. What was my intent as I Googled? Get a hammer of my own.”
* * * *
My goal here is not to discredit Saunders, who is surely one of our best and most honest contemporary writers. I also don’t want to roll my eyes at modern partisanship or cast aspersions against one political party or another. No, I want to own the same sin that Saunders cops to — truth cocooning.
Truth-cocooning is the act of armoring yourself in the carapace of protective beliefs. These beliefs are woven from the fibers of simple truths taken from much more intricate organisms. Truth-cocoons are self-reinforcing to a point, but when threatened, the cocooned will race to the nearest search engine to locate new girders to buttress their walls and repel interlopers. It is the essence of modern truth.
You don’t need to be Lin Manuel Miranda to imagine what the founding fathers might make of modern political discourse, a nasty forever-war waged by snarling partisans in the trenches of chatrooms and comments sections. When he was hired as a blogger by The Atlantic in 2008, Ta-Nehisi Coates hoped to turn the comments section following his posts into a place where people from different backgrounds and perspectives could exchange ideas respectfully and inquisitively. “I wanted a comment section that I wanted to read,” Coates said, and he worked hard to cultivate this environment, engaging readers who challenged his posts, encouraging restraint and decrying trolling.
Coates’ comments section (his regular contributors dubbed themselves “the Horde”) became something of a utopic salon for a few halcyon years, but gradually collapsed under the weight of sniping and fact-disputes. “It never quite became what I wanted it to be,” wrote Coates. “I never really figured out how to get people from different perspectives in a place without defaulting to these [political squabbles].” Even regular users, readers in whom Coates had carefully encouraged habits of thoughtfulness and open-mindedness, eventually succumbed to the sort of hammer-wielding warfare that Saunders sees as the norm-de-rigueur for modern discourse. Writes Internet historian Eva Holland:
“If there’s a lesson to be taken away from the story of the Horde, it might be — depressingly — that trying to build a comment section that truly adds value to a writer’s work will inevitably become more trouble than it’s worth. For years, the Horde gave me hope for a better internet, but these days I tend to believe that comment sections are just tumors on otherwise good journalism, and that we’d all be better off without them.”
Coates’ comment section was one of the best modern efforts to enlist a large audience in an old Enlightenment project — the expansion of common truth. It collapsed. Readers withdrew into cocoons. Today, many major online magazines — including Vox and sometimes The Atlantic — include no comments sections at all.
* * * *
Stephen Colbert is one of the sharpest critics of truth-cocooning, which falls under the larger concept of ‘truthiness’ that he’s documented over the past decade. Coined in 2005 on his satirical program The Colbert Report, truthiness is defined as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” It was adopted by Merriam-Webster in 2006, when it was declared “word of the year.”
But in the intervening decade, the concept of truthiness has grown insufficient. This isn’t just because we’ve seen the limits of satire (it turns out that relentlessly making fun of a certain political party does not lead them to reexamine their beliefs so much as double down on them). It’s mainly because we’ve seen the traditional institutions of shared belief systematically and thoroughly diminished and discredited.
The American political system has collapsed under the weight of scandal, corruption, and a protracted campaign against “governmental elites.” Congress’s approval rating recently stood at 11 percent, with 84 percent indicating they disapproved of the legislative branch. However, the federal government is practically The Fonz when compared with the mainstream media, whose honesty and impartiality was trusted by a mere 6 percent of the population in another recent poll. According to the Associated Press:
Nearly 90 percent of Americans say it’s extremely or very important that the media get their facts correct, according to the study. About 4 in 10 say they can remember a specific incident that eroded their confidence in the media, most often one that dealt with accuracy or a perception that it was one-sided.
The number of Americans identifying as Christian sharply declined this past decade, across all denominations, regions, races, and age groups. Union membership has fallen from 28 percent to 10 percent in the past half century. A steady loss of faith in the teaching profession is eroding faith in our education system — according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2010 just over 6 percent of undergraduate students left college with a bachelor’s degree in education, a drop from 21 percent in 1971. Fewer people marry, and they wait longer. Even our belief in sports has been tainted — Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Roger Clemens, three of the most dominant MLB players of their era, will likely never be enshrined in the Hall of Fame due to their association with steroids. When she set the Women’s 10k world record by 15 seconds in the 2016 Olympics, Ethiopian Almaz Ayana immediately became the center of blood doping rumors and skepticism.
As I learned from my father, science also can no longer hold the center for public belief. Recently, researchers at the University of Georgia, University of Texas at Austin, and Microsoft produced a paper titled “Understanding Anti-Vaccine Attitudes in Social Media” based on a study that examined more than 315,000 tweets from 2012 to 2015. According to the report, “As internet-fueled misbeliefs drive people to opt out of vaccination, herd immunity is weakened, increasing the chances of a disease outbreak… health officials attempting to simply correct conspiracy fueled false claims might be counter-productive” The New York Times Magazine puts it more simply: “Facts don’t matter. When you correct an anti-vaccination advocate, it might just solidify that particular person’s opinion, and, as the case of the CDC whistle-blower event demonstrates, it might also bring new converts into the fold.” This is truth-cocooning at its purest, the self-reinforcing consequence of the slow-erosion of institutional trust.
It’s important to consider how we form these beliefs. As Chris Hayes writes in Twilight of the Elites, truth comes to us from consensus, proximity to source, and good faith. But when one considers the run-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003 — largely considered a foreign policy disaster of the highest order — one can see the failure of these three streams. Bipartisan consensus overwhelmed voices of dissent, co-opting even watchdog groups in the media. This effect was intensified by undue trust placed in proximal sources like Ahmed Chalabi — an Iraqi exile code-named Curveball — who fed interrogators misleading intelligence to lead America into war. The combination of these failures undermined whatever good faith in American politics may have survived Watergate, the Iran-Contra Affair, and the Clinton impeachment. And lest the lessons of Iraq adventure went unacknowledged, they were underscored by the failures of consensus, proximity, and good faith in the collapse of the U.S. housing market in 2008.
In light of recent history, it is easy to see why we all feel isolated and besieged by false truths. We are awash in facts but bereft of agreement. We are faced with the same essential moral questions that have always bedeviled us, but we no longer trust the tools that traditionally helped us, and the new tools seem to balkanize, not unify. We are not having the same conversation; we are discussing the same topic in 1,000 segregated subreddits. In 2016, Truth takes the form of Twitter — an unending ticker-tape of disconnected voices weaving an incongruous, nonsensical dossier. It is the opposite of rationality. Truth also takes the form of Snapchat — brief missives to like-minded members of one’s tribe that immediately dissolve into the ether, leaving only the faintest impression that there is life outside our cocoon.
* * * *
In education — my field — the movement away from facts began about a decade ago. Persuaded of the obsolescence of memorization in an era of smartphones, we began to transition to teaching information processing. And this makes sense: companies clamor for ‘problem-solving’ graduates, and the flood of data currently swamping us demands that we be discerning about how we navigate and interpret the miasma of facts.
But I must confess that I don’t know how to teach common truth. Aristotle’s belief that all the world could be labeled and explained by the lever of logic seems misguided and quaint, and the existential threat of contradictory information cowers even the bravest minds. I don’t know how to puncture the walls of my students’ cocoons. Most days, I don’t even know how to escape my own.
Yet I still have breakfast with my father. Recently, he brought up the November elections.
“It’s rigged, you know.”
“I don’t think so, Dad.” I readied my hammer.
“It’s not just my side,” he added. “Even Bernie Sanders said so.”
“I heard that,” I said tensely. “I don’t agree.”
And then, my father sighed. He salted his eggs and thought for a minute.
“How’re the girls?” he said finally. “They’re getting big.”
“They are,” I agreed. “I don’t know what to do with them.”
“You never do,” he said, smiling ruefully. “We figure it out too late, and then we just sort of have to move on to the next age.”
“You’re right,” I agreed. Because it was true.