I was barely two when I first realized someone was trying to manipulate my perception of reality. My mother was doing her best to distract me with photos in a Life Magazine that was as big as me. Sitting on her lap, I could sense her nervousness. I knew something was amiss.
A few minutes later, with no explanation, she walked away from me and out the door, leaving me with a strange woman in a white uniform. I had no idea if my mother would ever return, and worse, I was terrified that the strange woman was going to do something terrible to me.
The fact was that I needed life saving surgery, and in the early 60’s parents were discouraged from staying with their small children when they were hospitalized. Fortunately, the doctors were successful in treating my illness and I lived, obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing to you now. But my mother’s efforts to deceive me, however well intentioned, left a mark on my psyche. My distrust of authority figures was forged that day and I hadn’t even learned to drink from a glass yet.
Several years later, my distrust would be amplified as the western world experienced a cultural revolution whose clarion call was to question authority. I was twelve when the Watergate scandal revealed corruption in the highest ranks of our government. And while some felt it was a case of bad apples, many of us also sensed there was something intrinsically corrupt about the hierarchy of power itself.
But how did we go from questioning authority to believing in conspiracy theories?
To be clear a conspiracy theory can be true, as it was with Watergate. And most of us are familiar with many other examples of dishonest and dirty dealings in the upper echelons of corporations and governments. Many of those revelations began as conspiracy theories that were later confirmed by whistleblowers and investigative journalists. History has taught us that it makes sense to question the dominant narratives about events.
But many of the conspiracy theories clogging social media today are readily accepted as fact with little or no evidence to support their assertions. Worse, many of those assertions are so unmoored from anything remotely related to reality as we have known it, that it can seem that true believers have taken leave of their senses.
Today, “There’s an increasingly widespread belief that authority — scientific, political, informational — is suspect,” says Michael Barkun, a political scientist at Syracuse University.
He’s right of course. There IS a growing distrust of information dispensed by anyone in a position of authority.
Many experts have pointed to social media and societal polarization as the source of this increasing distrust and doubt. I am sure that is one cause.
And I empathize with the shock and dismay of discovering that people you thought knew better, are now ascribing to conspiracy theories that seem to push the bounds of reason.
But it’s also true that as we have become increasingly aware of the many ways our perceptions of reality have been and continue to be manipulated, more than a few of us are questioning how we can tell fact from fiction.
How DO we determine what is real?
Of course, I empathize with the distrust in authority. After all, I’ve been suspicious of authority since before I was able to walk.
But I am not satisfied to simply live with that feeling of distrust.
I also want to understand how we come to understand.
I want to understand the ways information can either inform us or prevent us from perceiving the truth. And I want to understand why some of us perceive things one way while others perceive them in very different and even completely contradictory ways.
Science purports to tell us what is factual through systematic and rigorous observation and experimentation. Yet the definition of science is also “a particular branch of knowledge,” which suggests there ARE other ways of knowing.
Not everything that counts can be counted. And not everything that matters can be measured. As beautiful and valuable as the scientific method is, there are questions it can’t answer, and there are important realities it doesn’t recognize. When scientists behave as if their branch of knowledge is the ONLY way to determine reality, they can become as rigid and dogmatic as almost any religious cult.
Many people feel today that there is something missing in the scientific method, something that is important to the truth of their lives. They do not want to dismiss other ways they obtain information about their world.
But if we make room for other branches of knowledge, how can we determine what is reliable information and what is false?
This is a crucial question in the time of “fake news.” Our collective distrust of authority, including science, has taken us to the brink of what feels to some like an existential crisis. Calls to dismantle our current systems, whether those are our institutions, the media, the police, a particular political party, the power elite, or government itself, take many forms and originate from all corners of the political spectrum.
At the same time, some conspiracy theories such as Qanon and Plandemic seem to threaten society’s grasp of what is true in ways that can be deeply disturbing. These conspiracy theories are also complicating conversations with friends and family as they point to a growing lack of consensus about reality.
Regardless of what you believe, have you felt shocked or dismayed to learn that a friend or family member you thought agreed with you, no longer sees things the way you do — the way you both used to see things?
This kind of disconnect on a personal level is also creating an extremely polarized political landscape.
In many ways we have lost our consensus on what constitutes reality. And on another level, we never did agree on what is true and what is false.
For instance, does religion have a role to play in our quest for reliable information?
Some people of faith have long adhered to two tracks of knowledge. While ascribing to some scientific information, they also take as literal Biblical events and prophecies.
The Christian Bible defines faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1), while the Quran’s use of the word “Faith” (al-iman) means to affirm something and to comply with it. For Muslims, there is more emphasis on employing intellect and reason when practicing faith, but the message of compliance is still a big part of Islam’s concept of faith.
Taking these definitions at face value, they don’t seem to enable the individual to come to their own conclusions about reality unless those conclusions coincide with the doctrine of that particular religion.
Faith can feel like a command.
When I was growing up in a Christian family, I was admonished to believe what our church preached. The interpretation of Biblical scripture was dictated by church doctrine. So while I read the Bible from Genesis to Revelations when I was 12 years of age, I was not encouraged to interpret the Bible according to my own intellect. It was required that I take it on faith that our church’s interpretation of the Bible was the only correct interpretation.
This was not an easy thing for me to do. First of all I enjoyed using my brain and coming to my own conclusions.
And secondly, the three most influential women in my life were members of three different faiths. My father’s mother belonged to an Evangelical church, my maternal grandmother was a Mormon and my mother belonged to yet another Christian church. None of these religions interpreted Scripture in the same way. In fact their doctrines were often opposed.
Who was right? Were any of them correct?
As a young person, I became disillusioned with religion because of the arguments my parents and grandparents got into about their discrepant interpretations of “God’s Word.”
When I got to college, I was eager to absorb the facts! Science promised to help me find my way to truth.
But did it?
I applied myself to learn as much as I could about scientific method. I developed expertise in randomized samples, experimenter bias, double blind experiments, and statistical analysis. I was enthralled with the rigorous application of scientific discovery that dealt with theories rather than facts.
Here, I thought, was reality: The only fact is that we never know anything for certain.
This is true because scientific inquiry is a never-ending process that requires designing multiple studies meant to disprove theories. The goal of science is to get past confirmation bias and reveal facts, rather than affirm our own beliefs and biases.
But over time, I came to realize that many scientists become attached to their theories and jockey for the right to assert their take on the truth over the research of other scientists who perhaps do not have the credentials to dominate the conversation.
Most of us are familiar with the term religious dogma, but is there also scientific dogma?
The history of scientific discovery is littered with disproven theories that had become calcified into scientific dogma until they were finally uprooted by enough research to convince even the most entrenched scientists to surrender their beliefs. Or until the old guard simply died off, taking with them the dogmas they had held dear.
This doesn’t mean science can’t reveal reality. But the people doing the research are still subject to human frailties. That human frailty includes a penchant for belief. The desire or drive to cling to a belief infects science as well as religion and every other human pursuit.
But believing in something does not make it true. You or I can believe something with ardent sincerity, and still be wrong.
Can we all agree on that at least?
Some have asserted that modern science suffers from philosophical materialism, which is the belief that only matter and energy are real while mental and spiritual phenomena are only functions of the nervous system. In other words, mental and spiritual phenomena are not manifestations of reality, but rather “all in our heads.”
Reality, as many scientists see it, is that emotional and spiritual experiences are only expressions of electrical and chemical reactions in the brain. What the brain perceives spiritually and emotionally isn’t real and has no meaning except as a function of survival and reproduction.
But that isn’t the lived experience of most of us. Have you ever heard the phone ring and “known” who was calling? Or “felt” someone looking at you even when you couldn’t see that they were?
Some of the most essential dimensions of our lives can’t be measured by double blind studies. Love, for instance, has more meaning to most of us, than merely an opportunity to further our genetic legacy. And most of us HAVE had moments when our intuition guided us to an action that was beneficial to us or to someone we love. Many of us have “known” things we had no way of knowing through our five senses.
Do you know that over 70% of us have had paranormal experiences, meaning we have experienced events that defy scientific explanation?
While many of us might hold such experiences with some degree of discomfort because we know we could be doubted or ridiculed if we share them, that doesn’t mean that paranormal experiences don’t shape our perception of reality.
Is it any wonder, then, that some are now expressing doubt and distrust in science and scientists? When science invalidates perceptions common to the human experience, it can feel like a rigid limitation rather than an expansive potential.
Yet the wholesale dismissal of scientific knowledge is dangerous. It has REAL consequences such as the spread of a deadly virus when scientific data is ignored.
Scientific Method and Rational Thought as Racism?
A controversy at the Smithsonian Institute highlights how far reaching the distrust of science can be. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture recently published an online guide titled “Talking about Race.” That sounds like a reasonable and even important thing to do.
The guide listed the “aspects and assumptions” of “white culture” that “have been normalized over time,” and which, according to the authors of the guide, are inherently racist.
What are these sinister aspects of “white culture,” you ask? Well, according to the Smithsonian’s online guide, values like “hard work,” “self-reliance,” “be[ing] polite,” and timeliness are all a product of the “white dominant culture.” In fact, according to the guide, things like conventional grammar, Christianity, the notion that “intent counts” in courts of law, and the scientific method with its emphasis on “objective, rational linear thinking” — are all proprietary to “white culture.”
As you might expect, a lot of controversy ensued from the assertion that scientific method, and objective, rational, linear thought are racist. The online guide was subsequently taken down. Nevertheless, it does illustrate how distrust of science and logic is infiltrating even some of our more staid institutions.
Like I said, the questioning of what was once held as true, is coming from all sides, liberal and conservative, religious and scientific.
The Dangers of Doubting Scientific Fact
I often think of the ways that even those who decry science, rely upon science.
Perhaps they are taking for granted the many modern conveniences they depend on every day. Would we have electricity or smart phones or satellite communication, or millions of the other things that make our lives possible today, without the advances of science?
Or maybe they don’t realize that it is scientific research that provides us with the data we regularly mine in order to better control outcomes. Ever heard of Environmental Science? Or Computer Science?
Science is a branch of knowledge that provides the data that helps us accomplish many tasks we find valuable. For that reason, to jettison this branch of knowledge would be nothing short of lunacy.
The Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries marked our liberation from religious dogma. It undermined the authority of religion and for some that has remained an unforgivable sin. But for others, it has bestowed intellectual freedom and enlarged our understanding of the earth and the universe.
However, the original tenets of The Scientific Revolution often envisioned nature as a machine.
Today, a mechanistic approach to life on this planet has come under fire and rightly so. While early scientists might have been endeavoring to overcome their inherent biases when they envisioned nature as a machine, the long-term outcome has been to put our planet in peril by ignoring the energetic connections that define the biosphere.
By excluding the other branches of knowledge and asserting itself as the ONLY source of knowledge, Science has also designated things such as intuitive knowing as superstition and quackery. That has had the effect, whether intentional or not, of dismissing Indigenous Wisdom as primitive and unworthy of respect.
It seems any time an organization, whether it is a church or a research institute or a government body, obtains a degree of influence and power, it often degrades into authoritarianism.
Is that an inevitable outcome? I don’t know, but history suggests it is a predictable outcome.
Could the impetus for the current surge of distrust in science have more to do with distrust in authority and the hierarchies of power?
When I was young my mind was full of questions and doubts. The questions seemed natural enough, but how did I come to doubt my perceptions?
For me the answer to that question is quite clear. My parents made a habit of contradicting many if not most of my observations and feelings. Because of that, I both learned to doubt my sense of reality and to keep my opinions and feelings to myself. I learned that thoughts and emotions were something that adults wanted to control.
Denial as Mind Control
But it was more sinister than that. My dad was abusing my mother and he was molesting my sister and me. Yet no one in the family would acknowledge that this was occurring. And when I attempted to speak about it, I was told that it wasn’t happening.
Being abused by a parent and then having that parent deny that they are abusing you, can really mess with your sense of reality. And as if that weren’t bad enough, the abuse creates trauma that can further distort your sense of identity as well as reality.
Trauma and Cognitive Distortion
It’s a well known fact that post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other trauma responses can lead to Cognitive Distortion. This term refers “to unpleasant thoughts that are extreme, exaggerated or not consistent with what is actually going on in the real world.”
Further, in someone who suffers from PTSD, “a preponderance of information processing resources are allocated toward threat detection and interpretation of innocuous stimuli as threatening.”
Qanon would have us believe that the US government, and particularly the Democratic party, is controlled by a cabal of pedophiles and Satan-worshippers who run a global child sex-trafficking operation. Might it be possible that at least some, if not many, of the folks who have become converts of Qanon are survivors of some form of sexual abuse themselves?
Kelsey Baker, a former Marine Corps Sexual Assault Victims’ Advocate, seems to think so. In her recent opinion piece for The Hill she suggests that Qanon adherents are not just victims of social media run amok, and not just fear based individuals clinging to the comfort of certainty in these unsettling times. According to her, at least some Qanon believers may very likely be survivors of child sexual abuse themselves, whether they are aware of their past abuse or not.
Baker may be on to something. Even though child abuse is notoriously underreported, the data show that at least one in seven children will be abused this year. Who is abusing our children? In fact, seventy-six percent of the perpetrators of child abuse are the parents of the abused child.
The real tragedy is that conspiracy theories can distract us from the most common location of child sexual assault: the child’s home. Children are far more likely to be sexually abused by the people they know — their parents, teachers, coaches and clergy.
But maybe that fact is not sexy enough? Or maybe it just hits too close to home?
A study titled “The biochemistry of belief” found that “beliefs are like ‘Internal commands’ to the brain as to how to represent what is happening, when we congruently believe something to be true. In the absence of beliefs or inability to tap into them, people feel disempowered.”
But if beliefs are the software in our brain, can we not upgrade that software?
I believe we can, and in fact I do my best to make this a regular practice in my life.
Why would I do such a thing?
Because I believe that beliefs have a tendency to become calcified and impenetrable to new information.
I have little doubt that the reason I would adopt such an uncommon perspective can be readily traced to my childhood. The “religious wars” I witnessed as my parents and grandparents shouted their beliefs at each other, turned me off to belief in general.
So I seek to hold my “beliefs” very loosely, and look for information that might update or replace my perception of reality. I welcome those shifts in perception. Sometimes I even crave them because I don’t want to be confined by entrenched beliefs. That would feel like a prison to me.
Questioning our beliefs requires curiosity. And curiosity requires courage.
Because your curiosity can lead you to discover that something you thought was true, isn’t. And that can sting like hell. I know because I have felt that pain over and over again. The good news, though, is that it’s usually a momentary pain. Remaining curious and flexible so you can take in new information is a life adventure I wouldn’t miss for the world.
A Way Forward?
But it does seem that as a species, we don’t practice curiosity as much as we cling to comfort.
And in our search for comfort and security, we end up clinging to the beliefs of our predecessors, our peers, our tribe, or authority figures we admire or trust. Too often, we find our sense of security in belief systems that tend to be polarized. Either you are with us or you are against us.
We see this on all sides. We see it in science and in religion. We see on the left and on the right.
The human desire to belong is sourced in our drive to survive. It’s in our DNA. If our predecessors weren’t accepted by their tribe, they didn’t have access to resources and that most certainly threatened their survival.
So strong is this tribal drive that we can convince ourselves that we believe what others believe, in order to experience the warm comfort of belonging. But what if belonging to a group means ascribing to a rigid set of beliefs instead of opening to the nuances of reality?
In today’s world, you have access to many resources whether you belong to a group or not. For that reason, you also have more freedom to think for yourself.
And if you truly want to do that, one of the first things you will need to do is to learn more about your defense mechanisms. For instance, things like denial and projection can seriously limit your ability to think clearly and practice curiosity.
It also helps to study history so you can contextualize and compare information, particularly as it applies to human beliefs and behaviors. I find it very helpful to learn about different beliefs that have been held over the centuries. Whether these beliefs have come from superstition, religion or science, becoming familiar with them, can help explain our current beliefs.
Seeing how reality has been conceptualized over the course of human history can create more room for emerging thought as well.
Tribal conformity of thought and action perpetuated our species until scientific research became a more reliable source of information. And thanks to science we were rescued from the many failings of superstition.
Witch burning for instance.
We also began to have a lot more control over outcomes when we applied science.
But is it possible that one of the reasons outrageous conspiracy theories are gaining ground today, is due to a growing dissatisfaction with scientific dogma that envisions itself as the only valid source of information on all topics?
Could it be that this moment is not only defined by questioning authority but also by a questioning of reality itself?
Your mind is your most precious possession. Giving others the power to populate your head with thoughts that you have not personally vetted, surrenders your autonomy and compromises your personal power.
It seems evident that our dominant discourse does not make room for scientific discovery and critical thinking, on the one hand, and spiritual experiences, on the other, to exist side by side.
Instead we are asked to pick a side. Either we negate all intuitive knowing and insist that scientific data is the only valid source of information. Or we accept that the only road to the wisdom that should guide our decisions is faith.
No branch of knowledge, and no single way of knowing, can completely account for reality as we experience it. That is why each branch of knowledge has a role to play in our search for truth.
We can search for the truth without gullibly buying into conspiracy theories that are predicated upon the same hysterias that used to fuel witch burnings.
And we can also explore things like meditation, prayer, psychedelics and even something as simple as connecting with nature.
Maybe we would be better off if we were to live more earth-connected lives. And maybe we would also be better off if we questioned authority, including the theories and beliefs that provide us with a sense of comfort and security.
Your mind is your most precious possession. Giving others the power to populate your head with thoughts that you have not personally vetted, surrenders your autonomy and compromises your personal power. It may take a little more time and effort for you to explore ALL the branches of knowledge and come to your own conclusions. But if each of us fails to do so, the consequences could be dire.
If we all learn to use both our rational minds and our intuitive capacities for insight, and learn to honor both our scientific and our spiritual achievements, we might yet create a brighter future for ourselves, for those we love, and perhaps for all life on Earth.