Truth in America

Deep dive into America’s culture of lies

The war on truth did not begin in 2020, though the stakes were raised to an insurmountable level in 2020 with the spread of COVID-19, countless protests for racial justice, and the most expensive election in history ($14.4 billion!) When Nonfiction Research approached my team with a burning question on truth, we turned to philosophy, spirituality, and psychology.

Our deep-dive included interviews with a psychologist, a psychic, a QAnon supporter, an ex-Morman drag queen, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and scholar. We also surveyed hundreds of strangers to see how many Americans have recently cut someone out of their life due to conflicting beliefs. (The answer? 35 million.) After weeks of interviews, infiltrating online groups, academic journals, stories from former cult-members, and more, we decided to publish our findings in the form of a zine.

Flip through the zine here, or scroll down for some highlights!

Charles Darwin probably didn’t know when he set sail on The HMS Beagle, that his theory of evolution would influence a nation’s concept of truth. But it did. A few decades after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, pragmatism, America’s philosophy, was born. And with it came a distinctly American set of beliefs about truth. The pragmatists believed that true ideas are those which help us adapt to our environment. Truth is what is useful—and just like our physical traits must evolve to suit reality, so must our beliefs. In this marketplace of ideas, the best idea wins.
The marketplace of ideas has been hacked.

Misinformation has hacked the competition and “shoppers” are living in different realities. How did we get to such a divided state?

Forming Beliefs
Dr. Joseph Pierre, Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, explains that our intuition (what “feels right”) and our subjective experience are the two most important reasons why we believe something to be true. With countless inputs and subjective experiences to draw from, it’s easy to see why so many different versions of truth compete with each other. Our beliefs are not the outcome of a lifetime of rational, objective investigation and reasoning. They are opinions explaining things left unsolved.

Throw in social identity theory, (belonging to groups) winner and loser effect (2 party-system) and confirmation bias, (ignoring any contradictory information) and it’s no surprise that the country reached such an extreme level of polarization. When there’s only an option to either win or fail, who wouldn’t want to find “truths” that support their side?

The Hero Paradox

This is the trend of truth in America. It is harder than ever to find agreement on objective truth. We call it the Hero Paradox because people take it upon themselves to be a detective and stand up against the problems of humanity. While intentions might be good, it is paradoxical because no matter what evidence is laid before us, our instinct remains to keep ourselves centered as the heroes of our own stories. 

Finding “truths” is not hard to do when considering our natural instincts. Apophenia is “the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things (such as objects or ideas).” We can’t help but look for patterns—seeing them has helped us survive as a species. We want our side to win because we believe it has to be right.

In a marketplace of ideas, healthy skepticism is inevitable and even encouraged. And it’s understandable that we push for better answers when we feel doubt. The Socratic method and “liberation by truth” are very attractive concepts to people who feel unsatisfied with the system. Truth Seekers take skepticism to an unparalleled place, and most of the theories spread by independent thinkers tie back to a deep mistrust of the government. In fact, people are eager to share their stories of how they were personally failed by the system.

The Future
Needs Objective Truth

We have successfully fallen trap to Red Herrings: lies to distract us from our real problems. Meanwhile, irreversible damage is being done to our planet, and experts argue that a majority of the COVID deaths in America were avoidable. The allostatic load from defending our beliefs and the high stakes of good versus evil can cause anxiety, depression, even shortened life expectancy. 

The marketplace only works if we are committed not to one single conception of truth, but to the process of letting truths be tested, verified, and maybe even abandoned. Only then can our truths evolve to meet the challenges we face.

My group of truth seekers:
Sheila Villalobos (ST)
Allison Schneider (ST)
Joseph Koroma (ST)