Imagine the following hypothetical scenario. You are something of a community gossip, a sort of old-fashioned social influencer. You learn of a neighbor who was discovered stabbed to death and her husband is nowhere to be found. You put two and two together and come up with the usual answer, that he murdered her. You smugly repeat your version of events to everyone you know.
Then one of your neighbors tells you something you didn’t know. The dead woman’s husband had an airtight alibi. You don’t care. You know you’re right and that’s all that matters. You don’t even hear the neighbour with the new information tell you that the dead woman’s husband was in hospital in a coma when the murder took place. You won’t let facts interfere with your narrative.
After a time the husband’s alibi penetrates your thick defenses and you have no choice but to acknowledge it and comment on it. But instead of reaching the obvious conclusion, that you were wrong, you attempt to impeach the story that doesn’t fit your narrative.
You ask questions dripping with innuendo and snide disbelief. Who said he was in a coma? The doctor? Well doctors lie. The police agree with the doctor? The police are easily fooled — or better yet, they’re in on it. Or the husband is faking being in a coma. Anyone who believes otherwise is a sheep. And so on.
Now, you might be thinking, could such a thing happen? After all, consider the reputations ruined, the potential to misdirect the investigation, the evil done to the truth. Why doesn’t the gossip-spreader simply listen to the facts?
Sounds preposterous, you say? Well hypothetical scenarios like this happen every single day, and they happen on the internet. Only they’re not hypothetical, they’re real. And real lives are destroyed, real truth perverted, and false narratives are promoted to millions of gullible believers by this maliciously irresponsible tripe.
We see it every day with Republicans. They have a narrative that is contradicted by facts, but they won’t consider the facts. For example, every preposterous thing they say about global warming is easily refuted by evidence. Every preposterous thing they believe about the 2020 election is easily refuted by evidence. Every preposterous thing they believe about Donald Trump is easily refuted by evidence.
And it’s not just political bias that is at the root of this nonsense, either. People from both sides of the political spectrum are anti-vaxxers. Yet study after study has established beyond question that there are no links between MMR and autism. Those are facts, they can easily be looked up and verified.
Republicans and Democrats alike are 9/11 “Truthers.” Yet every factoid they endlessly and breathlessly parrot has been refuted, from why jet fuel doesn’t have to be hot enough to melt steel to bring down a building, to all the “ominous” rubbish about Building 7. Those are facts, they can easily be looked up and verified.
But instead of looking up the facts or finding out what debunkers say about the nonsense they believe, most people only pay attention to information that confirms them in their ignorance. They do it because thinking is hard and believing is more fun. They do it because they are too invested in their own lies. But the terrible cost for this kind of mental laziness is beyond calculation.
We are losing our nation, our freedom and our planet to conspiracy theories like these, and the ocean of ignorance that supports those conspiracy theories is becoming too large to manage.
And yet, I think there’s a good chance that we could reverse this worldwide wallow in ignorance in a single generation, if critical thinking is taught in schools and promoted in public. If the mechanisms for finding out the truth were better known, we would not so easily be seduced by the crap that is endlessly promoted around us. And the promoters themselves would stop repeating their easily-refuted narratives if people stopped believing them.
In a recent video Donald Trump accused Democrats of killing babies “up until the moment of birth.” He also falsely claimed that Democrats support executing babies after birth. There isn’t a single shred of evidence to support this anywhere. Yet MAGAs willingly swallow this obvious lie. Why? Because fact-checking simply isn’t done. Not among MAGAs, not among anyone. And as long as we ourselves continue to believe nonsense of our own, can we really complain?
If we are going to defeat ignorance, we must begin with ourselves. We must cultivate the habit of careful inquiry. We must understand that secrets can’t be kept by dozens or even thousands of people without any of them stepping forward and telling the truth. We must understand the difference between evidence and innuendo, reality and fantasy, that which is plausible and that which is likely.
The stakes are high. Ignorance costs us time while we wallow in silliness. Global warming denialism is interfering with progress toward a solution. Belief that the 2020 election was rigged could cost us democracy. Lies endanger lives and nations. This madness must stop, and the best way to defeat ignorance is to begin with ourselves. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.