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LETTER: Opposing realities have society more divided than ever

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Due to the seemingly rampant proliferation of false beliefs, it’s been claimed that we’re living in a “Golden Age of Conspiracy Theories” or that we are suffering from mass delusion. I suggest that neither is true.

Truth decay hasn’t occurred because of individual mental illness, but rather because we live in a sick society and an ailing democracy.

Just what is it that we’re sick from? We suffer from the twin maladies of mistrust and misinformation. Over the course of most of our lifetimes, mistrust in traditional institutions of informational authority – of government leaders, our ideological opponents, and even our neighbours and family members – has never been so low.

We’re mired in profound epistemic mistrust – that is, mistrust of information and a shared sense of what’s true – to the point of living in a state that has become a tale of two alternative realities where people have become more divided than united.

When we no longer trust informational sources and objective news, we become vulnerable to misinformation that’s ubiquitous today, with facts and opinions and actual news and fake news sitting alongside each other so that many of us can’t tell the difference. Fake news travels farther and faster than the truth within the flea market of opinion and the disinformation food chain.

Those sitting atop the disinformation food chain are masters of exploiting the normal cognitive machinery that we use to process information, taking full advantage of our propensity for confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and motivated reasoning that all act in the service of preserving a stable sense of self where ideology and identity are fused.

If we are to avoid civil war, we have to win over hearts and minds by steering people away from the stubborn insistence that we’re right and everyone else is wrong and instead promote the Holy Trinity of Truth, which includes cognitive flexibility, intellectual humility, and analytical thinking. We must also help institutions of authority regain the public’s trust through honesty, transparency, and public engagement while coming together as a society and finding leaders who promote communal values like truth, justice, and a better tomorrow.

William Perry

Victoria





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