Twenty-five percent of Americans say it is “probably” or “definitely” true that the FBI instigated the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, a false concept promoted by right-wing media and repeatedly denied by federal law enforcement, according to a new Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. (Washington Post, January 4, 2024)
Flat-landers or flat-earthers was the name given to those who believed that the earth was flat, not the almost spherical object it really is. A little research tells me that this belief was not as ubiquitous as I thought it was. Even the Greeks held beliefs that the earth was round. This false belief was carried into modern times according to James Hannam,
The myth that people in the Middle Ages thought the Earth is flat appears to date from the 17th century as part of the campaign by Protestants against Catholic teaching. But it gained currency in the 19th century, thanks to inaccurate histories such as John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Atheists and agnostics championed the conflict thesis for their own purposes, but historical research gradually demonstrated that Draper and White had propagated more fantasy than fact in their efforts to prove that science and religion are locked in eternal conflict. (https://www.patheos.com/resources/additional-resources/2010/05/science-versus-christianity)
Now the term is soften used more generally and pejoratively to apply to people who hold beliefs that do not cohere with reality, the condition we usually associate with the truth. Does it matter? Of course it does. Besides the high moral standing we give to “truth,” it has a critical axiological/practical role. Outcome of our actions are determined by the truth, the correspondence of the beliefs we hold with the actual real worlds. I put worlds as a plural, because there are two distinct worlds in which we act: the natural world and the institutional world, that is, the world we have created in language from nothing.
Truths in the real natural world are produced by science and come to us in the form of assertions made by scientists. Assertions are a form of speech act that fits words to world. In our modern world, we have accepted (in most cases) the authority of scientists and the legitimacy of the methods they use as sufficient to lend credibility to their assertions. And for good reasons. Airplanes built on scientific knowledge do not fall from the sky, like apples from a tree. The sun comes up every morning when it should according to our timetables. Our computers work the ways we expect (most of the time). Vaccines protect us from disease. And so on.
Believing facts contradicting such truths (beliefs) based on science is dangerous because acting on them is likely to produce failures and, worse, serious unintended consequences. Antivaxxers, by ignoring the effectiveness of vaccinations and mask-wearing increased the spread of Covid beyond what it might have been. Reality always prevails. The rules of nature will work their ways, no matter what we humans beings believe about them. It works the opposite way. Our true beliefs about the natural world come from observing what happens out there.
What I call the institutional world is quite different. It is entirely human in origin, created by a particular kind of speech act, declaration. Declarations are somewhat similar to assertions with a very critical difference. Assertions fit words to a world. already in existence. Declarations create a new social reality and fit words to it in the same instant. But only if the speaker of the words has authority to make them legitimate and accepted as truthful. A judge (legitimate authority) who declares that a defendant is guilty has instantly created a new reality for the defendant whose world will be different after the utterance. The key to the “truthfulness” of such institutional facts (created by declarations) is the authority vested in the speaker.
Institutional rules and the beliefs on which they are based create the context for the actors participating in the institution. Action can proceed relatively smoothly and consensually as long as all the players accept the underlying set of institutional facts constituting the institution. Games are a very familiar kind of institution. Games are constituted declaratively (written on the top of the box cover) by a set of rules defining the structure. Games can proceed as long as everyone plays by those rules, but breakdown if someone “cheats,” that is, acts outside of the legitimate set of facts.
Larger institutions, like businesses, schools, religions, or societies as a whole, are like games in this respect. All operate on the foundation of a set of institutional facts, and, like games, work well when the rules are followed. The institutional facts that create and govern larger and more complicated institutions, like a national government, usually do not have the clarity of a parlor game or sport, and, so, require some sort of authority to intervene whenever normal consensual action suffers breakdowns and differences in interpreting the rules must be adjudicated. In everyday language, we speak of the rule of law, referring to the rules that have creating the context for normatively acceptable actions. Acting outside of the legitimate facts is equivalent to cheating in a game.
Cheating is usually resolved in one of two ways. In one, the cheaters are removed and the game (normal social activity) continues for the remaining players. In the most severe cases of failing to play by the rules, the cheaters may be physically removed, as in the incarceration of people who have committed what have been declared to be “criminal” acts. Article 3 of the 14th amendment to the US Constitution establishes a similar process.
Alternatively, the cheaters may attempt to forcefully dominate the action, essentially imposing their set of alternate (institutional facts) on the institution, thereby changing the way the “game” has been played. This is what has been happening to the American political system in recent years. Since the “truth” of institutional facts lies in the authority behind them, not necessarily in the actual situation, the cheaters cannot be shifted from their beliefs by reason or pointing to the real situation. They are essentially cognitively blind to the actual facts of the moment. As an aside in this blog post, the blindness is due to the dominance of the left-brain hemisphere (per Iain McGilcrist’s work, as explained in my book and many previous posts on this blog).
How these facts continue to maintain the legitimating authority that has created them in the face of evidence to the contrary is a very important question, but for another blog post or two or three. For the time being, these alternative facts come directly from Donald Trump, a small group of associates dedicated to substitute their authority for that which has underpinned the way the United States has operated since its founding, ultimately to be traced back to the Constitution, and the the media by which these alternate facts are communicated to the believers out there. For those of us like me, who are very concerned about this, any attempts to talk those who believe them out of their positions is a complete waste of time. Perhaps the increasingly apparent criminality of Trump will weaken the hold these beliefs have on some, but it is unlikely.
The rules of the game called democracy or government of the people, by the people, and for the people . . . haven’t changed (yet!). The cheaters have yet to change those rules although coming very close. The stalemate in the Congress starkly illustrates the results of playing by a different set of rules than those that have allowed that institution to serve its purpose in the past. It is quite easy to create breakdowns in an institutional game, but much harder to change the rules towards new intentions. As it is said the devil you know . . . How complex systems like governance will respond to changes in the set of institutional facts that underpin it is- more or less unpredictable. Those who would change them do it at both their and our peril. The memorable words of Pastor Martin Niemöller responding to Hitler’s ascendancy still ring true:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.