Oh, shit. Pete Evans has a new movie out; one that makes the claim that “food is medicine” and that tragic and common disorders like Alzheimer’s can be undone by the power of leafy greens. I could do as I have hitherto done and spend the day on the phone to biochemistry departments in the effort to understand how Evans’ foundational assumptions about the human liver, those based on the “research” of a “wellness expert” whose single enumerated qualification seems to be that she was “raised in a prominent medical family”, are demonstrably bunkum.
Or, we could all just give up on pursuit of this truth thing. In the present era, doubt has given way to absolute denialism and expertise is reviled to the extent that its opposites, like Pete or Donald Trump, are able to claim a peculiar new legitimacy, based entirely on their assurances that there are Things They Don’t Want You To Know.
At no time in human history have so many been so cultish in their devotion to so many bad ideas. While it is absolutely true that I have no sound basis for making this claim, it is also true that the pursuit of “truth” has become an unprofitable and unpopular exercise. So, truth. Why bother? Truth is nothing more than a tool of those elites in white coats and fine suits; it is the cruel device of a ruling class eager to keep us from “alternative facts” that would guarantee our freedom. The true truth could be that sugar is worse than heroin, that fluoride is a chemical means of diffusing communist theory, and that climate change is a supernatural moment ordained by our creator who wants us all to enjoy a century or three of relaxing warm weather.
Refuting these newly true truths with recourse to a truth derived in old-fashioned reason no longer ends well. You explain to an anti-vaxxer that the link between the life-saving measles, mumps and rubella shot and autism is based in one fraudulent study performed by a discredited doctor. You show those who support Pauline Hanson that her claims about the evil of Islam are nothing more than the foulest policy-based evidence. You explain that the Earth is round. You recount the old, established truth to the point where you appear like a madman.
In his very good essay on the present nature of truth and its defenders, UK writer Sam Kriss recounts a tale told by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. A chap escapes from a psychiatric facility. In the effort to appear sane, the man takes note of the things that others hold true and resolves to only repeat these. “He decided to prepare himself fully to convince everyone, by the objective truth of what he said, that all was in order with his sanity.”
The man notes that most believe that the world is round, and so, he begins to repeat this incessantly. At every turn and in every interaction, he strives to “prove” Newton’s laws and his constant repetition of them has him sent right back to the asylum, still shrieking that the world is round.
There is a certain madness that inheres in restating the truth. You can say for all that you are worth that, no, cheap migrant labour has nothing to do with the decline in US wages and that Trump is a liar. You can say that Pete Evans, a man always shy of citation, has a paucity of evidence for his claims about the power of soup. You can say that anthropogenic climate change is observable fact, fluoride has improved dental health and not spread the decay of communism, that Islam dictates violence no more than any other faith. You keep saying it and you keep saying it and you begin to appear inauthentic.
Those who strive to reveal the danger of delusion, whether scientific or political, are to be admired. Those who write pop-Popper essays on the stable nature of truth, somewhat less so. Still, even here the impulse is noble and an attempt to re-establish Enlightenment order in which we, the mass inexpert population, agree that there are people who know better than we do.
Still. Trump is in the White House. Pete Evans has a “documentary” in cinemas and just last night in Melbourne, Crown Casino screened a film directed by the discredited anti-vax doctor Andrew Wakefield. My neighbour Polly activated her Tesla plate, unasked, to help me with my cynical vibrations. Down the road, 50 people will pay thirty dollars each for a “hot yoga” class that promises to eliminate unspecified toxins and my pharmacist tried to sell me olive leaf extract when all I wanted was a triptan script for my migraines filled. Perversely, all of these persons will rely on the language of reason to justify their malarkey — a “peer reviewed” study here, a decontextualised statistic there. They are as desperate for truth in this era as are we, their cynical opponents.
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To claim that there is a “crisis of truth” is hardly a new one to make. Philosophers, the fathers of science, have been fretting about this for centuries. But, this calamity was one addressed at the individual level; the eternal question of a child who looks up at the sky and asks, “how do I know that this true blue is the same blue seen by other people?”
Our questions about objectivity are now more fractured and social. Joined together since the Enlightenment by so much scientific truth, we have come to resist its force. We now live in a world where we don’t even ask if we know if this blue is the same blue seen by others. We know now for certain, with the emergence of people like Pete Evans, that it’s not.
Our greatest and most ambitious Western traditions, philosophy and science, are falling apart. To simply reassert their reliability, it seems, does nothing but convince those already suspicious that these institutions are evil. I’m not sure how in this age where instant individual confidence trumps centuries of collective doubt we re-establish these things. I just know it’s not by barking, “Look. The Earth is round.”