Republicans who lead the House Science Committee this month tweeted phony climate science from an article on a fake news website. Claims in the post were imaginary. Made up. False. Their actions were barely noticed and no one on the committee has apologized. Adults responsible for overseeing our national science programs neither understand nor believe in science. This is no longer newsworthy.
What inspires people to embrace provable falsehoods even when they have access to facts? More than a political question, this is an evolutionary race. Can we incorporate empirical reality into policy-making before our addiction to fake news destroys our public institutions?
For a thousand generations or more, human beings have defined reality through stories. Tales like Aesop’s fables, or the two contradictory accounts of Jesus’ birth, can be factually inaccurate while rich with truth. Narratives, not facts, are how we evolved to interact with the world around us.
It is entirely unnatural for us to subject those stories to any test of factual accuracy. Throughout most of our evolutionary history we lacked any means by which to perform any “fact-checking” apart from simple observation. Stories were true or untrue based on how they felt.
About 12-15 generations ago a few human beings learned to test and measure reality through scientific techniques. Depending on where you live, empirical methods of defining what is real have been the commonly-held standard of reality for about two generations, maybe three. Here in the US, many places are only being exposed to an empirically-defined reality for the first time. A lot of people are not loving it.
Every evolutionary development creates a new landscape of winners and losers. To see educated, successful adults spreading patently false information may seem strange or even alarming. We shouldn’t be surprised. People who have prospered the most in one evolutionary epoch will fight hardest to block our transition to another.
For wealthy, educated Congressmen to wallow in obvious factual inaccuracies is disappointing, but the real danger comes from the great American middle who sent them to Washington. White Americans earning middle incomes, especially far from cities, have the most at stake right now in our relentless shift away from a folklore-driven reality.
A world they cherish, which has favored them for generations, is dying. In its place is a far more prosperous, healthy, free, and compassionate environment than anything human beings have known before. However, this new order promises to strip away advantages they enjoyed in an older system. However promising and exciting a new science-driven reality may be, for many of them it will be far less generous than the world that is passing away.
Facts are elite. Facts are not determined through great stories. Facts are not mediated through our social and cultural relationships. Facts are established through techniques which are often very complex, understood sometimes only by a handful of specially trained individuals. Facts emerge from elite processes. We evolved to judge reality through stories, not reason. Facts are highly suspect and socially destabilizing.
Humans do not natively, naturally deal in facts. We acquire this capability only through education and training that runs sharply against our instincts. Education, by itself, is not enough to equip us for a world of facts. Armed with an ability to evaluate our world through empirical methods, we still find reality elusive. That elusiveness breeds discomfort.
Science is better than folklore at establishing reality, but only in relative terms. Empiricism is not perfect at measuring facts. Worse, it does nothing to help us establish meaning. Science introduces a degree of uncertainty to our lives that was entirely unfamiliar in a story-driven world. The more you learn, the less you know. Life in a world of scientific reality demands more training and insight than in the past. In return it creates a world of relentless, sometimes painful ambiguity. That ambiguity is too heavy a burden for some to carry.
By contrast, folklore is emotionally compelling and soothing. It is easy to grasp and inherently egalitarian. Anyone can understand the truths in a good story, regardless how measurably false those apparent truths may be. Facts, as established through a scientific process, demonstrate that our activities are changing the climate of the planet. Folklore says that human-driven climate change is impossible, even foolish, a hoax perpetrated by “elites.” Folklore remains far more politically potent than facts, even as the tidal flooding of Miami begins.
We embrace fake news because it is easy, because it confirms what we want to believe about the world. Fake news is folklore; comfortable, mentally soothing stories about things that did not happen. Fake news may be pleasant, but it is an inferior evolutionary adaptation. Institutions built on fake news will underperform fact-driven institutions until they are eventually swept away in failure.
Congressmen do not win elections on their superior scientific mastery. They win by building relationships and telling good stories. Our system of government is, itself, premised on a folkloric understanding of reality. In democratic politics, everyone’s reality is equally valid and respected, regardless how catastrophically inaccurate it may be. You don’t win in politics by discovering a more accurate version of reality. You win by inventing a version of reality that the largest number of voters find appealing. We shouldn’t be surprised that a system built on this premise is failing to deliver solutions.
An alternative system is quietly emerging, free from the false equivalences of democracy. Corporations leverage markets rather than elections to pick winners. Markets give them relatively greater freedom than elections to judge reality independent of human evolutionary limitations.
While we mourn the growing failures of public institutions, companies are solving critical social problems, producing valuable innovations, and providing outstanding results for their constituents – shareholders, employees, and customers. Businesses are increasingly coming into competition with governments. Thanks to their superior capacity to leverage facts to solve problems and generate value, corporations have steadily grown more powerful and stable than our increasingly dysfunctional public institutions.
Our central government cannot fight climate change because it can’t persuade enough fake news-reading Texas religious fanatics to support their efforts. Google and Apple are doing it anyway. When Indiana passed a dumb law to legalize the persecution of gays, Salesforce, IBM and other companies pressured them to back off.
Growing corporate power does not help everyone. Mississippi passed an even more outrageous anti-gay law than Indiana’s and nothing happened. Mississippi is an economic and cultural deadzone that produces nothing anyone wants. Corporate America did not zoom in to save them from themselves because they have no value to offer in return.
As our attachment to folklore cripples democracy, the rising relative power of corporate America will not spread the wealth, freedom, or justice evenly. In this environment, California gets rich and Mississippi gets Jesus. It may be unfair, but not much less fair than life under our older institutions.
How does this evolutionary arms-race end? Difficult to say, but we are about to inaugurate a new governing administration so utterly committed to folklore as to be factually wrong on every issue of public importance. If you ever wondered, “How could we do worse than George W. Bush?” your answer is coming. Perhaps the damage will be sobering enough to spark a major public reform. A shock to the system could force us to adapt, developing a better capacity to process empirical reality at a public level. That seems unlikely.
The power of folklore means a large swath of the public is likely to praise Trump the Savior even while he wrecks their healthcare and destroys their economic prospects. It is far more likely that we will respond to the failures of the Trump Era by broadly deprioritizing public institutions, limiting their power so we can limit the damage they inflict. Those who have adapted relatively stronger methods of judging reality will create better institutions for themselves, many of which may be entirely private, while the rest of our institutions rot.
The reign of our Fake News President could be be a gateway to an era in which public institutions lose their hold on our attention and shrink from their former importance. What takes their place and delivers their critical functions? That is an unanswered question, but corporations and markets appear ready sweep in and establish a new, more prominent role, creating a whole new set of evolutionary winners and losers.