Dispatches from the present
In a philosophy class, one often thinks about how we know what we know and the conditions under which we establish a conviction that reality is real. We call that epistemology. In an epistemology class, you might debate questions about the degree to which you can trust your senses or how much of your knowledge is conditioned by categories such as space, time and causality.
In practice, however, most if not nearly all of what we know about the world is taken on faith. This faith is placed in institutions such as journalism, science and the law. Which is to say: universities, the media and the courts. Very few of us have gone through the firsthand process of validating what we believe we know about the solar system, the galaxy, the mountains and rocks and plant life around us, the events of a given crime scene, or what is happening right now in China, Russia or even the other side of the city we live in. All of that knowledge comes to us as information processed through various institutions and interpersonal relations: chains of gossip, eyewitness reports, scientific research reports, news articles, Twitter posts, arrest records, judicial verdicts, testimony, crime-scene investigations, death certificates and the like. Through the mysterious processes of social alchemy, somehow all of that mixes together, resulting in our sense of how the world really is.
We should not romanticize the past. There was no golden age when we all could have total faith in these institutions, or when we all agreed on their reliability. Nevertheless, I am not alone in not finding much to put my faith in today. Survey researchers have documented steady and substantial declines in Americans’ confidence in pretty much all major institutions. For example, in 2021 only about 20 percent indicated substantial confidence in newspapers, down from 30 to 40 percent from the 1970s through 2000. Organized religion, Congress, the presidency, government in general and even “the wisdom of the American people” show similar downward patterns. The military is the main exception: our collective confidence in that institution has grown.
Trump, Twitter, housing costs, domestic migration patterns, Fox, MSNBC, the end of history, the disenchantment of the world, the post-industrialization of society—trying to identify the causes of this secular decline is a fun sociological parlor game, but almost any specific cause you might adduce is probably at best partial. Whatever the cause, I’d like to consider the consequence.
What does it mean to lose confidence in the epistemic authority of an institution? It is not so much that everything it generates is wrong. It is that nothing is automatically right, and it takes a huge amount of work to determine which is which. The fact that a piece of research was published by a top university professor in a top journal gives me by itself very little conviction in what it says. The replication crisis, among other things, has done away with that. I do not think that all research is wrong, but I do not take anything at face value. The same goes for a piece of reporting published in a respected journalistic outlet.
As confidence in institutions fades, it takes more effort to come to some sense of conviction about the world. I can find my way to a position I feel I can stand behind, but it takes a lot of work. I need to read multiple articles, diagnose the tribal affiliations of Twitter partisans, seek the context behind some shocking image, look closely at the tables and figures in the article, compare the abstract carefully to the findings.
This is of course in some sense what we all should be doing all the time. But we have other things to do, and the world is big. This is what it means for tokens of knowledge to undergo inflation. Call it influence inflation. If in the past it took a handful of articles or headlines to convince me that something is the case, now it takes two, three, four times as much. Any unit or symbol of influence—a peer-reviewed top journal article, a book from a good press, a Twitter post from a blue check, an article in the Times, a viral video—earns a little less of my conviction and solidarity. This is analogous to monetary inflation. One hundred dollars now buys less than it did before. And just like monetary inflation, influence inflation shakes a sense of shared reality: we cannot count on today meaning the same as yesterday, and we have to spend more of our time and energy chasing after the symbols and tokens of the goods we value rather than the goods themselves.
The inflation of influence yields a kind of bifurcated reality. In one direction, we might try to keep on expanding the quantity of influence in our conviction wallets, so to speak. Follow more people, save more articles that confirm your worldview, fill up your phone with screenshots, refresh your feed again and again and again. Life becomes a never-ending literature review, a doom-scroll to nowhere. In this way, your symbolic world becomes larger, but your grip on reality becomes weaker. You are like a person with a million-dollar bill in your pocket who can barely get a cup of coffee.
In another direction, we may be tempted to drop out of the institutions that cease to certify the tokens of knowledge upon which we have relied. We retreat to our gardens, to our friends and family, and fall back on what we can see with our own two eyes. In other words, we are back to philosophy class.
And if philosophy is our main way of knowing the world, this means the world has collapsed.