Fake news, faith, and the know-it-all

When working on Ockham’s discussion of the distinction between faith and reason, I encountered an interesting kind of sentence, the so-called “neutral proposition” (propositio neutra). A common example for such a sentence is “the number of stars is even.” It is neutral in that we have no grounds for assenting or withholding assent. We grasp what it means but we are neither compelled to believe it nor to disbelieve it. (Please note: “neutral” doesn’t necessarily mean that the proposition is neither true nor false; it just means that we have currently no way of figuring out whether it’s true or false.)* In fact, many important things we believe seem to have that status, at least at the time of learning about them. We believe that we have been born in a certain year, that the earth is round and so on. Most of us learn such things through the testimony of others without ever checking them. Although the context of the discussion in Ockham is theological, his ideas generalise: there are many things we do and need to take on faith. I think that this fact is crucial but underrated in the discussion of fake news.** A very widespread response to the phenomenon of fake news is to recommend fact checking. I think this is one-sided and thus problematic. When we have the suspicion that some news item is fake news, then we often are in a position where we cannot (immediately) assess the information. In other words, news are much of the time a collection of neutral propositions for us. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that we need to consider the role of faith or trust as well as the related role of (intellectual) humility, if we want to tackle this issue.

We don’t only learn things through others; we also learn early on that it is vital to trust others and trust what they say. Trust is the glue that holds our societies and our lives together. It’s not surprising, then, that we have a tendency to believe everything we perceive and read. Yes, every now and then we might step back and look again, but our default mode is to believe.*** So even if, strictly speaking, a neutral proposition comes our way, we will embrace it. Read the following sentence: “The majority of people now living in Prenzlauer Berg (in Berlin) have migrated there from Southern Germany.” Do you believe it? Of course, the current context of discussion might make you doubtful, but you’d probably read on without hesitation if this were a newspaper article on urban life in Berlin. Your response would not be to fact-check but to believe, unless something triggers a doubt.

This psychological fact, the “bias to believe”, has a number of consequences. We are inclined to believe things. If this is the glue of our lives, then any dysfunction of that glue will hurt us. We will be hurt if our trust is exploited. More importantly perhaps, our pride will be hurt if we are found out to have assented to a lie or even passed on a piece of false information. We will be called naïve, and people will reduce the degree of trust in us. Do you like to be called naïve? – I don’t. So what do I do? That depends on my emotional and other resources. Was it a one-off? Were you just told that Father Christmas doesn’t have a beard? That’s fine. But what if your whole belief system is branded as a result of naivety? You certainly will feel excluded, to put it mildly.

Let’s shift the focus for a second: how will you feel if you are a religious person who is told, again and again, that there is no God, that atheism is the way to go and that religion is anti-science? It is often said that matters of religion are a private issue. Psychologically speaking, this cannot be right. If trusting and believing are the glue of society, then attacks on our beliefs will hurt and upset individuals and, by extension, our society. Of course, many people have come to live with that. For many, it’s part of the package I guess. We can be pluralists. But the direct confrontation might still hurt. And if we can choose our company, we might be inclined to stick with those who respect our beliefs and perhaps host a quiet resentment towards those who feel justified in attacking us.

The point I want to return to now is that criticism of our beliefs often not only concerns individual convictions but also targets the trust we have in others, the trust on which we were inclined to embrace certain beliefs. Religion is just one of many possible examples. Most of our beliefs are deeply entrenched in our daily actions and partly shared conventions: be they religious, political, aesthetical etc. But the example of religion is a helpful one, since there is hardly any field in which people seem to feel so justified to self-righteously criticise others, and this despite the fact that most beliefs in this area are not attacked because they could be shown to be false. Most beliefs in this realm are a matter of faith. They are what I introduced as neutral propositions, to which we are neither compelled to assent nor to dissent. There is a huge difference between the agnostic claim that we do not know about these matters and the more invested claim that certain beliefs are false. In some cases, such a stance might be justified; in other cases, we might just act like a know-it-all. My hunch is that the latter stance is fairly widespread and causes much more controversy than is justified by the evidence the participants in disagreements can invoke.

If we are criticised for holding certain beliefs, this might of course be justified. There is nothing wrong with that. What I am concerned with is beliefs that are based on neutral propositions. Of course you might argue that one should only believe what one has evidence for. Good luck with that! – If we are dealing with information that we can’t assess, we have three options: we can embrace it (which is what we are inclined to do); we can (try to) reject it; or we can acknowledge – hold your breath, drumroll: we can acknowledge that we do not know whether it’s true or not. The virtue I am referring to is known as (intellectual) humility. Of course, we can do what we like if we are by ourselves, scrolling through the web or listening quietly. But if we are in a discussion, our choice matters. Do we want to criticise? By all means, if it is justified. But more often than not our own means are limited: we have stored whole systems of beliefs, without ever checking whether they are true. If we are not sure, it might be advisable to just acknowledge that. Criticising others in their beliefs is probably going to hurt them, more or less. The point is not to stop being critical; the point is to figure out what we are critical towards. Instead of saying, “you are mistaken”, we can also say, “I don’t know whether that’s right or not.” You can then establish whether and how that can be checked.

Now of course this does not mean that we should try and check all the beliefs we hold. Luckily, we have a division of labour. My parents know my birthday; so I don’t need to work it out by going to archives. There are a number of authorities we rely on. “Relying on authorities” sounds naïve perhaps, but that’s what we do when we trust others. If we have disagreements with others about politics or religion, this is often owing to the fact that we rely on different authorities or that we prioritise different authorities. Authorities come in various shapes. Often we don’t even notice them, because they have the form of deeply entrenched ideologies, promoting misogyny, racism and other forms of dehumanisation. Equally often they might concern ideas about how the world works, about what is valuable, what is useful etc. Beliefs about all such matters can be spread by everyone, with quite different epistemic status. In some matters, we trust our friends more than others, even if they might lack epistemic credentials. Criticising others often involves criticising their authorities. Again, that’s fine and often vital, but it’s equally important to be aware that we are doing it, because it concerns the glue of trust that potentially holds us together or keeps us apart if we disagree.

Calling out “fake news” is a way of criticising such authorities. Now what should we do in cases of disagreement? Criticism is of course important. But it is eqally important to see that we are interacting with others whose beliefs are at stake. Even if we suspect that the politicians or the news venues in question are merely bullshitting, the believers are inclined to take their words for granted; they trust their authorities. Now the point is not to be nice to people who believe bullshit; the point is to acknowledge that they have reasons to believe that bullshit. Calling believers (of bullshit or whatever) stupid will only deepen the rupture of trust. What’s crucial to see is that they will see our criticism in the same way as we see their beliefs. What we should establish in such disagreements, then, is whether we might perhaps be dealing with a neutral proposition. That might actually reveal a commonality between us and our interlocutor. We might both be in a position in which we don’t know for sure what’s going on. If we can establish that, we might gain more ground by scratching our heads than insisting we’re on the right side.


* This wasn’t really clear in the original post. Thanks to CJ Sheu for the fruitful discussion.

** Part of my reflections have been triggered by an excellent new book by Romy Jaster and David Lanius. Get it, if you have some German.

*** See for instance Eric Mandelbaum, Thinking is Believing.

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