In our current political environment, fundamental scientific truths are often called into question for political gain, through propaganda fueled by a biased media and the proliferation of journalistic sensationalism. The president says something that is blatantly untrue, and people believe it, despite the facts. When something false is repeated often enough, it can becomea truth. We receiveit as right, correct, even true. When does this happen? How are our beliefs formed? Why?
Scientific hoaxes are nothing new. Throughout our history, they have been perpetrated both on grand scales and in the everyday, within daily news coverage. Sometimes this misinformation is unintentionally repeated, other times it is intentionally pushed as a means to coerce political action.
Well know examples include the Piltdown Man (1912), Cardiff Giant (1869), and Shinichi Fujimura (1981) – see:
The author Kurt Anderson tracks the progression of our post-truth reality throughout history and poses this phenomenon as symptomatic of our American national identity in his book “Fantasyland”. Kevin Young, in his book “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-facts, and Fake News” posits hoaxes in racial terms, seeing the very concept of racial categories as a propagandistic falsity.
Today, how and why wechoose to believe in fake news or fake science is of intense interest to me, particularly in this age of readily accessible factual information. How we come to believe any form of information as true or real, is a question that has been grappled with by philosophers for decades. Do we base our knowledge of the world on our personal experiences? How do we process those experiences into memories and eventually come to synthesize them into our belief structures? What evidence do we need when direct observation isn’t possible?
The psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman theorized the conjunction fallacy, also known as the Linda Problem. They studied the ways in which our brain makes decisions that are often counter to the most logical options it is presented with. Their groundbreaking work illuminated the illogical nature of our decision-making process and our consequent system of beliefs. But even knowing this information, why do we continue to fall for fake science when the facts tell us otherwise?
I have attempted to explore these phenomena in my drawings for many years. In several of these, I used the texts describing specific hoaxes (from newspaper accounts) and fused these visually with the perpetrator of the same hoax, collapsing fact and fiction. To me, facts are often embedded, code-like, within fictions – they need to be uncovered and decoded, extracted from within the camouflage of language. How a lie has been conceived, in an attempt to subvert the truth so as to persuade and coax belief, often for political gain, is crucial to understand. We must divine this process, this mode, this method. If we can decode these falsities and reveal the realin them, maybe we’ll come to better believe in factual reality. Or, at the very least, this will this lead us to scrutinize what we can physically, tangibly, see, with our own eyes.
Drawings (various ways of dealing with the ideas discussed above):