A crisis in and of knowledge: an issue of trust

Jan 29, 2021

Many of us no longer know what to think or who to believe. This is compounded by the assault on ‘expert opinion’ and doubts over ‘mainstream’ media coverage. Meanwhile, the social disconnection wrought by neoliberalism enables nationalistic ideologies that foster a sense of victimhood.

Back in the 1980s, Noam Chomsky took a few deep breaths and headed for Davos, an annual conference organised by the World Economic Forum. Diligent as always, Chomsky read the relevant documents, listened to various discussions, and probably eavesdropped on conversations. Ultimately, he found that the proceedings were, yes, focused on promoting the interests of global capital but, overall, the event was simply ‘boring’. There were no sinister plots being concocted in dark corners by ageing white men. There was no need: the agenda was clear and present.

There’s no doubt, as we well know, that corporations are in cahoots with government, the media, bankers, academics and other key members of ‘the establishment’. Together they have presided over the neoliberal takeover of Western economies through financialised regimes, trade treaties, the dismantling of organised labour, and the rest. The result is a massive transfer of wealth from the lower echelons to the already rich. Consequently, as noted by French economist Thomas Piketty, economic inequality is rampant, similar to levels a century ago.

If there has been a conspiracy around such grotesque wealth differentials, it occurred at the Mont Pelerin conference in 1947, when Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, along with other 38 other liberal luminaries, charted a course for the neoliberal takeover of Western societies via a raft of ‘economic reforms’ and social enculturation. Fast forward to the mid-1970s and we see the beginnings of a new hegemonic order.

The story of ‘free market’ ascendancy has been brilliantly told by New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer in her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. Mayer’s account relies on meticulously documented, verifiable and credible sources that offer a compelling, entirely persuasive account of the rise of neoliberal capitalism. Mayer does not rely on intuition, guesswork, speculation or made-up stuff. She doesn’t join spurious dots, or consult self-credentialed oracles.

This is not the case with many of the views being expressed on today’s supposedly independent new sites. Often they are based on unsubstantiated and ill-founded claims, which end up raising more questions than answers. Definitive answers are strangely elusive, while assumptions run riot.

These days, I’m happy to report, we have credible fact checkers who go through conspiracy claims with great precision, checking for pseudoscience, factual errors, distortions, unverified claims and unfounded assumptions. None of this, however, is likely to prevent the further spread of wild and whacky theories, not as long as we have the murky world of social media.

So why has all this occurred and what are the consequences? Conspiracy theories have been around forever but their current manifestation can be traced to the understandable distrust of power sown by umpteen exposures of corporate crimes, government secrecy, and media silence and cover-ups.

The Vietnam war, Watergate, the invasion of Iraq and, nearer to home, the bugging of East Timor cabinet meetings, the exposure of government secrets and information blockages (recently evidenced in the refusal of the federal government to approve the vast majority of FoI requests) have all contributed to public mistrust. Political corruption and malfeasance too, and the failure to act on promises, however vague, have also added to public disenchantment. These, and many other revelations, have rightly highlighted the secretive and often corrupt nature of power, and how certain vested interests operate. We’re right to dig around, to ask questions. We should remain sceptical of official claims.

The problem, however, with many of today’s conspiracy watchers (whose motives are often commendable), is that they have, perhaps inadvertently, contributed to what is now an epistemological crisis – a crisis in and of knowledge itself. Increasingly, many of us simply don’t know what to think, or who to believe.

The assault on ‘expert opinion’ and doubts over ‘mainstream’ media coverage have compounded this problem. We don’t seem to have the rules in place to make a fully informed and considered judgment. We’re rudderless. Reason and truth have been obliterated. Critical thinking has been replaced by guesswork, innuendo, baseless assertions and wild conjecture. Some commentators trace this back to postmodern relativism: the proposition that there is no such thing as truth, only multiple and competing realities, or alternative facts.

But there’s a deeper problem here. Neoliberalism has ushered in an ‘epidemic’ of social disconnection. We are, say George Monbiot, Johann Hari and Hugh Mackay, more isolated, lonely and anxious than ever before. This opens the door for totalitarianism and unhinged demagogues. They prey on the disaffected. As Hannah Arendt pointed out in The Origins of Totalitarianism, social disconnection is the enabler of nationalistic ideologies that foster a sense of victimhood and hatred of the Other. The singling out of an ‘enemy’ unites the isolated in common cause.

This happens among the political right and left. Social media is a ceaseless, generous provider. Sure, this portal invites us to explore and debate, but it has also given rise to many florid theories and dangerous alliances. According to Lydia Khalil at the Lowy Institute and Deakin academic Joshua Roose, ‘extremism exploits the trust deficit’. A few fringe voices are easily amplified by social media. Hey presto: Christchurch, hate crimes, the attack on the US Capitol, climate denialism, misinformation on the pandemic, and the general bickering and rancour that passes for debate, etc.

But at a time of intersecting mega-crises, when we need global justice movements to confront the threats before us – the climate emergency, destruction of biodiversity, social and economic inequality, the erosion of democracy – we instead sink into the mire of boutique theorising that turns people in on themselves, in effect granting even more power to the already powerful. A blistering irony, indeed. Divided we fall. What we need now is a return to some sense of reason in the pursuit of common ground and the common good. It’s time, I think, to stand back, take stock and consider how we can contribute meaningfully to a collective change agenda.

First though, we need to talk about the origins and effects of the knowledge crisis.

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