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Threading the needle between blind trust and reflexive denial
Recent history has been punctuated by repeated failures and outright lies propagated by our most trusted institutions. We must invade Iraq due to their possession of weapons of mass destruction. The official food pyramid is the basis for a healthy diet. Covid-19 is well contained and masks aren’t likely to help. The promoters of these falsehoods are our once venerated institutions like our intelligence agencies, the New York Times, the USDA, the World Health Organization, and the US Surgeon General.
A population can only be lied to so many times before they quit listening to the self-appointed authorities. This is totally understandable, and the obvious consequence of incompetent authorities. However, this pendulum swings too far: even true expertise is now cause for populist suspicion while online LARPers and conspiracists thrive.
This is our present moment.
Social media influencers with dubious expertise move from one conspiracy to the next while amassing gigantic followings of angry populists. Influencers seamlessly transition from miracle Covid-19 cures, vaccine and mask pseudoscience, all meat “carnivore” diets, and election myths. These conspiracies spread like wildfire and before any debunking can take place, the internet’s Eye of Sauron has already focused on the next conspiracy du jour.
The perverse incentives here are enormous.
Some are obvious: influencers want to grow their accounts and push emotional narratives to their followers who shoot it into their veins like South Park’s Heroin Hero chasing the pink dragon. When the hydroxycholoriquine conspiracy falls apart, they shift to “the Capitol Rioters were Antifa.”
However other incentives are more insidious. Many falsehoods are being pumped into the Western consciousness by our adversaries. PRC-affiliated accounts eagerly promote vaccine and election denial. They do so from their individual social media accounts, via reports in state-controlled publications, and supported by an army of wumao. Their goal is to exploit the free speech in democracies to sow discord and division. They want to destabilize and polarize free societies from America to Taiwan… and they are often successful.
Blind allegiance to authority and reflexive contrarianism is a two-lane highway off the edge of a cliff. We are pummeling down this highway and there is only one remaining exit: authority rooted in true expertise eager to engage with an appropriately skeptical public. Our authorities today are not experts. The WHO is a shameless political body carrying water for the CCP. The Surgeon General is a political appointee. The USDA is influenced by the meat and dairy lobby. We need to throw out the politicians in our institutions and replace them with competent experts.
We also need to expand the Overton window on acceptable skepticism. The impulse of the appointed non-expert “authorities” is to shut down conversations about certain topics considered to be taboo, like concerns of vaccine safety. The vaccines in the US seem to be nothing short of amazing, but when the public feels that any suggestion otherwise is off limits by the authorities (whom they already distrust), conspiracies become much more appetizing. In fact, seemingly small falsehoods and dismissals from our institutions often set in motion a viciously reinforcing cycle that fuel new conspiracies from reflexive internet contrarians.
Our once venerable institutions debase themselves by appointing politicians disguised as “experts” and declaring certain conversations off-limits. Our adversaries are eager to shake confidence in these institutions in order to discredit free societies. The path to renewal is to seat true experts in our institutions and foster free flowing dialogue without taboo or fear. Free societies will thrive when institutions are led by genuine experts eager to engage a skeptical public without stipulation or limitation.