Rachel Brougham: What happens if Americans can’t agree on facts?

We know what we know.

We know it gets hot in the summer and cold in the winter. We know dogs bark and cats meow. We know things about our job, our family, our friends.

We know these things because we’ve experienced them. We have firsthand knowledge. We know these things to be fact.

So how do you know Thomas Jefferson even existed? How do you know there are other planets in our solar system? How do you really know the Earth is round when you haven’t sailed around it?

Rachel Brougham

In 2002, Russell Hardin, the late political scientist, wrote an essay titled “The Crippled Epistemology of Extremism.” In it, Hardin examined that most of what we know to be true are things we learned from other people. We read it in text books. We heard it from our teachers or people of authority. And we accepted these things as fact.

So why do so many Americans these days have a problem when it comes to agreeing on the facts? Whether it’s about COVID, climate change or even who won the 2022 presidential election?

In his essay, Hardin says the problem comes when we listen to mostly people who are like us — people who we agree with and those who agree with us. That allows us to have our pre-existing convictions fortified and in turn, we begin to think those who are at all different — those who disagree with us — are wrong.

It’s why we can’t agree on if a worldwide pandemic even exists, let alone its importance. We have people who say 9/11 and Sandy Hook were staged. It’s why there is still actual debate over who was elected as the 46th president of the United States.

Hardin doesn’t believe those who are extreme in their beliefs are stupid or crazy. He just noted the problem is that their information comes from limited sources, all of which would be supportive of their ideas. Hence their crippled epistemology can then lead to baseless beliefs with no real evidence. He added that our view on various issues are often skewed due to lack of accurate knowledge.

So how do we get to a point where we can agree on what the facts are? How do you convince someone of the truth when they don’t want to accept the truth? Sometimes it seems as if the truth is the loser in front of the largest firing squad.

As Americans, we love to talk about threats to our democracy. Perhaps the single biggest threat is us being unable to agree on what is fact and what is conspiracy.

— Rachel Brougham is the former assistant editor of the Petoskey News-Review. You can email her at racheldbrougham@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared on The Petoskey News-Review: Rachel Brougham: What happens if Americans can’t agree on facts?