Reason to believe
The world is complex and confusing, and much of it doesn’t make sense. But there is information available at our fingertips—information of wildly varying quality. Sometimes, this information gets dangerous, especially in situations when we desperately want answers to questions that don’t have answers. So, how’s a rational person to tell truth from fiction these days? How do we, as a society, agree upon what’s true? And why have we been so catastrophically unable to agree in 2021?
For years, doctors told Hannah McGowan she was wasting their time. As a teenager, she saw a string of specialists about her chronic, sometimes agonising, abdominal pain. They told her it was just her period, or that she was a hypochondriac. Some suggested the pain could be in her head. It wasn’t until 1996, when she was 16 years old, that the truth emerged. McGowan wasn’t imagining things: she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. An abscess had been growing inside her unabated. She was rushed into emergency surgery, where she almost died.
The drugs McGowan was prescribed to manage her condition made her feel worse. When she researched some of her pills, she found they were intended for those who’d had organ transplants, and that people were advised to stop using them if they experienced any side effects, as she had. “No one had been paying any attention. No one had been following up on my care. No one had warned me,” she says. “I just thought, ‘Doctors don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. This is ridiculous.’”
McGowan went off all her medications and started looking into other treatments. Before long, she was immersed in the world of alternative medicine. The welcoming, seemingly open-minded communities she found stood in stark contrast to her experience of conventional medicine. She absorbed their theories, and changed how she managed her condition. Eventually, she was pointed towards a study that linked Crohn’s disease to the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. McGowan felt she’d finally found an explanation for the incurable, mysterious illness that had defined so much of her life. When the time came to vaccinate her own children, she refused.
In the lead-up to the 2020 general election, Billy Te Kahika, a musician turned aspiring politician, fronted packed meetings in town halls around New Zealand. He told the crowds COVID-19 was a conspiracy—a government takeover plot by the United Nations and a coterie of billionaires. He conjured visions of a military-enforced vaccination programme and shared dark theories about the health effects of 5G and fluoride.
In the past, these falsehoods may have been deprived of oxygen by media gatekeepers. But Te Kahika’s movement was different. It was powered primarily by Facebook, where his near-daily live videos were viewed thousands of times. He amassed followers despite being dismissed as a fraudster by mainstream journalists.
Te Kahika’s party, Advance New Zealand, flamed out at the election, with just one per cent of the vote. But his rise was part of a wider phenomenon.
Misinformation has become one of the biggest stories in the world. Its ascent up the news agenda accelerated with the political emergence of Donald Trump, as millions of people were won over by his barrage of untruths. These were people whose beliefs, like McGowan’s, had been reshaped by questionable information they found online. For some, the changes have driven them to extremism.
The causes of this global epistemic crisis have been canvassed at length. Analysts point to lies amplified algorithmically on social media, a media sector that’s weakened and getting weaker, and hordes of venal politicians and pundits willing to exploit popular lies for power. The apparent cures are equally well covered. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg is hauled before Congress to answer questions. The Washington Post and CNN employ full-time fact checkers to carry out corrections on politicians like Trump. In 2020, New Zealand’s biggest news organisation, Stuff, pioneered a dedicated fact-checking section called The Whole Truth.
These efforts may be worthy, but they don’t get to the heart of the issue. Evidence will never be enough to drown out fake news. Lies can’t be bludgeoned to death with information. The forces underpinning our opinions run too deep. They’re more powerful than Trump, more pervasive than Facebook. They’re as much a part of us as our biology, as close as our history, and as old as consciousness itself. Understanding them might chip away at the comfortable bedrock of our beliefs—but carrying out that excavation may be the only way for us to get back on a firmer footing.
McGowan didn’t become an anti-vaxxer because she’s easily fooled. She can speak eloquently on scientific theory and summarise the views of an array of philosophers. Her drift towards alternative medicine was more of a social process than an intellectual one. She had felt like an outsider even before she experienced the isolating effects of her medical issues. Doctors had failed her, but in her new community, people were sympathetic.
“When you find a group of people that seem to care about you and your children’s wellbeing, and listen to your concerns and don’t just blow them off, that’s a beautiful sense of belonging and community, especially for people that don’t really fit in anywhere,” she says.
When journalists report on how fringe beliefs have infiltrated and influenced our societies, we often look first at the platforms where they’re transmitted. Social media companies have contributed to our epistemic problems by designing algorithms which prioritise content based on the engagement it provokes. That nihilistic approach to fact benefits polemics and ultra-partisans. Firebrands such as Te Kahika regularly outperform more thoroughly researched content from outlets like Stuff or the New Zealand Herald. A boring truth often ranks lower than an exciting lie.
But algorithms aren’t the only, or even the main, issue with services like Facebook or YouTube. The true power of social media is in the way it encourages communities—or, more accurately, echo chambers—to form around questionable ideas, says Auckland psychotherapist Paul Wilson. “One of the great things about the internet is it allows like-minded people to find social support. It takes away the limitation of place and geography. But that includes neo-Nazis. It includes racists. These groups can find and support each other, and so things can grow.”
Mike Hepburn has been a hunter since he was a teenager. When friends told him in 2014 to check out a couple of Facebook pages about the poison 1080, he was horrified at the damage they claimed 1080 was inflicting on his hobby. He clicked link after link. The internet told him deer were being exterminated, that New Zealand’s forests would fall still. Hepburn became a staunch anti-1080 activist, and his online advocacy turned into real-life action. He helped stage protests in Thames and Horowhenua, where he filmed and harangued workers charged with carrying out 1080 drops.
Hepburn may have been won over by the arguments of the anti-1080 movement, but his activism would likely have withered on the vine without the self-reinforcing communities he found on Facebook pages such as 1080 Eyewitness.
Our opinions are more of a collaborative process than we realise. Social imperatives shape the very structure of our brains. Studies have found facts don’t change our minds. According to University of Pennsylvania researcher Hugo Mercier, we’re hardwired for confirmation bias, evolutionarily sculpted for winning arguments against our rivals rather than for finding the truth. We instinctively zero in on facts that fit our existing opinions and discard anything that doesn’t.
“We are social beings first and foremost,” says Wilson. “We make most of our decisions emotionally, and then we use reason to rationalise them. That’s our default. That’s how we approach the world.”
McGowan needed a village to reinforce her new ideas, but that wasn’t the only factor influencing her epistemological shift. Her past experiences of the medical system primed her to accept what her community had to say. “Going from doctors saying there’s nothing wrong with me to ‘there is something wrong with you and we have to operate immediately’—that was a terrible experience. It shook my faith in the conventional medicine world.”
She’s far from an isolated case. Doctors often ignore or minimise women’s pain. Women wait longer in emergency rooms. They’re routinely prescribed lower-strength pain relief than men receive. Debilitating conditions like endometriosis go undiagnosed for decades. The government has repeatedly refused to fund a modern self-test screening programme for cervical cancer, which would eliminate the need for more invasive and painful smear tests. The consequences of its inaction were drilled home on April 6, 2021, when Minister of Conservation Kiritapu Allan revealed she’d been diagnosed with stage-three cervical cancer. Her announcement was accompanied by an acknowledgement she’d put off getting a smear test because she felt uncomfortable and embarrassed at the prospect.
These types of issues are part of the reason wellness and alternative health communities have become pipelines into fringe or conspiratorial beliefs, says Kate Hannah, executive manager of Te Pūnaha Matatini at the University of Auckland. “Women often have bad experiences of medicalisation, and concerns about their children’s health based on their experiences of healthcare systems that haven’t been supportive for them,” she says. “Those terrible events of the past and the present have led people to hear the idea of a governing conspiracy and think, ‘That could be true.’”
That effect can be even more acute for indigenous people. Author and researcher Tina Ngata (Ngāti Porou) has written about the popularity of conspiracy theories among Māori under charismatic figures like Te Kahika. A litany of injustices, from the historical theft of iwi land onwards, have made many Māori justifiably distrustful of mainstream information. “In our history, there’s some really well-grounded reasons for us to not trust authority, and the trinity of authority is science, government and media,” Ngata says. “When something is mainstream, look at that through Māori eyes: it became mainstream through a process of brutal subjugation of our people in every way—from our language to our belief to our spirituality; from our kinship structures to the sanctity of our whānau unit.”
Some of the injustices carried out against Māori parallel the dystopian messages peddled by prominent conspiracy theories. The world’s most popular conspiracy theory, QAnon, posits that a cabal of paedophiles has embedded itself in government and the upper echelons of society, and is using deception and exploitation to expand its power. It uses the threat of children being harmed to gain supporters—a recurring theme in human conspiratorial movements. “It’s what the witches were accused of at Salem,” says Wilson. “It’s what gay panics were often about.”
QAnon’s assertions are false, but they contain echoes of the way Māori have actually been treated, says Ngata. She points to the 1960s, when Māori children were taken by the government, often just because their parents’ homes were untidy, and placed in state care homes where sexual abuse was rife. “If you’re one of those Māori who’s uplifted out of your home, placed into ‘care’ and then sexually abused by paedophiles, and you know the government knew about this and did nothing, it’s absolutely reasonable for you to believe this is systematic,” she says. “If you’ve been in a system that’s allowed that to happen to you, it’s not that far-fetched at all to believe the paedophile cabal stories promoted by QAnon.”
Herb Christophers, a communications specialist at the Department of Conservation (DOC), says people won’t believe what you say until they have faith in you and your institution. “Sometimes it might be the absolute bloody truth but people don’t want to trust it because you’re perceived to be the people that have not helped in the past,” he says. “That’s why I say you’ve got to solve social problems before you can solve conservation problems.”
Our past influences our path forward. Betrayals, particularly from those in power, can echo for generations, and bubble up whenever authorities make a new appeal for trust.
Lloyd Rankin is Pākehā. He’s lived a life of relative privilege. He doesn’t have a history of traumatic interactions with political leaders or people in positions of power. But when he was 14, he injured his neck playing rugby. He lived with nagging pain for more than two decades until, in 1999, at age 39, he saw an advertisement advertising a discount on three sessions with a chiropractor. “I hoped maybe they could tweak my back and I’d be rid of it,” he says.
The first two sessions went well. On the third, Rankin’s neck erupted in pain when the chiropractor gave him a deep-tissue massage. Two days later, he woke up feeling a little dizzy. His symptoms worsened during lunch at his parents’ house. He went to lie down on their spare bed. When his mum came in to check on him, he couldn’t move.
The paramedics tried to make Rankin sit up. He crashed into their arms. At the hospital, doctors poked him with pins and found one side of his body was completely numb. It wasn’t until two days later, when a neurologist asked him to recount what happened before the illness set in, that a potential diagnosis emerged.
“I said, ‘I went to the chiropractor.’ He was just like, ‘Oh, that’ll be it. They do that all the time. They cause strokes.’ I was sitting there saying, ‘Okay, you don’t see that in the general warnings.’”
Rankin’s neurologist may have been exaggerating—there’s debate over the extent to which chiropractic treatment can cause strokes, and some research shows patients face zero to minimal increased risk of stroke. But he was right about what had happened to Rankin. The chiropractor’s deep-tissue massage had partially torn an artery in Rankin’s neck. A clot had formed, blocking the blood flow to his brain and causing a severe stroke. The incident was later ruled to have been a case of medical misadventure.
Injuries resulting from chiropractic treatment are reasonably common. ACC spent nearly $800,000 treating people who’d suffered damage at the hands of a chiropractor between 2012 and 2018. In general, systemic reviews of chiropractic show it doesn’t alleviate many medical conditions, and is only moderately effective at treating lower back pain. Despite that, it’s relatively mainstream. Many people who sneer at anti-vaxxers or 5G protesters will happily get their back cracked, or undergo other pseudoscientific treatments such as homeopathy.
Rankin still lives with the effects of his stroke. Some are physical: he’s a little uncoordinated, and can’t feel pain on one side of his body. The lingering mental effects are more difficult to manage. He struggles to go to concerts or shopping centres, because the noise and visual stimulation are overwhelming, and finds it hard to speak or think if he doesn’t get at least nine hours of sleep
His experiences have made him more sceptical about alternative medicine. He’s turned down acupuncture when it’s been offered by physiotherapists, and spends time arguing with friends on Facebook who make unscientific claims on topics such as the COVID-19 vaccine. But that empiricism belies Rankin’s most foundational beliefs. He’s a Christian pastor. Though he points to the theological field of apologetics, which is aimed at delivering a rational case for Christianity, he acknowledges his faith doesn’t meet the same standards of proof he demands of his doctors.
“I think everyone’s living a story and the only power we have is to decide what sort of story we want to live in,” he says. “You have to trust at some point. Any time you think you’re just purely rational, that’s when you’re becoming a conspiracy theorist. Everyone makes emotional decisions rather than rational decisions at the end of the day.”
All of us, whether we realise it or not, are taking steps of faith.
I was raised Christian. For years, my life was measured by the rhythms of religion. There was youth group on Saturday nights. Church on Sundays. A camp every Easter. The rituals shaped my way of thinking. There was shame, but also structure. Belief gave me a framework for thinking about the universe. It was explicable. It had rules. Those rules were reliable.
Doubt was always there. For a long time, its waves were turned back by sermons, home group discussions and meetings with leaders I respected. I don’t remember when doubt started to overwhelm me. I do know it felt like the ground was disappearing from underneath my feet. I was in a band and wrote songs about the experience. Mostly I felt alone, defenceless in an ambivalent world I’d thought was weighted in my eternal favour. But my thoughts weren’t being recorded in some cosmic throne room; they weren’t even reaching past the inside of my cranium. “You only get one call / but there’s no telephone,” I wrote. I felt fooled, let down, abandoned. Even worse, it was by someone who was likely a figment of my imagination. “I just want to fight / I don’t want to talk / So this is how it feels / To be let go / You go up in smoke.”
It’s tempting to say I lost someone important to me in God. But if I’m really honest, the panic I felt was less about losing someone meaningful, than the meaning their existence implied. Even if God was a moral monster for designing an Earth full of tapeworms, cancers and parasitic wasps, at least Earth was designed. Without that, I felt untethered. Suddenly, I was straitjacketed inside my slowly degenerating body. I had no one to plead to. No judge to hear my case. I felt the crushing reality: one day I would not be. The void of the universe was closing in, and on that day, I would meld with it seamlessly.
In other words, I was freaking out. I wanted someone to tell me, in a way I could actually believe, that there was coherence to the world. Wilson says that search for certainty is the background radiation to many of our beliefs, even if we don’t realise it consciously. “Those are existential fears and they’re innate. We don’t really talk about them. To admit we’re anxious beings in an uncertain universe is a big thing to come to terms with. That’s why we look for simple, clear solutions to complicated problems, whether they’re theological or conspiratorial.”
A belief system such as QAnon places its adherents in a cataclysmic battle between good and evil, and this easy binary provides a degree of comfort, says Wilson. “Thinking there’s demonic forces that are out to harm children but we can organise and defeat them is actually easier than just going, ‘The world is a really uncertain, confusing place where a lot of stuff happens randomly and actually there’s nothing you can do that guarantees your complete safety.’”
Sue Grey is the leader of the Outdoors Party, and a prominent opponent of everything from the COVID-19 vaccine to the fluoridation of our water supplies. Her beliefs stem from a need to explain why so many of us get sick and die with no obvious cause.
“I want to know why some people thrive and why some people don’t thrive,” she says. “Why, with all of the health expertise in the world, do so many people have chronic illnesses? Why have we got epidemics? What are we doing wrong and what can we do about it?”
When McGowan reflects on it, she was searching for certainty when she joined the anti-vaccine community. She’d been diagnosed with a disease for which there is no known cause, and no real cure. “It just made me feel really powerless,” she says. “When medical science is like, ‘This is what we can do, and it’s useless,’ you do look for that sense of control.”
Pinning her problems on the MMR vaccine was something of a relief, she says, even if it made her angry at the medical system. “It’s funny, the unknown drives what’s like a thorn in our brain, and we just have to get it out somehow, or at least cover it with some kind of Band-Aid.”
There are weapons against the tangled mess of bias that informs our beliefs. The obvious one is the scientific method: a system especially designed to thwart the trickery of our minds.
But there’s a problem: it’s impossible to read all the scientific literature on everything. Academic and conspiracism researcher M R X Dentith says the only way to reassure ourselves that our beliefs are valid is to fall back on the opinions of others.
“It really does come down to how good we are at judging expertise. I’d like to believe my belief in climate change is quite secure, even though I’m not a climate scientist, because I’m accustomed to working out who are the appropriate experts to trust.”
Experts, however, operate within the racist and patriarchal systems governing society, and often reflect its prejudices. They’re also subject to more-mundane biases: the funding decisions of governments, and the need to maintain relationships with people in power.
In Tina Ngata’s community of Wharekahika, at the tip of the East Cape, she and others put information through an extra step of verification. They carry out a kind of communal peer review on topics such as the COVID-19 vaccine, asking whether a source is reputable, impartial and transparent, before deciding on a course of action.
“It’s trying to grow that muscle of how we validate information in our community,” Ngata says. “I think when you have that practice, the amount of misinformation out there becomes less relevant, because it doesn’t land in your community.”
Wharekahika’s information-filtration system works not only because it’s rigorous, but because it’s carried out collectively and respectfully. If our most tenuous theories are shaped socially, so are our more robust beliefs.
After years as an anti-1080 activist, Hepburn has become a staunch advocate for the use of the poison. He attributes his change of heart to Gary Coker, another former anti-1080 activist who’s come to defend its use. The pair had been having countless Facebook debates. Their exchanges had degenerated into a series of back-and-forth insults. Then one day, Coker had a revelation. “It was an epiphany. I stopped the negativity and I started talking to him like a mate. Not taking the bait. Not getting riled up. Not returning the abuse. Every response was a calm factual response with some data to take a look at. Then he was looking at that data, and then that’s what really started the change.”
McGowan also traces her decision to change her mind on vaccinations back to conversations with someone she respected—an ex-boyfriend’s mum who worked at the Canterbury District Health Board. She asked McGowan to write down her questions about vaccines, then passed those along to an immunologist. “All of a sudden I was like, ‘I need to get my kids vaccinated,’” says McGowan. “I’d been so wrong. I was so lucky my children hadn’t had those illnesses.”
Christophers has seen similar stories play out over the past 25 years. In his early years as an educator, his superiors instructed him to just hand out information booklets on DOC’s plans. He’d return to a community and find people using the booklets to swat flies. So he decided to change tactics. “You talk to people face to face about the issue. You talk about their values, and you have a cup of tea. People don’t want a booklet. They want to feel like you understand them.”
Evidence may not be enough to bludgeon a lie to death, but a full teapot and a couple of mugs can do a lot of damage.
These days, McGowan likes to hold her beliefs lightly. She’s stopped trying to dig that thorn of uncertainty out of her mind. “I’m agnostic, really, and I’m fine with that. I don’t know anything for sure,” she says. She likes to read the existentialists now. Albert Camus and Carl Sagan may tell her life is ultimately meaningless, and the universe likely indifferent, but they look for hope in small things: a sports victory, a beautiful twilight, a laugh shared with a loved one.
The best we can do is acknowledge our bias, uncertainty and lack of expertise, and take a shaky step into the murky dark before us. When we do, we may find we were searching for the wrong thing all along. Certainty is a shaky life raft at best. It may make the world feel more explicable, but it won’t provide comfort in the face of bad news. It’s not much use at making joy more lasting, or pain less intense.
People often look to knowledge when compassion would do more good, says Wilson. “The antidote is human connection. We’re all in the same existential boat together, and we can care for each other. That’s what we need: more humility and connection. Because that’s what makes people go, ‘The world is a scary place, but I can take it a day at a time.’”
The great joke is this: we spend our lives searching for truth, only to find that truth isn’t what we needed after all.