I’m reading a lot to try and figure out why the world is the way it is. I can’t say it makes me feel much better, but it does help—if you can’t fix what’s wrong, at least being able to name it allows you to stay sane. The last book I finished was The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby, about why irrational thinking and anti-intellectualism have shaped the U.S. so strongly in the past few decades. She says this, which I think summarizes the most important issue we’re facing now:
As the astronomer Carl Sagan notes, real science differs from pseudoscience in that the former “thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one,” while the latter involves theories “often framed precisely so that they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a prospect of disproof, so even in principle they cannot be invalidated.” Then, when real scientists refuse to accept a pseudoscientific premise, “conspiracies to suppress it are deduced.”
It almost sounds like a non sequitur, but I think science—more particularly, scientific thinking—is the only thing that can save us now. Because if we can’t even agree on what reality is, there is no hope for anything. I will never be able to understand how people can use their resources to hurt others, whether intentionally or through willful self-delusion. But they do it, and if we allow even the concept of reality to be up for debate, we just pave the way for them. We can’t stop people from being terrible. But we can refuse to help them do it.
Most of us don’t have much power beyond our own lives, but the power we do have depends on our ability to think, question our beliefs, understand evidence, and discuss things with a shared vocabulary that is based on acknowledgement of the actual world around us. We have made a lot of progress as a species, even if half of us are doing everything they can to undo it. I think objectively there must be hope, even if I genuinely cannot find it most of the time. We can become better. It won’t fix the thousands of years of damage we’ve already done, the unnecessary suffering and cruelty and oppression that have ruined the lives of most of the people who’ve ever lived. Becoming better won’t fix any of that—but we can stop adding to it. Right now, I think that’s the best we can do.