The fall and rise of truth, trust and society’s capacity for wisdom

What does it mean to live in a “post-truth era”? Is there a broader history and context feeding that phenomenon than just Trump and the Russians? How do we address it at a deep level to serve our collective capacity to generate wisdom for our public affairs?

“Truth” shares the same Indo-European root as “trust” and “tree”.* It’s like trust and truth are grounded in the solidity and dependability that we associate with great oaks, redwoods, cedars and baobobs. We might also reflect that trees – and, metaphorically, trust and truth – are living things that can thrive and grow – or be damaged and die.

We are in a period that is sometimes called the “post-truth era”, with a disturbing subtext that it might also be post-trust. Where do we turn for people, information, institutions that we can fully trust, that are dependably truthful – especially for ALL of us diverse people who find ourselves sharing public spaces and challenges with others we don’t understand and may even detest or fear as driven by evil designs and deranged narratives?


Logic, reason, facts, compassion – all these seem distorted or missing in action. And lately even “reality” has become challenged. From post-modern relativism, “false memory” research and the surreality of quantum physics to our growing technological capacity to engineer convincing apparancies (e.g., Photoshop, computer-generated imagery, virtual reality, dubbed-in voices in real time, etc.) and the generation and spread of “fake news” and “alternative facts”, it is becoming increasingly hard to know what is real and what is not – and sometimes even to be confident that reality is buried somewhere behind all the illusions!

All this is shaking up the worlds of social media and journalism. It turns out that even efforts to fact-check and identify fake news may ultimately backfire. But even traditionally reliable news media are often distorted by confirmation bias (favoring facts that justify what we already believe), advertising dollars, herd mentality, self-censorship to gain access, and undue focus on conflict, controversy and scandal – all of which undermine journalism’s ideal democratic role and stature. And while it is true that some media are more biased and deceitful than others, reporting that is consistently and truly fair, honest and useful is increasingly hard to find.

Even science – once the undisputed arbiter of testable truth – is being undermined both by attacks from anti-science ideologues and exposés showing its foundational methods and trustability are more subject to hidden distortions than we realized. Human fallibility, ego, greed, groupthink, systemic biases and outright manipulation can play outsized roles in published results**, adding to the frustrating tendency for asserted scientific “facts” to be replaced by new studies with totally different conclusions. This last dynamic – which would be an unadulterated strength of ever-evolving scientific knowledge, were it not for the other factors mentioned – unfortunately doesn’t help the public turn to science for solid truths to depend on.

In addition to all that, more people are becoming aware that expertise is often used to assert social control by delegitimating people’s experience and undermining their judgment and capacity to form bonds of common interest based on common experience. We’re being told we cannot trust ourselves but should follow (and pay for) experts in every aspect of our lives – diet, politics, child care, education, whatever. This strengthens elite power and versions of meritocracy that make it hard for us ordinary people to gain control of our lives, individually and collectively. (See, for example, Listen, Liberal or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank)

In the face of all this, is it any wonder that so many people retreat into the comfort and tribal muscle of sectarian narratives and pundits, reinforced by social conformity, physical and informational migration into polarized like-minded silos, and the cognitive comfort of confirmation bias?

The implications for democracy and the generation of collective wisdom are profound. How do we make collective decisions when we can’t trust our information sources, ourselves, or each other – or when we place our trust in incompatible sources and ways of thinking whose primary goals are to invalidate and defeat each other.


A vital principle to guide us out of this predicament is to use diversity and disturbance creatively. This principle assumes two things worth noting:

(a) Diverse views are, in fact, facets of a more complex reality, the whole of which we need to better comprehend if we wish to make wise decisions that will actually work in the real world. This applies even to views that are demonstrably false, because belief in them arises from that more complex reality and plays a role in how it unfolds. So those factors are deeply relevant and vital to take into account if we want to make real progress.

(b) Diverse people bring diverse gifts to understanding the whole situation and bringing about wholesome outcomes in our shared lives. They bring different values, different perspectives, different experiences, different cognitive styles and ways of solving problems, different aptitudes and skills, different connections and resources – all of which we can use – if we are discerning, welcoming and creative enough – to help make life better for all of us.

The trick is to help people engage creatively with their diversity – and with any disturbances that come along with it – in ways that enhance our collective comprehension and capacity. Fortunately, there are thousands of resources to help us do that. Hundreds of them are explored in the wise democracy pattern language.

The current spirit of partisanship and the renewed effort to empower a political “center” are all fine, as part of the complex reality in which we find ourselves. But ultimately we need to see all these stances and perspectives as resources for something far more inclusive and wise, and to build among us the capacity to access that more embracive collective wisdom to sustain our collective well-being.


PS: I highly recommend an earlier exploration into this realm of certainty, uncertainty and possibility – “Waking Up into Wholeness, Dialogue and Mystery”

PPS: Check out the substantive dialogue in the comments on my last post

deru- To be firm, solid, steadfast

** Examples abound of the limitations of science in real world practice (see for example here , here and here) and of industry manipulation of science and the problematic dynamics of peer review.

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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
Calling forth the wisdom of the whole for the wellbeing of the whole

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