The Epistemological Crisis Behind American Politics

by David Salzillo Jr. '24 on February 9, 2023
Opinion Staff

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If the 2020 election has shown us anything, it’s that one cannot fact-check the fact-proof. Consider Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling’s Jan. 4, 2021 press conference on the 2020 elections. At that press conference, Sterling delivered “a point-by-point rebuttal of false claims being spread about voter fraud.” Did Sterling’s press conference have any effect on election deniers? No. Just two days later, a mob of Trump supporters convinced the election was stolen stormed the Capitol seeking to punish the people that “rigged” it. Of course, that is not to say that Sterling expected any less. He himself compared fact-checking the 2020 election conspiracy theories to playing “whack-a-mole.” Once you debunk one lie, another lie always pops up. Indeed, the conspiracy theorist appears to be operating on a different set of facts altogether. Given that, how can someone convince anyone else of anything? Is it even possible anymore?  

Many say no. Many argue that we live in an era of “post-truth politics,” where facts and “alternative facts” have equal weight. I disagree. I believe we have taken the wrong approach to rebut election denialism. Granted, no one conversation will convince election deniers to give up their deeply held beliefs. Persuading election deniers will take much time—and patience. Either way, continuing to play “whack-a-mole” with them will get us nowhere.  

Why? First, because, strictly speaking, conspiracy theories, like pseudoscientific theories, are generally not falsifiable. That is, they can never be proven wrong. They always could be true. That is why Young Earth creationists like Ken Ham pooh-pooh evolution and “Old Earth” science with questions like, “How do you know? Were you there?” Election denialism relies on the same tactics. That is, it takes philosophical skepticism beyond the limits of common sense. How do we know that Gabriel Sterling’s “facts” are really “the facts”? How do we know that he is not lying to us? How do we know that he is not part of the conspiracy? And how do we know that the Trump-appointed justices who dismissed claims of election fraud are not part of the conspiracy too? No wonder Sterling’s press conferences had no effect. To the election denier, it was not “claim vs. fact” but “claim vs. another claim.” From there, confirmation bias does the rest.  

What does all this teach us? First, it shows us how much of what we know depends on a mix of intuition and the authority of others. Without trust, “the facts” have no meaning. To accept that the election was not stolen, the election denier 1) has to accept the testimony of election officials and 2) has to accept the findings of the judicial system. We do not need to be political scientists to see that election deniers are not there yet. 

How do we reestablish that trust, you might ask? To be clear, some ways of doing so are beyond the scope of this article. For example, one can trace this breakdown of trust in America to many causes, like Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rise of bloggers, the decline of local newspapers, and the growth of social media sites. Nevertheless, one important way of reestablishing trust is simply bringing back common sense. Don’t try to rebut the “facts” of the conspiracy theory; instead, rebut the general idea of it. Does it make sense? Is it plausible? Is it reasonable? Does it make sense for Democrats to rig a presidential election only to lose 14 seats in the House? Does it make sense for Trump supporters and die-hard conservatives like Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to be part of a conspiracy to support a Party (i.e., the Democratic Party) whose policies they abhor? Does it make sense for Trump-appointed justices to be a part of this conspiracy too? How many people are in on this thing anyway? And why aren’t there more problems holding this grand conspiracy together? Although some people who confront election deniers ask these types of questions, they do not do it often enough.  

Intuition is the great shortcut to Truth. If a conspiracy theory does not make sense, why should I believe it? Do I really need to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of every argument, no matter how absurd? Do I really need to fact-check any and every outlandish claim a conspiracy theorist makes? Aren’t some claims just on their face laughable? Like a massive and perfectly coordinated conspiracy to make people think the Earth is round? Or a massive and perfectly coordinated conspiracy to insert microchips into people via COVID-19 vaccines?  

In the end, Trump was right. Facts don’t matter. But common sense does.