What do you do when toxic conflict and conspiracy theories sit down at your Thanksgiving dinner table?
Calgary Counselling Service: The fight for truth
“Can you help me, I just don’t know what to believe any more?”
That question was tearfully asked by a young survivor of COVID 19 being bombarded with “Research” (and the demand she do her own) by family she believed she could no longer entrust with her young children.
That’s an often-repeated question.
On a day-to-day basis, most Calgary psychologists and Christian counsellors are presented with so many questions. On the surface, those questions may seem incredibly diverse. Still, after over two decades of offering our Calgary Counselling Service, I’ve come to see how nearly every client is essentially asking the same question:
“In this world of confusion with no guarantee of the love, significance, security, respect and attachment that I crave, is there any rock-solid guiding principle upon which I can base my life and at least improve my chances?”
It’s a search for truth and a search for something to believe in, and it’s never been more relevant than today as we all drown in the sea of fear-based disinformation both left and right-leaning media produces.
The question, however, often is treated with a considerable degree of contempt. Evangelical authors have repeatedly regarded it as a refusal to embrace mystery or a search for control over that which only God can guide. Secular authors, particularly those of a Post-Modernist bent, often have rejected it as futile, holding that truth is at best a highly flexible and often unknowable construct we need to free ourselves from.
Yet, as Western Civilization moves further and further away from any conceptualization of truth, more and more clients are seeking it.
Calgary Counselling Service: The fight for truth.
Truth has always been challenging to find – and painful to cling to. The search for truth starts to become a struggle when we realize how deeply entrenched those who would deny it are. And it becomes a full-on fight when we begin to wrap our heads around how systematically the truth gets warped and twisted in almost every area of life.
On both the left and the right, our culture has walked away from the entire concept of truth. Whether surfing the satirical, ultra-libertarian cesspools of 4chan or 8kun, the extremism of hard-line environmentalist sites, the self-righteousness of 9/11 truthers, the logic of the anti-vax movement, the pronouncements of far-left identity politics or the combativeness of COVID/Science denialism, we repeatedly encounter a philosophical stance that largely rejects any sort of absolute and devalues those who would seek such.
All of those communities, of course, repeatedly insist they are teaching their readers how to search out the truth for themselves. They each describe themselves as facing a conspiracy of those who would suppress the truth for financial or other gains, and they all claim they are presenting the results of extensive research.
Yet, when you dig into their sources, you mostly find a few discredited and even withdrawn scientific papers from disgraced scientists and a bottomless rabbit-hole of YouTube videos, 4Chan posts and FaceBook news articles.
Far from seeking truth, these left and right-leaning groups are all practicing a strange form of confirmation bias as they search out validation for what they have already decided to be true – elevating their Googling skills above the billions of dollars in funding governments pour yearly into public policy and safety-related research.
And, when you confront the true believer with contradictory evidence, what you encounter is not the rational mind of scientific inquiry. You meet a hailstorm of accusations and resentments shouted at you through an echo chamber of cognitive distortions, inaccuracies, politicized myths, logical fallacies and outright B.S.
The famed science fiction author Isaac Asimov described our cultural and political landscape this way:
“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
Yet, when our Calgary counselling services clients start asking those sorts of questions, most of them are still doggedly searching for truth. Many will preface their questions with comments that suggest they doubt answers even exist, and many ask them with a surprising degree of shame. Some even report having been humiliated by family members, but still, they ask.
And they deserve answers.
The good news is that finding truth is possible. The bad news is that it isn’t easy, and it comes at a cost. But as uncomfortable as seeking the truth is, ignorance is the only remaining alternative – and that’s so much worse.
What it means to find truth:
So many of the sources of truth we used to rely upon have vanished in our world today. Less than a hundred years ago, trust in government was in the mid 70% range. Greedy multi-millionaire televangelists were unheard of, and Church ministers were held in the highest regard – and most deserved that trust. Journalism was considered the “Fifth Estate” of government and held to be an honourable profession of truth-tellers. When a book was published, everyone assumed it was carefully vetted and trustworthy. When a scientific journal published a paper, it was evaluated by the finest minds available and generally could be trusted.
Government trust levels today are in the mid 20% range. Evangelicalism has sold her soul to politics and dirty money. Fox News has reduced political discourse to a contemptible outrage machine while Liberal media is increasingly adrift in identity politics. Any blowhard can self-publish a book filled with lies for well under a thousand dollars – or set up a website for free.
But that’s not the worst part.
As status-seeking universities began to require frequency-of-publication to retain tenure, a corrupt academic publication system for hire has emerged. Protected by copyright laws, these publishers have begun charging researchers for both the purely theatrical “peer review” they offer and the privilege of having their (often dubiously valid) work “Published.” Published, in this case, means locked up behind paywalls, so the general public cannot access what their own tax dollars paid for unless you use a service like z-lib.org or Sci-Hub/Paper Panda to bypass them.
And, the general public has definitely caught on. Science, of course, is still doing and publishing credible research at an astounding pace. But, because few now know how to separate truth from self-serving fictions, even trust in science and academia has disintegrated.
And, if anyone is going to discover the truth they are seeking, learning how to separate truth from lies and think as a researcher is essential.
That starts with recognizing the power of our emotions and how important it is to separate ourselves from them as we embark on the process of discovering truth for ourselves.
Separating the facts from our emotions:
Whenever any sort of tension emerges in politics or public life, we almost immediately begin to hear a familiar refrain from both sides of the debate:
“Do your own research.”
The implicit message is that if you were indeed an intelligent person and simply took the time to read “The facts,” you would agree with the group making the above suggestion.
But would you?
It’s an interesting idea, but it rests on a set of assumptions. Specifically, it is based on the belief that humans are rational beings who first seek to discover factual and scientific information, form an internal narrative or story about those facts that is consistent with them and then our feelings follow.
We’ve all experienced that human beings are far from rational nearly all of the time. A researcher named Daniel Kahneman received a Nobel Prize for proving that people primarily make decisions via their feelings and quick rules-of-thumb that worked in the past.
Acknowledging that our natural decision-making process usually starts with our feelings is a critical first step for finding truth. It allows us to admit that the story we have created to make sense of our emotions is often nothing more than a way of protecting our sense of self and reality from being disrupted and our feelings from being hurt.
In other words, it allows us to see that the story we have created is probably a lie – at least until proven otherwise.
Separating the facts from our emotions is an excellent first step. However, it’s never complete until we own the degree to which the stories we tell ourselves become an identity for us – and begin to step away from such.
Separating the facts from our identities:
We rarely lie to ourselves for fun. We tell ourselves those lies because of how uncomfortable it is to change our sense of self.
Truth constantly changes and disrupts those who embrace it.
Each of us lives with a plumb-line of normal in our own heads. It’s an ongoing and intimate connection with a core sense of self we may not be able to define, but we implicitly trust anyway. We validate nearly every choice daily through thousands of check-ins with our negative or positive feelings that tell us if we are behaving in a way that fits with who we are or not.
As a result, we rarely do or say much that surprises us outside of unusual situations like extreme trauma or mind control (such as in a cult.)
This tight integration of our feelings and our actions is what we call a “Self.” Our sense of self can be separated into a personal, gendered and sexual self. Over the years, those parts have become associated with powerfully defining ideas about themselves and how they fit with each other or our worlds.
For example, if a person sees themselves as a gentle and caring soul who longs to deeply bond with and nurture another they regard as precious, those ideas and sense of self would be unlikely to draw them towards a BDSM club and flogging some random sexual partner. Furthermore, the mere suggestion of such would be likely to generate emotions of profound disgust.
On the one hand, this stability allows us to form long-term trusting relationships with others, knowing that it would hurt them to violate who they are even more than we would suffer. But, when toxic ideas become an entrenched identity to a person, we quickly discover the dark side of this.
In a sense, talking about ideas is really talking with another about the self. The purveyors of social media content know this and keep us making them money by steadily feeding us a narrow, algorithmically generated stream of ideas coupled with the illusion everyone around us thinks the same way.
Because those comfortable ideas do not disrupt the beliefs we see as inseparable from our sense of self, we become more entrenched in them. They render us ever more closed to constructive conversations with others and ever greater suckers for whatever it is they are selling us.
And, due to how tightly our sense of self and our emotions are linked to our ideas, it is impossible to change our thinking without experiencing some level of turmoil or distress to both our feelings and sense of self.
This step of seeking truth requires the courage to separate facts from our identities. It’s a difficult task, of course.
But unless we begin to see that we are not our ideas, we may never even become capable of grasping the need for change, much less become willing to embrace the distress created by such.
Accepting the need for change:
In 1900, human knowledge doubled roughly once every hundred years. In 2021, human knowledge is now doubling approximately every thirteen months. In years gone by, a person could go to school, learn a set of facts and then be done with change and growth for the remainder of a typical career length.
In 2021, some of the so-called “facts” you learned in your university class will literally be outdated by the time you write the midterm on them.
In the 1900’s we could wait for the Archie Bunkers of this world and their outdated or even toxic beliefs to retire or die so society could move on, but that’s simply no longer an option.
In 2021, continual change is necessary to even remain at the same place.
This presents a massive problem for a species that so tightly links our sense of self, feelings, and ideas and feels such distress when any of that tightly woven package is forced to change.
People can learn to thrive in an environment of constant change, but only if they face it head-on and healthily deal with distress. But, the sad irony is that, as change has accelerated, our society has not only failed to teach people to face and handle the pain of it, we instead exponentially increased our marketing of substances and techniques for numbing ourselves to that distress.
People who are the most successful at solving problems and growing as people have come to the understanding that their ideas are not their sense of self.
They see those ideas as part of a pathway towards ever greater understanding. They are people who have embraced the grieving process that now is a necessary part of simply staying current.
Any meaningful change involves pain. We daily face the task of burying old ideas that have died and the struggle to incorporate new ideas into our ever-changing senses of self. We either embrace it, or we become outdated and often toxic.
What makes matters worse is that with increasing knowledge comes an ever-increasing demand for trust – and humanity is even worse at trusting.
But, as much as we hate it, we are all finite beings.
Recognizing our limitations:
I managed to do OK in the required university statistics and research methods courses necessary to register as a psychologist, but my math skills mostly tapped out there. I can only look in awe at my daughter blowing through an advanced math course in a month this summer. For me, it would likely have taken two years of study to pass that class, and, like most people, there is not even a parallel universe in existence in which I could pass the advanced calculus courses necessary to become an engineer.
And, even if I could, that STILL wouldn’t make me an engineer!
So if I assemble ten engineers in a room to discuss building a new office building and they tell me I need to purchase ten thousand pounds of steel to reinforce my concrete, I have no choice but to believe them. I have to accept their word because I do not have the training or ability to question their judgment.
And, if I tell one of them that their behaviours and communication style suggests that treatment for Autism-Spectrum Disorder would be an excellent idea, that engineer is equally devoid of the ability to assess my knowledge. Only another psychologist or a psychiatrist could evaluate that assessment.
If one of those ten engineers tells me that it will only take eight thousand pounds of steel to reinforce my concrete, that may be correct, and I’m sure he or she could sell me on that idea. But I will never possess the ability to determine if that claim is actually valid.
It is the job of that engineer to convince the other nine engineers of the truth of that claim, or to shut up and go away.
Contrary to what defines the internet today, the job of any professional with a divergent idea is not to continue to try and convince the general public. Why? Because most people will never have the ability to know if they are lying or even insane.
Because knowledge is increasing as quickly as it is, we all face the distressing need to trust groups of professionals over individuals – unless we want to act like our Googling skills somehow exceed their thousands of hours of training at identifying truth in their field.
Like it or not, we live in an advanced society where knowledge, by necessity, is dispersed and compartmentalized. That leaves us with only two choices: Either we come to understand how it works and what we can trust, or we begin retreating back to the stone age of tribalism.
Understanding an advanced society:
But, that trust in dispersed knowledge is distressing, especially given how many groups of professionals have breached that trust. We can look at the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and see clearly how the CDC horribly violated the public’s trust. I look in disgust at fellow psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen’s design of the torture program inflicted at Guantánamo and the unchecked comprehensive fraud SNC-Lavalin engaged in within the province of Quebec. So many professional organizations have entirely abdicated their responsibilities to the public – often with disastrous results.
Starting with the Regan presidency, the Right declared that “government is the problem,” launching a war on any sort of professional self-governance or government standards designed to protect the public. (After all, those standards clearly stood in the way of lining the pockets of billionaires.) Starting with Ralph Nader and his book Unsafe at Any Speed, the Left sold the same lie – that no one was trustworthy or standing up for the little guy.
The last fifty years have been defined by a cynical cycle of defunding and defanging bodies of oversight for reasons of finance or surreal identity politics, blaming them for the inevitable chaos and then further stripping them of power to fix things.
The result: Trust levels for experts plummeted dramatically.
The problem: We have nothing else to replace such.
I may feel feelings of trust or distrust towards a CDC immunologist who tells me a COVID vaccination is safe, but those feelings simply do not matter. I can easily Google out my confirmation biases until I find so-called evidence to support my feelings. Still, only a fool would ever seriously believe that my Googling skills are more effective than the thousands of researchers and billions of dollars the CDC poured into the vaccine verification process.
Governments set up self-governing bodies because they know only fellow professionals ever could effectively police their own. And, advanced societies with knowledge levels doubling every thirteen months are societies in which no one can know everything, even within a profession.
For example: If an ethical question about a psychologist’s behaviours towards a traumatized sex therapy client’s intimate partner is raised, I likely can offer an evaluation relatively quickly – because hardly a day goes by where I do not work in at least some of relationship, sex, addiction and trauma therapy. Comparatively, I only work with even older minors in extenuating circumstances, and the last child therapy I provided was an emergency session I was forced into in the late 1990s. I would be utterly unqualified to offer much more than the most general opinion on the practice of a play therapist.
As bad as they may be, boards of oversight are the closest thing to certainty most of us will ever have and we need to quit pretending we need them to be perfect for them to be useful.
However, in areas of critical importance, it is possible to go somewhat further. This final step involves the development of academic level research skills.
Choosing the degree of research vs trust:
A strange paradox exists today in our systems of scientific publication. On the one hand, more credible science is being done than ever before. Yet, an astonishing amount of junk science is also being put out there with virtually no oversight. The truth is that it’s barely more difficult to get anything published in a scientific paper today than it is to throw up a website.
These junk papers are usually funded by special interest groups or lobbies, discredited within hours and withdrawn within weeks or months. Yet, they haunt social media and conspiracy theory sites for years afterwards — continuing to sow doubt, undermine truth, protect profits and pump stock prices, precisely as intended.
Yet, while this may infuriate real scientists, they are otherwise unimpacted by it because they know how to spot and ignore it.
The problem is, it’s not easy to learn how to spot the lies. It is a complex and nuanced skill developed over years of constant practice that no one can expect to fully master outside of their field of study. However, there are ways around that limitation that every scientist relies upon once they get outside of their primary field of study – they involve allowing others to overcome it for you.
If an area matters so much to you that you would consider rejecting the majority opinion, then you need to research primary sources, and you owe it to yourself to replicate the steps that real researchers routinely take.
Learning how to do real research as a non-expert:
There are only four levels of research that a non-expert in a field will likely ever attain to:
Meta-Analysis: The lowest level of research involves reading and digesting the quantitative pooling of data, which, when published, is called a “Meta-Analysis.” A Meta-Analysis is usually a part of a more extensive summary of clinical literature, which is termed a Systematic Review. When performing a systematic review, researchers locate, assemble, organize and then collectively evaluate the existing body of research on a particular topic pooling the statistical data to present a summary of the most well-supported facts on that subject.
Reading a Meta-Analysis or a Systematic Review is usually the easiest way to gain a clear picture of what the brightest and best in a field believe to be the most well-supported facts because it filters out the junk science for you. It, however, is usually only available in fairly established areas and would not, for example, have been easy to find about COVID 19 in March 2020.
Literature review: The next level of research is to perform your own literature review. This involves taking a random sample of all of the most recent journal articles on a topic, summarizing the conclusions of each and digging into who the authors are, who funded/published each study (and why they would want to publish that.) Check out the validity of their primary references and then look for logical errors, biases, outright myths, lies, and spin-doctoring.
Basic Probability Assessment: The third level builds on the second level and requires you to dig into the pools of quantitative research data from which the conclusions were drawn. It involves assessing the sample sizes and sources, the validity of the tests used, the probability statistics employed, and performing a basic probability assessment of your own on the results the researchers reported.
Institutional Review Boards: As an alternative or in addition to the third level, reading a sample of peer-reviews, reading the assessments of independent ethics committees (sometimes called institutional review boards) and the university ethical review board findings before the launch of the study can help fill in the gaps for the more statistics-challenged among us.
If you haven’t separated out identity and emotions, accepted the need for change, come to understand dispersed systems of knowledge and trust AND then completed at least a couple of the above steps, then you researched nothing. You simply bought into the weaponized disinformation and pseudoscience that is slowly destroying our public health and other systems.
Counselling Services Calgary: Fighting for truth, in a world gone insane.
While those who seek counselling are a very different breed, so many of the people I meet in daily life seem to have made a decision at some juncture in their lives that defines them from that point forward.
At one point in their lives, they were faced with a difficult piece of information such as:
- My political champion is really an incompetent narcissist.
- My church knows nothing of love, grace and freedom and everything about control.
- I live in fear of anyone different from me or anything I can’t control.
- My company routinely rips off both their customers and employees.
- My conspiracy theories about vaccinations just killed my grandmother.
- My pet addiction treatment program is as helpful as doing nothing.
- I’ve been cold and abusive to my partner and children.
And, when they discovered that information, it made them feel bad.
Rather than facing reality, this type of person instead launches into a word-smithing campaign — warping words and spinning reality until the truth vanishes and is replaced with the calming warmth of some fictional reality.
It isn’t at all hard to pull off. As long as they have a strong enough desire to create a false version of reality, they quickly learn how easily words can be transformed and mutated into whatever they want them to be. Even the most basic skills in word-craft will allow them to navigate life without ever having to face truths they find unpleasant.
The decision to face life’s struggles with fictions is an incredibly popular one. Those fictions mean they never have to face the pain of being wrong, struggle through the distress of personal growth or ever having to embrace a process of meaningful life change.
If denial and self-deception have already made them perfect, why would they ever have to change?
However, only those who decide against this method of dealing with reality will ever begin to grow up and become internally resilient and strong. It’s never easy to deal with pain or unswervingly face unpleasant facts, but doing so makes you grow powerful. As your skills in meeting and responding to reality grow, you start to recognize unhealthy life systems and cease pouring your life-energy into them.
The willingness to engage in accurate self-criticism, in turn, builds a growing awareness of the world around you. You develop skills at listening beneath the words of others, and your mind begins to grow sharp. The threat of losing arguments with others begins to seem silly as you realize you have become so focused on getting to the bottom of things that you are no longer trying to win them in the first place.
Most of Western society has forsaken truth in favour of emotional drama and the reinforcement of (essentially invented) identities that are powerfully allergic to any sort of meaningful change. We have so wrapped ourselves around jingoism and false patriotic symbols that even our superhero movies all end with the so-called hero ensuring that everything stays the same.
But, as we spin our words and carefully sculpt our lies about our worlds and how wonderfully we all are, we are ever increasingly reducing our awareness and limiting the degree to which we will ever grasp complex problems.
We’ve blinded ourselves, of course, because it’s hard to tolerate lies if you see all of the facts.
If this COVID crisis has shown nothing else, it has demonstrated how we have cut away strength after strength until we are unable to even stand up against a simple health crisis. Facts like “masking outdoors and in your own car is silly and unnecessary” and “vaccines are safe and indoor masking saves lives” are entirely ignored in our increasingly tribal dependence on rhetoric and personality cults. Our entire society has fractured into warring camps reinforced by little more than webs of words with little to no ability to absorb knowledge or grow from it. And, when our web of words finally disintegrates, only paralysis remains as people die by the scores.
Our world is filled with liars, and both left and right-leaning media outlets are utterly flooded with them. Many of those liars are at the top of their strength curves and may take a while to decay. But, for both the liar and the societies that host them, decay is inevitable.
We’d all love to buy the televangelist-style lies that Oprah and others tell us about imagining the reality we want until it “manifests” into being, but none of that’s ever worked. Eventually, everyone and every society that builds upon a foundation of lies will disintegrate. At the same time, those with the courage to face reality head-on, deal with it and then struggle to see ever more clearly will be the few that grow in power, ability and strength.
Sure, we’d all like it to be different, but, unfortunately, that’s just how it is.
Truth is complicated and sometimes even costly to find, but lies are always far more expensive. And if you’re struggling to find it, the Calgary Counselling Service our Registered Psychologists and Calgary Christian Counsellors offer daily may be a way for you to cut through the fog and begin building your life on a foundation that will last.