Compelling memories of something I am sure happened to me—there was little doubt because the recollections were so vivid and detailed—have proven to be wrong. My memories inaccurately conferred a reality to my experience that was false. I know my memory was faulty because others, who were privy to relevant information, informed me I was wrong. The reason for these errors was that, while I may have vividly recalled the particulars of an experience, I failed to remember the context of it; whether somebody told me it, I thought it, or I dreamed it. We can ascertain the veracity of our recollections by consulting independent sources to confirm if, in fact, it really occurred, and if it occurred as we remember it.
It is a bit disconcerting how convincing our sense of truth can be, how real it seems, and how wrong we can be. Trusting our experience, exclusively, can lead us astray. Ascertaining truth requires additional, independent corroboration. Of course, this is not always possible, and of course, we need not doubt every memory. But the possibility of these misattributions alerts us to the need, when circumstances arise, to trust other sources to confirm the reality of a situation.
The relation between truth and trust runs much deeper than the veracity of our personal memories. It is the foundation of virtually everything. Is the earth flat? A surprising number believe that it is, indeed, flat. Why? Because they do not trust the sources of the information that support this truth. They rely on direct, personal experience, which reveals that the earth is obviously flat, as anyone reasonable person who has observed the sunrise or sunset over the straight-edged horizon can attest.
Why should we believe otherwise? Most of us do so because a large body of scientific knowledge, astute deductions, and many practical activities (i.e., oceanic shipping, air travel, etc.) proves otherwise. We trust other sources of truth outside our own immediate experience. But what if we don’t trust them? After all, most of us are not scientists and would be hard pressed to provide the facts proving the earth “round”. Even if we could, the argument would rely on secondhand information; facts that we, ourselves, have not directly collected but derived from trusted sources.
Is global warming occurring? Doubts arise when the supporting sources for this conclusion, scientific evidence, are challenged or dismissed. Many believe that global warming is a hoax perpetuated by liberal elites. If the sources are not believed, then these doubts are not eliminated by simply providing more facts. If a single individual, with little cultural authority, disbelieves, they may be considered misinformed, misguided, or perhaps, delusional. If disbelief is voiced by someone with cultural authority, like the President, or groups with access to cultural power, like the Koch brothers, Mobile Oil, or Arch Coal, then the source of the facts becomes the focus of dispute and the argument turns, not of facts, but on, “Who do you trust?”. And “Who do you trust?” turns, not on facts, but who we believe will protect us, understands us, shares our values and our moral universe.1 2
When not only critical scientific findings are challenged, but the foundational sources of a culture’s authority, embodied in fundamental institutions—-those governing order and law (Department of Justice and Federal courts), managing our fiscal integrity and security (Federal Reserve and Security and Exchange Commission), protecting our collective security (FBI and CIA), insuring food and water safety (Agriculture Department and Environmental Protection Agency), and providing disaster warning and assistance (National Weather Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency)—-then we face a deep, ruinous crisis of faith.3 When these sources are challenged by a leader with the cultural power to hold sway, then the leader can become the oracle of truth and the savior of a nation in tumultuous times.
Puzzlement, and condescension, often occurs over how an entire culture, especially a highly educated one like the Germans, can come under the sway of a despot; be swept into in a collective delusional frenzy of madness and violence resulting in an epic, world-wide catastrophe. How can this possibly happen? We Americans, champions our own exceptionalism, are experiencing how.