The insurrectionists of June 6 and the vaccine deniers are all part of a larger struggle about how we know and what we know. In different ways, we all search for knowledge, we all search for truth. “Great is the truth and it prevails” is the motto of my high school. Really? The world now seems in conflict between fact and fiction. The search for knowledge and truth has become fractured. “We create our own reality,” is a famous quote attributed to a senior adviser to President George W. Bush. Or, in senior adviser to President Trump Kellyanne Conway’s infamous phrase, there is an alternative reality.
In the search for knowledge and truth, can there be more than one reality? How important are narratives in our understanding of the world? Can only one truth finally prevail?
The eminent economist Robert J. Shiller has written about narrative economics. Going one step beyond emotional economics – as opposed to homo economicus or rational man – Shiller posits that stories that have become accepted wisdom play a crucial role in how people make decisions. As Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein argued in Nudge, how a situation is presented, its narrative, is determinant in how people choose from alternatives.
Sunstein worked in the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration to try to reframe controversial political policies into appealing narratives. Sunstein’s job was to overhaul policy statements to change people’s perception, to accept the same policy with a different story behind it. The policy was not changed; its narrative was reformulated.
The importance of stories is crucial to how we search for knowledge and truth. We accept or create narratives in order to make sense of what is going on around us. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Masha Geesen quoted Joan Didion in The New Yorker magazine as she tried to find a narrative to understand January 6.
Much of accepted truth in the physical world has been called into question by quantum physics. Particles can really be in two places at the same time. In physics, we now accept that what we are looking at changes due to our observing. Newtonian physics, with its definitive spaces and equations, is being replaced.
By what? If we follow Shiller, the importance of narratives and stories is central to all the humanities and social sciences. See for instance Project Q at the University of Sydney. “It investigates what a quantum future will look like when computers, communications systems and artificial intelligence are all enabled by quantum technology.” Among its researchers are professors of political science and international relations.
What is the relationship between facts, knowledge, truth and stories in a quantum world? We “knew” certain things before. Those are the facts we were taught in school, what we regurgitated on exams. Now, if we are open, we are learning new facts about what we “knew” before. There are new facts with new stories. What a biology, physics or engineering student learned twenty years ago is now not only out of date, it is factually wrong. The new facts and stories reflect new knowledge, new truths.
The January 6 insurrectionists and the vaccine deniers are part of a quantum world that questions previously accepted beliefs. QAnon and Newsmax TV give different versions of what’s happening than The New York Times. They tell stories the insurrectionists and deniers believe. And the stories are not based on ignorance. Senator Josh Hawley, a fervent Trump supporter and Biden election denier, went to Stanford University and Yale Law School. He clerked for a Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Senator Ted Cruz, another denier, went to Princeton University and Harvard Law School.
The struggle between alternative realities is not an ignorance battle. There are plenty of medical professionals who have come out against Covid-19 vaccines. French President Emmanuel Macron did visit Professor Didier Raoult in his Marseille hospital in April to find out more about his hydroxychloroquine treatment that had been touted by Donald Trump. In that case, future tests showed no evidence that the treatment was successful. The facts were there. The evidence and its narrative seem to have won the day on this issue. But Swiss authorities had to rush in to deny that a 91-year-old woman had died from a reaction to the vaccine. Just read Judy Mikovits’ Plague of Corruption or other anti-vaccination books out there. There seem to be several realities about vaccines.
How many people are hesitating about taking the vaccine? How about the Congressional Republicans who voted against certifying Biden’s victory? How does someone who takes the vaccine argue with a denier? How does a Democrat who voted for certification argue with the 137 members of Congress who raised objections to Biden’s victory after being threatened by a rampant, rabid crowd?
Kellyanne Conway and her alternative reality may be a precursor of quantum politics. Instead of democratic, party systems, we will have Newtonians and Quantum politicians talking in diametrically opposed narratives. Both narratives will be based on foundational beliefs. Their followers will be convinced they are right. They will recite stories that reflect their beliefs and we, the listeners, will either accept them or not.
Quantum physics is not some alternative reality as believed by the insurrectionists and vaccine deniers. But it has posed questions about how we know and what we know. The quantum world shattered many accepted beliefs. It also gave us new facts, new knowledge, new truths and new stories. Quantum politics, like quantum physics, should be based on hard evidence. Quantum politics cannot be totally subjective. Ultimately, great is the truth, but will it prevail?