How do we know what is true? In an age of war, pandemic and conspiracy theory, it's not easy

To survive this crucial century, we need to solve the problem of truth. That may be our biggest single challenge

Published May 21, 2023 12:38PM (EDT)

Mind manipulation, concept (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Mind manipulation, concept (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

In early February of this year, veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported that the U.S., with Norway's help, had sabotaged the Nord Stream gas pipelines that supplied Germany and other European states with natural gas from Russia. The pipelines (two of which were not yet in operation) were blown up last Sept. 26, but the question of who was responsible has remained a mystery.

The U.S. government, which has long been concerned about Europe's growing economic reliance on Russia — and on the Nord Stream pipelines in particular — vehemently denied the charge, with the White House describing Hersh's story as "false and complete fiction." Then, on March 8, the New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence sources suggested that a pro-Ukrainian group, independent of the Ukrainian government, had been responsible. 

The story of the Nord Stream sabotage illustrates how difficult it is to know what is true about the world today. Whether it is the Ukraine war, the COVID pandemic, a conspiracy to take control of the world or the wider pursuit of human progress (my area of research), truth is extraordinarily elusive and fiercely contested.

This matters. It is axiomatic that if we are to solve the problems (and opportunities) of the world, we need to know the truth of it — at least to the best of our ability. And, perhaps most important, knowing the truth helps us to see how these matters are themselves linked to each other: to see that the Ukraine war and the pandemic, the alleged conspiracy of world domination and humanity's problematic future are different facets, layers or scales of a complex, reciprocal process of symptom and cause that is creating a crisis in liberal democracies, especially the U.S., and even a threat to global civilization.

To seek to understand the truth about these matters also reveals how badly mainstream politics and media are failing us. For the most part, they are not interested in the truth, only in promoting a narrative that serves a limited and self-interested agenda.

The Ukraine war and COVID

The claims and counterclaims over the Nord Stream gas pipelines can be found reflected in almost every aspect of the Ukraine war, especially the key question of whether Russia's invasion was "unprovoked," as the West insists. The debates also include whether the current conflict is part of a long "hybrid" war by Russia against the West or by the West against Russia; whether the eastward expansion of NATO was or was not a key provocation; whether the West's sanctions against Russia are working or not; whether or not Russia is willing to negotiate a peaceful outcome and the West is willing to negotiate with Russia; whether the war is about defending Ukraine's sovereignty or weakening Russia's military capability; whether its root causes lie in Russian imperialism or the U.S. determination to maintain its global hegemony. I have read accounts by experts and scholars that are poles apart on these matters.

The problem is made worse by the mainstream media's tendency to tell only one side of the Ukraine story, the "official narrative," betraying a reluctance to interrogate different accounts of what is going on and thereby creating the inescapable suspicion that we are not being told the truth. Western governments and media appeared surprisingly indifferent to who was behind the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines, a brazen act of international terrorism, even war. The mainstream media largely ignored Hersh's detailed account (see also this report). They reported the Times story, but without questioning its plausibility, a striking omission given the generally accepted view that only a "state actor" would have the capability to destroy the pipelines. Alternative media did report on Hersh's story (both favorably and critically), and challenged the reliability of the Times story.

On Ukraine, the mainstream media has tended to tell only one side of the story, the official narrative, thereby creating the inescapable suspicion that we are not being told the truth. 

Let me give a few more details of the counter-narrative. Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs is a prominent critic of the official Western narrative, for instance. He argues that we have not marked the first anniversary of the Ukraine war but rather the ninth, going back to the 2014 revolution or coup in Ukraine (depending on your point of view), overtly supported by the U.S. and EU, which overthrew an elected pro-Russian government.

Both the former French president and former German chancellor have admitted in recent interviews that they never intended to honor the Minsk Agreements signed with Russia in 2014 and 2015 that were intended to bring a peaceful settlement in Ukraine. Their purpose instead was to buy time to build Ukraine's military capability. The U.S. has a long history of intervening in other countries' affairs, including invasion, regime change and electoral interference. Carried out in the name of promoting democracy and freedom, the interventions have also served another "truth" — American global hegemony.

A similar situation exists with the COVID-19 pandemic, which is also beset by claims and counterclaims: The virus spread from animals in the Wuhan wet market or leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology; COVID is a serious and even fatal disease or is no worse than the flu; vaccines are effective and safe or ineffective and even dangerous; other treatments based on "repurposing" existing medicines are effective or useless; masks work or are damaging; lockdowns early in the pandemic were necessary or needlessly destructive. 

The COVID counter-narrative does not come exclusively from anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists, but sometimes from independent scientists, doctors and journalists, often citing studies published in scientific journals. People underestimate the inherent uncertainty of scientific processes and their vulnerability to politicization. Stories are rife of the pressures placed on "dissenters" to toe the official line.

As with the Ukraine war, the mainstream media has, by and large, only focused on and endorsed the official story, dismissing contrary claims and evidence as misinformation and conspiracy-mongering. Again, it is worth giving a few examples of the current state of play, emphasizing that it is not a matter of all or nothing in decoding the truth of the competing positions.

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A recent investigation by Vanity Fair and ProPublica has provided compelling evidence (if not proof) that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was also funded by the U.S. to perform "gain of function" research on viruses (see also this update). Some scientists favor this source. The U.S. Energy Department has reportedly changed its position recently to favor a lab-leak origin. On the other hand, China recently (and belatedly) released data on viral and animal genetic material collected from the Wuhan wet market, providing stronger evidence (but again not proof) that raccoon dogs at the market were a possible animal reservoir of the COVID virus, potentially infecting humans.

In the past few months mainstream media have run accounts of mistakes made during the pandemic response. True to form, some conspiracy theorists suggest these admissions are a channel for authorities to test new narratives about COVID and obtain amnesty for their mistakes.

My purpose is not to judge the truth of all the contested details about Ukraine and Covid, but to emphasize how difficult it is to know the truth. Most people I know, and most people likely to read this, accept both the government responses to COVID and the West's Ukraine narrative. I suspect few have gone beyond the mainstream media coverage in making up their minds.

As someone with no professional stake in these matters, but who has read widely across different media, I think the Russian invasion of Ukraine was wrong and unjustified, but am not convinced by the insistent Western message that it was entirely unprovoked (provocation is not the same thing as justification). I suspect the West contributed to what happened through its relations with Russia over the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, and bears some responsibility for what has transpired — and also now has responsibility for bringing the war to an end. Learning and accepting the truth about the war's prehistory will be important to making peace in Ukraine, and also to avoiding an immensely destructive and dangerous possible war with China.

I now suspect that the coronavirus probably came out of the Wuhan laboratories, and that the U.S. may be indirectly implicated through its funding of research there. It seems evident that neither the U.S. or China has been open and transparent about the pandemic. I accept that vaccines have reduced the risk of serious illness and death, but on many other questions I remain undecided, happy to wait on future findings, studies and inquiries. As with Ukraine, getting to the truth is crucial, in this case to better prevent and respond to future pandemics. (Personally, I did as I was told, obeying lockdowns and other restrictions. That was an easy decision: I live in a rural community, work from home and do not have dependent children.)

A grand conspiracy?

The uncertainties and unknowns don't end with these matters. The counter-narratives on the war and the pandemic are also woven into a grand conspiracy theory, often described by its adherents as the Great Reset, the Fourth Industrial Revolution or New World Order. This envisions a deliberate plot by a global technocratic elite to take control of the world, subjugate the world population and drastically reduce its size. According to this theory, the COVID pandemic and the worldwide response were deliberately engineered to frighten people into accepting greater surveillance, control and loss of freedom. Climate change is also part of the conspiracy, another contrived scare story to groom people into accepting enslavement and domination. 

Counter-narratives on the war, the pandemic and climate change have been woven into a grand conspiracy theory — the Great Reset or the New World Order — in which a global technocratic elite seeks to subjugate the world population. 

In fact, conspiracy theories appear to have given new life to climate-change denialism. Climate change is a third topic of grave concern to us all, arguably much more so than either Ukraine or COVID. But here the uncertainties about what is true are different: the debate has already run for 30 to 50 years and the major questions are settled. But governments and the media have again failed us, this time by promoting doubt and delaying action long after the scientific data was clear. Even now, with virtually all global governments accepting the reality of climate change and the need to take action, what is being proposed falls far short of what the science says is needed to avoid unacceptable risks to our planetary system and human civilization.

All the same, unlike most of my friends and acquaintances, I don't treat the Great Reset conspiracy with derision. Conspiracy theories are one way many people make sense of the chaos, incoherence and contradiction of today's world, and manage their confusion and bewilderment. Such narratives are a means of responding to the suspicion that we are not being told the full story by those in power, and instead are becoming increasingly powerless.

This set of conspiracy theories incorporates disparate movements that have been around for a long time: movements against globalization, technological change and corporate greed, and in favor of democratization and decentralization. It also embraces some bizarre beliefs. Depending on how deeply people are drawn in, the conspiracy includes claims of Satanic rituals, pedophilia, child trafficking and human sacrifice — all allegedly engaged in by the global cabal.

Conspiracy thinking is not just a matter of what is true or false. It is not merely  irrational or deranged. It reflects the deep psychosocial trauma of feeling uprooted and adrift in a world that no longer makes sense. Critics warn of the dangerous influence of conspiracy thinking on society and politics, especially in the U.S. But is it more dangerous than the "rational" actions of governments, based on worldviews that may be just as delusional?

Leaving aside the weirder elements, these interlocking conspiracy theories reflect a world situation that is truly worrying. Rather than a deliberate plot by a cabal intent on world domination, I think we are seeing the effects of other processes or forces: On one hand, elite cooperation toward generally agreed goals of national and global progress; on the other, elite collusion among governments, international organizations and global corporations to advance their interests and to further concentrate wealth, power and control.

This is more a matter of similar mindsets or worldviews about the way the world works, or at least about how it should work, than a conspiracy. The elite think and act alike, but do so according to their shared or divergent interests. Conspiracy thinking attempts to join up too many dots, forging  tenuous or imaginative links between issues, organizations and individuals in an attempt to render today's chaos and confusion into a coherent narrative.

For me, the weakest link (again, the weird stuff aside) is between the conspiracy theory and climate change. To believe that thousands of scientists, hundreds of research bodies and dozens of national and international organizations are all engaged in the deliberate falsification of data and models to support the Great Reset is beyond belief. Similarly, the related goal of sustainable development is not part of the plot to control the world, as conspiracy theorists believe. It is objectively what we need.

Rather than a deliberate plot by a global cabal, I see a process of elite cooperation and competition involving governments, corporations and international organizations. It's more a matter of similar mindsets than conspiracy.

Yes, global corporations have far too much power, relative to governments and citizens. All too often, they  capture the agencies that are supposed to regulate them in the public interest. Big Pharma has huge influence over national and international health policy, including the pandemic response; the military-industrial complex has immense political power, especially in the U.S., impoverishing society and profiting enormously from war. But not all elements work in unison. If climate change is a deliberate ploy to frighten people into subservience, why has the immensely powerful fossil-fuel industry spent decades denying its reality and dire consequences, long after its own scientists accepted the validity of the science?

Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, the club of the world elite, is often described by conspiracy-theory believers as a mastermind of the Great Reset. Ironically enough, Schwab warned us way back in 1996 that globalization faced a mounting backlash against its effects. His warning was not heeded, as a Guardian journalist wrote in 2017: "There was no real attempt to make globalisation work for everyone. Communities affected by the export of jobs to countries where labour was cheaper were left to rot. The rewards of growth went disproportionately to a privileged few."

Watching a video presentation sent to me by a conspiracy-minded friend has clarified  my position and how it differs from that of the conspiracy theorists. The presenter, geographer Jacob Nordangård, sets out the case for an "open conspiracy" in which a global elite, spearheaded by the World Economic Forum, is attempting the "technocratic reshaping of humanity and the planet."

The implication here is that a sinister global cabal is creating or at least exaggerating crises in order to justify an undemocratic global takeover. I see something more mundane: the global elite's genuine effort, across several decades, to address real crises. This could be altruism, but more than likely it's just self-interest — the desire to save their own necks.

Avoiding calamity, making life better

This brings me to another dimension of what is or isn't true, one that has been a focus of my own research. The challenge is not just to discover the truth about Ukraine or COVID, or even to prove or disprove the existence of an improbable worldwide conspiracy, but to examine whether the whole cultural basis of how we live is true — in the sense of guiding us toward the right choices to avoid disaster and make life better.

This is speculative by definition, and I do not deny the roles of global political, economic, environmental and other factors. But I believe this deeper story of existential uncertainty and concern is also part of the picture. People know "the system" is not working. This dislocates or untethers us from official narratives, which then makes governments more susceptible to corrupt and self-serving behavior, and citizens more prone to mistrust and improbable beliefs. When the foundations of a civilization crack, all hell can break loose.

As I wrote in an earlier essay for Salon, changes in society over the past several decades have both reflected and strengthened the growing political influence of postmodernism, with its multiple narratives, relative truths, ambiguities, pluralism, fragmentation and complex paradoxes. We have yet to learn how to deal with this situation. Instead of accepting and working within it by being more flexible and open-minded, there is a tendency, especially within politics and the media, to rush into conflict, contest and censure, often over contrived or exaggerated issues. All this has badly fractured and divided American society, as well as other Western societies.

By and large, our political leaders fail to accept or understand how serious our situation is. I quoted Barack Obama in the earlier essay as saying in 2016: "The world today, with all its pain and all its sorrow, is more just, more democratic, more free, more tolerant, healthier, wealthier, better educated, more connected, more empathetic than ever before." This past January, Joe Biden echoed this optimism, tweeting: "Two years in, and I've never been more optimistic about America's future." Really?

In other words, as I argued in that earlier essay, our leaders live in a world at odds with people's lived realities, wishing away the gravity of the human predicament to continue pursuing, at best, incremental policy changes, which is what they know. This essay continues the themes of that essay and a second essay in Salon on culture, progress and the future, to present new arguments and evidence for the need for a new worldview or 'guiding story' for humanity if we are to have any hope of a just, equitable, sustainable future.

Asking people about the future

In the 1990s, as part of a larger program by the Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council, I initiated and participated in a project that included a series of future-scenario workshops with young people. We then used the results to conduct a poll of young people. The questions were repeated in a 2005 poll of people of all ages. The results are fascinating, given how the 21st century has begun.

One question we asked was: Thinking about the world in the 21st century, which of the following two statements most closely reflects your view?

  • By continuing on its current path of economic and technological development, humanity will overcome the obstacles it faces and enter a new age of peace and prosperity.
  • More people, environmental destruction, new diseases and ethnic and regional conflicts mean the world is heading for a bad time of crisis and trouble.

In 2005, of people of all ages, only 23% chose the first, optimistic scenario, while 66% chose the second, pessimistic scenario.

In another question, we asked people to read two descriptions of possible futures of Australia in 2020, again based on the workshop scenarios. They read in part: 

  • A fast-paced, internationally competitive society, with the emphasis on the individual, wealth generation and enjoying "the good life." Power has shifted to international organizations and business corporations.
  • A greener, more stable society, where the emphasis is on cooperation, community and family, more equal distribution of wealth and greater economic self-sufficiency. An international outlook, but strong national and local orientation and control.

We asked which of the two futures described or came closer to the type of society that they expected Australia would be? And which of the two described or came closer to the type of society they would prefer Australia to be?

In 2005, for all ages, 73% expected the first, "growth" scenario, and 27% expected the second, "green" scenario; but only 7% preferred the first, and 93% preferred the second. In other words, most people did not expect the future they preferred. The descriptions were an attempt to capture, however approximately, the essence of the scenarios that young people constructed in the workshops. The prevalent pessimism was left out of the survey scenarios to compare what I've called "the official future" — the one governments promise, and on which they base their policies — with the future real people actually prefer.

The results are probably applicable to other Western nations, and broadly consistent with findings of many other surveys that capture people's deep concerns for the future. I have described these surveys elsewhere, including in my first Salon essay and in a 2019 scientific paper.

One example I cited was a 2013 study investigating the perceived probability of threats to humanity in four Western nations — the U.S., the U.K., Canada and Australia — which found a majority (54%) rated the risk of our way of life ending within the next 100 years at 50% or greater. The responses were relatively uniform across countries, age groups, gender and education level. Almost 80% agreed that "we need to transform our worldview and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world."

The futurist Jim Dator said in the 1990s that he would like to avoid the 21st century and move straight to the 22nd — a time when, one way or another, by choice or compulsion, humanity would have dealt with all the challenges it faces.

The Pew Research Center found in a 2018 survey that 57% of Americans believed that when children today grew up, they would be financially worse off than their parents. A 2019 survey found that 60% of American adults predicted that the U.S. would be less important in the world in 2050. Two-thirds of adult Americans held the view that the U.S. was less respected by other countries today than it was in the past, a 2022 Pew survey showed. These findings are another reflection of the disjunction between people's perceptions and the political status quo.

The futurist Jim Dator said in the 1990s that he would like to avoid the 21st century and move straight to the 22nd, for which he saw some hope: a time when, one way or another, by choice or compulsion, humanity would have dealt with all the challenges it faces: population pressures, environmental destruction, economic equity, global governance, technological change.

Dator wrote that this century was not likely to be pleasant for anyone because we would pay the price for ignoring the future. "Things may seem calm now: the West — the USA — firmly in control," he said. "But that is not so. The eye of the hurricane is passing, and the fury of the future getting back at us will be felt for some time to come." 

This was not how most Western commentators saw things at the time, instead celebrating the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism; hubris dominated.

Our situation represents what I have called "the demise of the official future," meaning a loss of faith in the future that leaders have promoted and claim they can deliver. This "futures gap" stems from political and journalistic cultures that are overly invested in the status quo, unable to see beyond their limited and constrained boundaries and horizons. Mainstream political and media players face a growing need to manage differently the cognitive dissonance between how they think about the world and their work, and the emerging realities of life today and its existential challenges, instead of largely ignoring the latter, as they have generally done. 

Learning the truth, the whole truth, behind global threats such as climate change, the COVID pandemic and the Ukraine war is extraordinarily difficult. This difficulty is worsened by the failure of governments and their agencies to tell us the full stories. This failure is in turn deepened by the mainstream media's reluctance to investigate and interrogate the official narratives. This situation extends to the overarching grand narrative of progress, and how it is defined and pursued.

So how do we know what is true in today's world? The answer is that we do so with great difficulty, and can only do so by being skeptical, tolerant, open-minded, vigilant and determined.

By Richard Eckersley

Richard Eckersley is an independent researcher and writer on human progress and well-being, including topics such as models and measures of progress, the psychosocial dynamics of modernization, social determinants of health, sustainability and attitudes to the future. He has published extensively in leading international scientific journals in a range of different disciplines, and has also popularized this work in many newspapers and online publications.

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Conspiracy Theory Covid-19 Deep Dive Great Reset Pandemic Philosophy Ukraine War