“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” —Philip K. Dick

Reality has had a hard time of it during the past decade or so.

The vast proliferation of information on the internet made it more difficult to distinguish the reliable from the halfbaked. Social media has made things exponentially worse, creating intellectual cocoons impenetrable by facts or by inconvenient dissent. Then came the deluge: bots and trolls, “fake news,” “alternative facts,” a distasteful stew of dissembling and distortion too extreme even to be called Orwellian.

Yet reality doesn’t go away.

To be clear, philosophical debates about the nature of reality have a long and distinguished tradition. From Heraclitus to Bishop Berkeley to Timothy Leary, intellectuals and quasi-intellectuals have been arguing about what is and is not “real” for centuries. Samuel Johnson’s refutation of Berkeley’s immaterialism by kicking a stone is among the more famous Samuel Johnson anecdotes. (There are many. I recommend them.)

There is, however, an important distinction between these philosophical debates and what we are witnessing today. However heated the disagreements between supporters of Plato and Aristotle or Descartes and Hume about what constitutes “reality,” these arguments never truly formed the basis of public policy. For the most part, the assumption has been that what we see and hear, what rigorous scientific research tells us is true, should be at least the starting point for discussions of how we conduct ourselves as a society.

Yes, there have been exceptions: the Catholic Church’s prohibition against the Copernican theory of the earth’s motion; Joseph Goebbels’s assertion that “when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it.” But these are not among the highlights of human history or models for how to behave in a democracy.

The crumbling of a consensus about what constitutes reality is affecting our politics and our public discourse in numerous ways, but without question the most consequential impact is on our discussions of and response to climate change. There is overwhelming scientific consensus about the fact that human behavior is affecting the earth’s climate in ways that are already being felt and that are likely, if unchecked, to prove catastrophic. Yet confronted by the most serious existential threat in human history—I do not consider this an exaggeration—we cannot even seem to agree as a society that the threat exists, let along formulate policies to address it.

Which brings me to some observations about the proper work of a college.

Learning to distinguish between opinion and argument, to discover and present reliable evidence, to bring a rigorously critical mindset to the examination of complex ideas, has always been an important component of a serious education. It is today, if anything, more important. A student leaving a college at this moment unequipped to differentiate between facts and fiction, between lies and truth, is being sent into the world unprepared to function effectively as a professional or even as a citizen.

This does not mean that colleges should try to inculcate in students a particular worldview—quite the opposite. It means they should provide students with the tools and capacities to develop informed worldviews of their own. It means that students should be able to distinguish between the assertion that “something is so because I claim it to be so” and “something is so on the basis of this set of reliable evidence.”

I sense that it is harder than ever before for today’s students to make this latter distinction: not because they are less discriminating, but because they have to navigate a minefield of disinformation and deception and unsupported opinion that simply did not exist in the days when I responded to an assignment by heading to the card catalogue in the library.

Try doing a Google search for “global warming.” The first “video from the web” that appears is one from Fox News in which Mark Levin makes the case that global warming is a fiction. People much smarter than I am can probably explain how that video ended up first, but, whatever the cause, this is the world of information our students must learn to navigate. Perhaps in the end they will decide to agree with Mark Levin, but they should at least have the capacity to contextualize his views within the broader scientific consensus about climate change.

(By the way, Google “migrant caravan” and the first story that appears is also from Fox News. I invite you to try your own search engine experiment.)

Right now a substantial portion of the American population seems to have stopped believing in reality. The good news is that, as the writer Philip K. Dick reminds us, reality will not go away.

The bad news? Reality will not go away.

Brian Rosenberg is president of Macalester College.

*A cult classic starring Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke

February 1 2019

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