On July 8 President Donald Trump stood in the East Room of the White House and delivered a speech celebrating his administration's environmental leadership. Flanked by his Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, and EPA head Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, Trump extolled his team's stewardship of public lands, its efforts to ensure “the cleanest air and cleanest water,” and its success in reducing carbon emissions. In reality, Trump has opened up millions of acres to drilling and mining and sought to reverse multiple air- and water-pollution regulations. As for carbon emissions, they spiked an estimated 3.4 percent last year, and this administration is withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate change agreement that nearly every other nation on the planet is participating in.
The speech was surreal but apparently strategic: It came on the heels of polls showing that Americans are growing increasingly worried about the environment. It remains to be seen whether Trump will sway environmentally concerned voters by using false claims, but clearly his team thinks that's a possibility. Truly we live in interesting times. How did we get here, and how do we get out?
In this special issue of Scientific American, we set out to explore how it is that we can all live in the same universe yet see reality so differently. Basic science illuminates the deep roots of this phenomenon. Even in physics and mathematics, truth is not entirely clear-cut. And mounting evidence from neuroscience indicates that our perceptions are not direct representations of the external world. Rather our brains--each one unique--make guesses about reality based on the sensory signals they receive.
Still, there can be no doubt that factors specific to our modern era are exacerbating our collective unmooring--technological developments that abet the warping of truth and the normalization of lies. Social media amplifies toxic misinformation on an unprecedented scale. Cyberattacks on election machinery and voter-registration systems threaten not only election outcomes but democracy itself.
Uncertainty in the world makes us all the more susceptible to such campaigns. But it’s not all doom and gloom. By understanding how we instinctively deal with unknowns and how bad actors exploit the information ecosystem, we can mount defenses against weaponized narratives--and build mutual understanding to solve society’s most pressing challenges.
—Seth Fletcher, Jen Schwartz and Kate Wong, Issue Editors
Video animations by Red Nose Studio
The Search for Truth in Physics
How close can physics bring us to a truly fundamental understanding of the world?
Is the Mathematical World Real?
Philosophers cannot agree on whether mathematical objects exist or are pure fictions
The Neuroscience of Reality
Reality is constructed by the brain, and no two brains are exactly alike
How Professional Truth Seekers Search for Answers
Nine experts describe how they sort signal from noise
Deception in the Animal Kingdom
Homo sapiens is not the only species that lies
How Misinformation Spreads—and Why We Trust It
The most effective misinformation starts with seeds of truth
The Contagion of Corruption
Dishonesty begets dishonesty, rapidly spreading unethical behavior through a society
How to Defraud Democracy
A worst-case cyberwarfare scenario for the 2020 American presidential election
When Assessing Novel Risks, Facts Are Not Enough
How we make decisions in the face of incomplete knowledge and uncertainty
How to Get Better at Embracing Unknowns
Interpreting uncertainty through data visualizations
The Search for Social Identity Leads to “Us” versus “Them”
Uncertainty in the world threatens our sense of self. To cope, people embrace populism
Misinformation Has Created a New World Disorder
Our willingness to share content without thinking is exploited to spread disinformation