Fyre Fest, Theranos, catfishing, cons, fake-news claims both false and legitimate: The 2010s have been a decade of seemingly unprecedented uncertainty about what’s real. Books by Lee McIntyre and Farhad Manjoo describe the rise of what Manjoo calls “a post-fact society,” in which the internet plays a particularly catalyzing role.
But while modern technology may have fostered the spread of misinformation, the social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson write that our tendency as humans to convince ourselves that we’re right no matter what the evidence shows has deep psychological roots; indeed, as the anthropologist Pascal Boyer writes, prioritizing beliefs over facts was part of human evolution. At the same time, cultural anxieties about knowing whom and what to believe have their own centuries-long history, Geoffrey C. Bunn’s book about the lie detector reveals.
Real historical hoaxes are a source of inspiration for writers such as Dexter Palmer and Peter Carey, who use the stories of a woman who claimed to have given birth to rabbits and of an editor dazzled by a fictitious poet, respectively, as jumping-off points for novels that explore the dynamics of belief. And a novel by Uwe Johnson set during a year in the protagonist’s life shows how the process of collecting and parsing information can become a source of strength.
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The lie detector in the age of alternative facts
“The device, [Geoffrey C.] Bunn suggests, is in many ways a work of science fiction that lurks, awkwardly, in the present reality—a machine that has been, from the beginning, in dialogue with pop culture and its myths.”