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Jhe trial of Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracy theorist who for years propagated the lie that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax, has produced some remarkable moments over the past week , notably when Jones learned that his own lawyer had accidentally released two years of text messages from Jones to his legal opponents. For pure schadenfreude, however, it’s hard to beat an exchange between Jones and Judge Maya Guerra Gamble in which she reminded him that “you have to tell the truth while you testify.”

“I believe what I said was true,” Jones replied. The judge’s retort has since been shared hundreds of thousands of times: “You think everything you say is true, but it’s not. Your beliefs don’t make anything true. That’s what we’re doing here. Just because you claim something is true doesn’t make it true.

It was the life scripted by Aaron Sorkin: a selfish liar being told, to his face, that the denials of reality from which he built an incredibly lucrative empire have no force in the courtroom (the one of the messages sent by Jones’ lawyer revealed that his Infowars website was earning up to $800,000 a day from his online store). Who hasn’t fantasized that the truth is finally catching up with those who sell alternative facts: the crooks, the bullshit, the fanatics and the demagogues for whom the 21st century often seems like a paradise of shameless complacency?

Although Jones has since claimed the lawsuit was a “victory,” although the current bill is over $49 million, even he was forced during its course to admit that the attack on Sandy Hook was “one hundred percent real.” For the millions of people who followed these humiliations on social media – not to mention the bereaved parents who suffered years of appalling threats and abuse thanks to the conspiracies promoted by Jones – it was a painfully belated vindication of hope. that truth can overcome deception. To what extent, however, does the resounding statement that “your beliefs do not make anything true” suggest that some sort of precedent is also being set?

The world is not short of fantastic and harmful untruths. From the specter of climate change denial to Trump’s ugly “stop the steal” idiocy and attempted insurrection on January 6, 2021, it’s never been easier to mobilize mass sentiment around competing realities. However, the truth retains at least one advantage: that we can count on reality itself to support it. In contrast, every lie requires other lies to stay alive. If I falsely claim that (say) I never received a particular text message, I must protect that claim from contradictory evidence. If I was telling the truth, an honest investigation would prove me right. However, preserving a fiction means weaving other fictions around inconvenient facts.

Unfortunately, while all of this is beautifully applicable when it comes to empirical inquiry, it has little to do with how and why most people arrive at beliefs in the first place. “I believe what I said was true,” Jones told Gamble. His answer, that it doesn’t make anything true, was beautifully correct. But it also contained an implicit counterpoint. The truths cannot, by themselves, make believe anything. And in order to grasp what works, we must look beyond the bare facts to the claims of value, purpose and identity that mobilize them into stories about what matters – and why.

There is something brutally accurate about the name “Infowars” in this context. Scrolling through his headlines on the day of the verdict, I learned that Jones had been the victim of a “show trial”, that the prosecution attorney had told the jury to “get him out”, and that the problems with global supply chains would persist because “the system is sabotaged”. It’s a heady mix of paranoia, selective quoting and counter-narrative. But it’s also an amplified example of how To some degree, we all make sense of the world: by seeking patterns and connections amid overwhelming complexity; by following the advice of others who give shape and focus to our frustrations; by being part of communities that promise to defend ourselves against an alien and malevolent “them”. You may nod at this description, but the newspaper you are reading, right now, makes one version of it. And while you and I can be sure that we are of the good side, it’s an uncon truth It’s clear that we hold this belief for reasons that are as much tribal and cultural as they are rational.

None of this diminishes the ethical or practical importance of the disinterested search for truth, but it does suggest that, for all its strength, it is also an exercise that can only take place after certain norms, practices and limits were accepted by all involved. This is precisely why we have courtrooms, judges, lawyers and juries in the first place and why it is vital that their separation from truth from belief remains a last resort. If the kind of common ground that allows us to engage with reality can only be defended by legal coercion, we are in a dangerous position.

Like millions of my tribesmen, I watched Jones’ humility with relish and relief. Finally, not only was fair justice served, but she was worthy of the drama and rhetoric she deserved! As for the larger scheme of things, however, I fear that the most important lesson is precisely the opposite of what I would like it to be.

Belief is a battleground, and conspiracies thrive not so much on irrationality as on divisiveness, condescension, and the sheer profitability of an inexplicable lie. As is painfully the case with our planetary context, the lessons we urgently need to learn are ecological rather than argumentative, systematic rather than self-sufficient.

It’s about the incentives built into information systems and the divisions and mistrust that feed into them. In the grand scheme of things, the last thing any of us can afford is to believe that simply being right will save us.

Tom Chatfield is an author and philosopher. His latest book is how to think

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