Getting Past the Solipsistic Self
Just a few weeks after the 2016 election, a 28-year-old North Carolina man drove to Washington D.C. to rescue enslaved children. He had been reading about the so-called “Pizzagate” conspiracy—which alleged secret messages about sex trafficking in leaked Democratic Party emails—and was determined to act. Armed with an AR-15 and other weapons, he arrived at a pizzeria and fired multiple shots as he looked for the children. Nobody was hurt, no children were found, and he was eventually sentenced to four years in jail.
On the other side of the ideological divide, there were many so shocked by the outcome of that election that they bought into fanciful theories that Russia had tampered with votes to throw the election to Donald Trump.
How did we get to the point where so many of us believe so many things that are so very clearly untrue? What explains the tendency for people to latch on to outlandish ideas without any evidence, and in many cases evidence to the contrary? And what does this mean for the future not only of the American political experiment, but our collective life together?
These are the questions at the heart of Bonnie Kristian’s Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community. Kristian is well-equipped to approach these questions. Formerly an editor at The Week, Kristian draws on her experience as a journalist to diagnose, explain, and analyze what she terms America’s deepening “epistemic crisis,” something she says “may be the most pressing and unprecedented challenge of discipleship in the American church.” And after reading her book, it’s hard to disagree with this characterization.
Our Epistemic Crisis
Despite Kristian’s background, her explanations for—and, eventually, solutions to—the epistemic crisis do not start and stop with the media. While media consumption exacerbates this crisis, Kristian argues it is far from the only contributing factor. Instead, Kristian mines for explanations in social science, psychology, philosophy, and even theology to show just how deeply rooted this crisis is, and how difficult it is for even the self-aware to break free.
Untrustworthy draws on myriad sources in telling its story. Kristian highlights examples from her own life and experiences to illustrate what is found in survey data and research into social behavior. In one paragraph she recalls conversations with loved ones, including a friend who unknowingly shared information on Instagram tied to the QAnon conspiracy theory. In another paragraph, she cites the work of social scientists and cultural critics to explain why the epistemic crisis is so intractable. And in another paragraph she applies verses from the Bible to these challenges, encouraging Christian readers to find truth and encouragement in scripture.
The result is a book that is at once broadly applicable and deeply personal. As such, it almost defies categorization. Is it an exhaustive treatment of the various challenges of conspiracism, a meditation on how easily the modern soul is captured by technology, or a devotional aimed at Christians feeling an increasing pull between the sacred and secular? Yes to all three. This flexibility is both a strength and weakness of the book, as becomes clear as it progresses.
Kristian divides Untrustworthy into two sections. The first (and by far the longest) introduces the epistemic crisis and provides various reasons why it is thriving. The second, meanwhile, outlines what Kristian believes is a better way of making sense of the world, as well as offering concrete steps for readers to take in pursuit of this better epistemology. If the first several chapters are discouraging, frustrating, and probably familiar, then the final two provide a bit of hope. It is a lot to aim for in 200 pages, but Kristian is generally successful.
Untrustworthy begins with definitions. Despite the book’s subtitle, Kristian prefers “epistemic crisis” to “knowledge crisis” because of the former’s nod to epistemology, or understanding and interpreting reality itself. She identifies how this crisis manifests differently across the political spectrum. For those on the right, the crisis is best seen in support for conspiracy theories like QAnon, which, depending on how researchers ask questions, finds support from 30-50 percent of white evangelicals. For those on the left, the crisis is found in elevating identity and experience as essential to understanding reality, rendering objective truth claims all but impossible. Because this crisis shows up differently in different groups, it is easy for these groups to point the finger at their opponents while ignoring the challenges in their own tribe.
For Kristian, social media plays an important role in explaining the epistemic crisis. It “encourages distraction and uncritical content consumption,” shaping us into passive processors instead of active engagers. It hardens the views we already have by letting us pick and choose the sources and voices we entertain. It mistakes shallow reading for critical thinking. Perhaps most importantly, it encourages people to acquire information on a scale previously unseen in human history. “Today,” Kristian writes, “we—the entire public—are invited by social media to become orators.” And most of us, she suggests, are simply not up to this task.
The Democratization of Information
The democratization of acquiring information is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, more people watching and listening means more accountability for political and cultural leaders, something essential in any democratic society. On the other hand, when anybody can be an “expert” on anything by virtue of spending a few minutes watching a video or skimming an article, what does this do to actual expertise? And this is to say nothing of separating truth from fiction in an environment where the latter flies just as quickly (if not faster) than the former. Kristian is aware of this problem, even if she doesn’t have the precise salve for its damages.
Kristian explains how increasing tendencies toward conspiracism contribute to the epistemic crisis. A natural outgrowth of the democratization of information, conspiracism is appealing because of our desire for community and camaraderie; with social capital declining in other contexts, online forums and message boards can easily fill the void. She also highlights the decline of public trust in experts in driving the epistemic crisis. Kristian points to many reasons for this decline, including expert hypocrisy and politicized judgment, exemplified most recently by the contradictory words and actions of elected officials during the pandemic. These two chapters form the best and strongest explanation for the epistemic crisis Kristian laments. “Public hubris and expert failure are a toxic mix,” she writes. “Their product… is epistemic poison.”
Ending on a more hopeful note, Kristian outlines a way out of the morass. First, she proposes an alternative epistemology to the status quo, centered on three “epistemic virtues”: Studiousness, intellectual honesty, and wisdom. “We have a duty,” Kristian writes, “to forge these virtues in ourselves—to become, with God’s help, the sort of people who are trustworthy now and suited for complete knowledge in the age to come.” Cultivating these virtues individually, she argues, will drive a collective response to the epistemic crisis.
Second, Kristian links these virtues to practical action. She is clear about the need for people to be good stewards of their time, consciously avoiding being taken in by cable news or social media algorithms. “Notice how,” she encourages, “you spend your days and what rituals, technologies, and information sources shape your existence.” Many of her proposed actions involve being more cognizant of habits and tendencies, especially concerning what one consumes and how one shares. She concludes with a simple yet challenging statement: “We must build what is good.” It is not enough to merely oppose or critique; we have to actively—and, for Christians, faithfully—pursue a better, more enriching alternative.
Probably the best thing about Untrustworthy is the tone in which it is written. On contentious topics like misinformation and conspiracism, Kristian strikes a note that is strong, compassionate, and dare I say, winsome. Rarely does one find a book that is equal parts thorough, thoughtful, generous, and personable, but Untrustworthy fits the bill. Kristian’s skill as a writer is obvious, taking what would have been a messy endeavor in other hands and making it both compelling and encouraging.
It can be tempting to approach the epistemic crisis with the coarseness of a schoolmarm, drilling the importance of facts over feelings and shouting truth into deaf ears. “There is no evidence Russia altered vote totals!” and “They were just emailing about pizza!” may be satisfying to yell into the void, but Kristian wisely warns against these tendencies. Instead, she advocates an approach grounded in both confidence and humility, emphasizing righting relationships over winning debates. In our Extremely Online era, this is nothing short of a revolutionary response.
Still, readers seeking a definitive solution to the epistemic crisis are likely to be disappointed. Kristian’s proposals tend to involve steps one can take to curb their contribution to the crisis, such as taking regular breaks from social media and smartphones and being smarter about accessing information online. Kristian’s most valuable proposals center on how to confront and engage with those caught up in this crisis, emphasizing the cultivation of relationships over knee-jerk corrections. This is very good advice, but these are individual solutions instead of collective or institutional ones, and individual solutions to widespread problems do not offer the silver bullet readers may be looking for.
Moreover, there are moments when Untrustworthy doesn’t seem to fully understand what it is. Is it a devotional letter to the church or a journalistic account of a cultural emergency? I think it’s more of the former, but in trying to be both the reader may want more of each. Additionally, Kristian spends far more time breaking down the challenges from the first section relative to confronting these challenges in the second section. The brevity of the second section compared to the first makes the book feel somewhat incomplete, especially given the strength of many early chapters. Granted, some of these chapters do include practical advice for readers, but this just highlights instances when this advice is lacking elsewhere.
Ultimately, Untrustworthy is a valuable and important addition to an increasingly important cultural conversation. Technology may have democratized and cheapened access to the world around us, but this has come at a price. The cost so far has been deepening and seemingly irreconcilable conflicts driven by increasingly divergent perceptions of reality itself. Whether we can change course and redeem our minds, politics, and communities may depend on how seriously we take books like this one.