Morris: Welcome to the Reality Gap
by Leo Morris
There is a report from the Indiana University research salt mines that’s highly disturbing, although not for the reason you might initially suspect.
Suicide deaths, a new study from the IU School of Medicine declares, increase significantly during a full moon. Furthermore, older people are more inclined to be involved, and the peak hours of suicide are 3 to 4 p.m. in September.
Heavens. Forewarned is forearmed, so you have five months to keep track of the night sky and know exactly when to not let Grandma and Grandpa out of your sight until the danger passes.
Except . . .
That is just short of being nonsense.
Anyone having the slightest familiarity with this suicide-moon connection knows there have been scores of studies over decades. There are a few cases like the IU study demonstrating a correlation, but by far the majority show either no statistical evidence or mixed results open to various interpretations.
In other words, we should have at least the shadow of a doubt if not outright active skepticism. This was one tiny investigation – a few hundred suicides from one county in one state over a four-year period – in a mountain of similar research.
Alas, we were not helped by media reports of the study. Not a single news story I read (and I checked out many from various sources) put the research in context or gave even a hint of the need for leeriness. They all simply reported the moon-suicide connection as gospel. Job done, time to move on.
So, if you absorbed that information as a part of your perception of reality, so sorry. Time to rethink the whole thing.
“The news” has let us down, again. When it isn’t being disingenuous – ditching objectivity in order to advance a narrative, a practice today celebrated in journalism schools – it is often merely lazy. It has abandoned us, just when we need it most.
It was Francis Bacon, a pivotal figure in the transition from the ancient to modern version of Western philosophy, who pointed out 500 years ago that we cannot always trust our senses. So, the knowledge we have built up from our perceptions might be faulty.
Therefore, philosophy, and the logic and reason that propel it, cannot be just a mental exercise. It must be connected to the real world. We must always experiment and observe, over and over. That is the foundation of the scientific method that has shaped our modern world.
And it is the basis for the consensus reality that enables us to navigate that world. We must all deal with our and others’ subjective perceptions, and our feeble attempts to understand each other’s interpretations. But, somehow, we manage to cobble together a set of agreed-upon truths about reality allowing us to live together, however fragilely, as travelers on a common human journey.
It is no great secret that the outer edges of that consensus reality are unraveling at an alarming rate. Our increasingly unbridgeable partisan divide – spread ever wider by social media and deepened by a press intent on taking sides instead of providing a disinterested overview – makes it seem as if we are living on different planets instead of merely fighting for our faulty visions of the moral high ground on this one.
And today the very core of that reality is under assault. In the very near future – much sooner than most of us realize – there may be no consensus reality at all.
Artificial intelligence programs are already so good at writing term papers and doctoral theses that university professors are reverting to in-person oral exams to determine the actual understanding students might have. AI apps can now create photographic composites that seem very real but aren’t – how about a visual of Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt having tea? How about a composite showing you to be somewhere at a time when you really weren’t? AI can also sample your voice and make it seem you are saying anything to anybody.
And when it gets to the point where we can’t trust anything is real except what we see and hear in face-to-face encounters, who will there be to credibly explain pieces of reality outside of our immediate environment? Certainly not the media, which by then will have destroyed every bit of our faith in them. And who else can do the job they are meant to do but refuse to acknowledge?
If the media stay on their present course, it would not be just a breach of trust and an abdication of responsibility. It would be an utter disgrace.
Sorry, got a little wound up there.
The next full moon is coming up on May 5, and I need to make sure I’m off the ledge by then.