Power to the people was a slogan used in the United States during the sixties and beyond intended to be an exhortation to free the people from the oppression of the establishment. Although the slogan was originally political, it has been applied to many areas of human endeavor where there are institutions controlling an activity that many people would rather not have anyone control. The process of passing a certain amount of control from the establishment to the people has played out throughout modern history in many areas and is still doing so. Let me give you three examples.
The first example is beer. In the United States after prohibition was repealed in 1933, the majority of beer brewing was carried out by large brewing companies, and brewing your own beer at home was illegal. The situation began to change in 1978 when President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that made brewing beer at home legal. Another bill that had been signed in 1976 by President Gerald Ford had decreased the beer tax on small breweries. This set the stage for many home brewers to enter the beer brewing business as “craft brewers”. The process was further empowered by the state-by-state wave of legalization of brewpubs which started 1982. In 1979 there were 90 breweries in the US and by 2019 there were 5,301 breweries, of which 5,234 were craft breweries that accounted for more than 25% of sales in the 116 billion US beer market. Many people agree that when it comes to beer, giving the people the power to make and sell their own beer has been a positive development.
A second example is music. Up to the year 2000 six major record labels held a monopoly on the music business. To hear music, people had to listen to the radio, buy records, tapes, or CDs from a distributor, or pay to go to a concert if you lived close enough to a concert venue. Whether a band made it or not depended on whether they were “discovered” by record companies. With the advent of the internet all this changed. People began to download or share music for free with services like those offered by Napster and the many imitators that it spawned, which cut significantly into the profits of record companies and record stores. Musicians started posting their music and their concerts online, gaining followers through social media, and developing and managing their own business brands selling merchandise. Today these independent musicians are part of an industry worth more than one billion dollars, which is still growing.
A third example is literature. The big publishing houses had always held a monopoly on which authors got published. They acted like gatekeepers, deciding who was worthy of being published and who wasn’t. With the advent of the internet, self-publishing platforms arose that allowed people who became known as “indie authors” to bypass publishing houses and take their literature directly to an audience. Today these self-publishing authors account for more than 30% of electronic book sales and 17% of print book sales.
The same trend that we have witnessed in the areas of beer, music, and literature have also spread to other areas wrestling power away from the traditional players and giving it to the people. I certainly believe this is a positive development, but what happens when that development extends to reality?
During the last few years we have witnessed a denigration of journalists and traditional news outlets. Piece after piece of investigative journalism has been labelled "fake news" regardless of the validity of the evidence presented. Alternative news outlets have sprung up that promote baseless conspiracy theories to which millions of people have flocked, and an increasing number of people also get their news from questionable social media sources. We have seen the rise of “alternative facts”, and the disregard for truth has become so dire that the Oxford Dictionary in 2016 labelled “post-truth” as the word of the year. This term is intended to describe a situation where facts have become less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs.
The above phenomenon is not just limited to journalists and news outlets, but it has also affected science and scientists, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people believe that scientists are beholden to powerful interests and therefore are not to be trusted. These people get their science from alternative sites that promote contrarian scientists rejected by the scientific establishment or from social media accounts that disseminate biased science views. We have ended up with a significant segment of the population believing that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, that masks are not effective, that hydroxychloroquine is effective against COVID-19, and that the COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe. These people who have not taken the virus seriously have served as incubators for the pathogen, and because the more a virus spreads, the more it mutates, this increases the likelihood that more infectious variants will arise that may even be resistant to current vaccines to a certain extent. There are some viral variants that have originated in the United States.
I mentioned the cases or beer, music, and literature as examples where taking away power from the institutions and giving it to the people has been something positive. Beer, music, and literature connoisseurs may decry this process lamenting that the standards for good beer, music, and literature have been degraded. However, what constitutes good beer, music, or literature is in the end a subjective opinion. That, however, is not the case with reality.
Reality exists independent from us and our beliefs. Reality is not an opinion. Alternative realities are not realities, they are fictions. If the glass is filled to half of its volume with a liquid, that is a fact. There is no alternative way to view this reality. Saying anything different is at best a mistake and at worst a lie. We can discuss at length whether the glass should be viewed as half full or as half empty, but that is an interpretation of the reality which is something entirely different. Some persons will argue that differences in the perception of reality by people are to be expected. However, these differences in the perception of reality are only valid if they have a high degree of correlation to the reality. If you are walking towards the edge of a cliff, regardless of the way you perceive reality, you have to be able to identify that what’s ahead of you is the edge of a cliff. If you don’t, you will get hurt or die.
Taking away power from those that report on or discover reality and giving it to the people is not a positive development if the people make up, believe, and promote false realities. This is how we end up with global warming, 911, and COVID-19 severity denial, creationism, vaccine hesitancy, skepticism about the 2020 election, chemtrails, the flat Earth, and QAnon.
Musical note image by ruhbastard, foamy beer glass image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images, book image by OpenClipart-Vectors, and fist image by Tchekele, all from pixabay, are free for commercial use and have been blended into one image.