Tag Archives: truth

The Attack on Truth

A recent, lengthy column in the Chronicle of Higher Education bemoans what Stephen Colbert used to call “truthiness” and what the author calls an “attack on truth”:

There is simple ignorance and there is willful ignorance, which is simple ignorance coupled with the decision to remain ignorant. Normally that occurs when someone has a firm commitment to an ideology that proclaims it has all the answers — even if it counters empirical matters that have been well covered by scientific investigation. More than mere scientific illiteracy, this sort of obstinacy reflects a dangerous contempt for the methods that customarily lead to recognition of the truth. And once we are on that road, it is a short hop to disrespecting truth.

The author lays much of the blame for this state of affairs at the feet of postmodern literary critics and cultural-studies folks who advanced the argument that truth is relative, and there is no such thing as objectivity.

There is much more, and the entire column is well worth reading, but I think the argument against postmodernism is misplaced. (I think fear, a product of modernity’s disorienting change, has far more explanatory power.) I have my own problems with postmodernism, but there is a difference–which the author glosses over–between “truth” and “fact.” And that difference matters.

Science deals with the discovery of testable facts-– the sort of knowledge that can be confirmed or debunked by experimentation and reason. Facts are demonstrable, and the data upon which they are based can be shared with others who have the necessary skills to evaluate them. The broader meanings and conclusions we humans draw from the facts at our disposal, however, are subject to social construction.

Morality, philosophy and religious doctrines are efforts to identify truths of the sort that cannot be verified in a laboratory and must inevitably remain matters of belief. Or faith.

The author is right about one thing, however: When we choose to disregard facts established by science, we also abandon any pretense that we are searching for those broader truths, or even acting in our own rational self-interest.

When our anti-intellectual policymakers cling ever more frantically to their “willful ignorance,” we’re all in trouble.

Big trouble.

Incivility and an Inability to Govern

There’s an interesting symposium on political civility in a recent issue of PS: Political  Science and Politics. The articles wrestle with some foundational questions: what is the difference between the sort of argumentation that illuminates differences and is an inevitable part of democratic discourse and rhetoric that “crosses the line”? What do we mean by incivility?

The consensus seemed to be that incivility is rudeness or impoliteness that violates an agreed social standard.

I’m not sure we have agreed social standards in this age of invective, but surely attacks that focus on, and disrespect, persons rather than positions should count as uncivil. An example of civility in political argument might be Dick Lugar’s often-repeated phrase to the effect that “that is a matter about which reasonable people can differ.” (Hard to imagine Mr. Mourdock, who has taken pride in incivility and intransigence, making such a statement.)

The contributors offer a variety of perspectives on the definitions and causes of today’s nasty politics, but one of the most trenchant observations came from a Professor Maisel of Colby College, who attributes the gridlock in Washington and elsewhere to “partisan one-upmanship expressed in ways that do not show respect for those with differing views.” As he notes (referring to Erik Cantor)

If your will is to prevent legislation from passing, to prevent the president’s agenda from moving forward, to work the system to your political advantage, then lack of civility works.

In other words, if your over-riding motivation is simply to beat the other guy–to keep the President from a second term, as Mitch McConnell famously admitted–and if that motivation outweighs any concern for the public good, governing is impossible.

The reason politicians no longer “respectfully disagree” with each other, Professor Maisel points out, is that they do not in fact respect the views of their opponents. They hardly know them. The days when Congressional families lived in Washington and socialized–when their children went to school together, and their spouses carpooled or otherwise interacted–are long gone. It’s easy to demonize people you don’t know.

Add to that an even more troubling aspect of today’s politics, a disregard for fact and truth, enabled by partisan television, talk radio and the internet. Survey after survey shows that people on the Left and Right alike get their “news” from sources that validate their biases. Worse, we have lost the real news, the mainstream, objective journalism that fact-checks, that confronts us with inconvenient realities. In such an environment, it becomes easier to characterize those with whom we disagree as buffoons or worse, unworthy of our respect.

When political discourse is so nasty, and regard for truth so minimal–when the enterprise of government has more in common with a barroom brawl than a lofty exercise in statesmanship–is it any wonder that so many of our “best and brightest” shun politics?

Government is broken, and we need to fix it. Unfortunately, the symposium contributions didn’t tell us how to do that.

Because Fair Isn’t Necessarily Balanced…

National Public Radio has just adopted new ethics guidelines. We can only hope they signal the beginning of a wide trend in the media.

The new code stresses the importance of accuracy over false balance; it appears–finally–to abandon the “he said, she said” approach (what I have elsewhere called “stenography masquerading as reporting”) that all too often distorts truth in favor of a phony “fairness.”

At all times, we report for our readers and listeners, not our sources. So our primary consideration when presenting the news is that we are fair to the truth. If our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they give us, we tell our audience. If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports. We strive to give our audience confidence that all sides have been considered and represented fairly.

One of my gripes over the past several years has been the abandonment of precisely this tenet of good journalism. A good example has been environmental reporting–how many times have media sources reported on climate change, for example, by giving equal time and weight to  the settled science and the deniers, without ever noting that the deniers constitute less than 1% of all climate scientists, and are generally regarded as a kooky fringe? That’s “balance,” but it certainly isn’t “fair to the truth.”

A few years ago, this sort of false equivalency was illustrated by one of my all-time favorite Daily Show skits. The “senior journalism reporter” was explaining the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks on John Kerry to Jon Stewart. “The Swift Boat Veterans say this happened; the Kerry Campaign says it didn’t. Back to you, Jon!” When Stewart then asked “But aren’t you going to tell us who is telling the truth?”  the response was dead-on. “Absolutely not, Jon. This is journalism.”

Far too often, reporters pursue artificial balance at the expense of truth. If a Democratic campaign plays a dirty trick, reporters rush to remind their audience of a similar transgression by Republicans, and vice-versa. This search for equivalency may be well-intentioned, but it misrepresents reality and misleads those of us who depend upon the media for accurate information.

NPR’s recognition of this pernicious practice, and it’s new Code of Ethics, are a welcome sign that at least some journalists might be returning to Job One: telling us the unembellished truth.