This Moment of Truth

by Ian Kennedy

There’s been a lot of talk recently about how our current political debate is one where the facts don’t matter. Here’s the Economist laying out the facts about the factless in September. In early December, the Washington Post wrote that this current situation without facts is “scarier than you think” because it is a world where how many people believe something matters more than the evidence for it. Just last week, Politico heaped blame on Social Media sites and described the current media landscape as “choose your own adventure.”

What these articles seem to be saying is that, unlike the good old days when everyone knew journalists told the truth, suddenly people can say whatever they want and what matters is how many people agree with them. There are two problems here. First, there was never a time when we had national consensus around news media which somehow only reported objective truths. Telling lies on the internet, on television, on the radio, in newspapers, and in Shang Dynasty oracle bones has been common practice since those media have existed. Here’s how the government lied about Vietnam and a refresher on Yellow Journalism.

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Yellow Journalism helped spark the Spanish American War (from PBS)

“No, no, no,” I hear you say, “this is different. Trump surrogates are on the air saying that it doesn’t matter if what people believe is true, it matters that they feel it is true. This is about people consciously denying facts, pretending that they’re not important!”

Right, that brings me to my second problem: facts aren’t important. Or, more specifically, I think that facts matter because they’re the best way for me to do things I think are important. I care if the world will continue to be habitable for humans in the near to mid future, which means certain facts about temperature projections become important to me. But those temperature projections aren’t important by themselves: they required the interest of scientists (and grant providers and governments) to be produced in the first place.

In a limited sense, then, Trump’s surrogates are right: facts aren’t effective because of their truth value, they’re effective when they’re believed and acted upon. There is no greater or scarier truth of that than what will happen on January 20th.

I’m not arguing that we should give up on truth or facts or evidence. I’m arguing that a true statement isn’t better at convincing someone to do something than a false one. Similarly a fact well supported by evidence isn’t going to be more widely believed than a poorly supported fact. People believe what they do for complicated reasons, and those reasons aren’t usually rational analysis of all available evidence.

What that means is that we can’t take for granted the superiority of a media outlets which do a good job with the facts. If we want such sources to be more valued, we have to promote truth as a value. We have to take seriously the fact that for the time being many U.S. Americans (from all political dimensions) make their decisions based on what seems or feels right. We have to look more closely at how even the news sources with the most evidence also seem to fail to tell stories that reflect the true lived experience of poor folks, people of color, Native Americans, and our LBGTQ siblings.

So don’t think this post-truth is good media against bad, or new (social) media against traditional media, or even facts against feelings. For me it’s about communicating politics grounded in kindness and hope as widely and effectively as possible.

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