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The Death of Truth

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

What is truth, and how do we maintain its importance in a changing world?

What is truth, and how do we maintain its importance in a changing world?

The telling of lies where truth ought to be the most valuable currency has pervaded so many aspects of society. Some politicians, people on the witness stand, and sales agents lie from time to time . . . well, maybe more than from time to time. But when those holding the highest and most respected offices become serial liars, the telling of falsehoods gives license to all levels of fibbers.

Lies Small and Big

Everybody lies. Sometimes, we do it to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings: “Nobody could have stopped that shot from the point.” Sometimes, we do it to minimize consequences: “I only copied a very small part of that essay from the Internet.” Sometimes, it’s to boost self-esteem: “It would have turned out differently if I’d been there.”

These lies do little harm and usually pass unnoticed. But today, we live in a world where great whopping falsehoods are made up by people in high positions. Here’s how The Guardian puts it: “Fake news and lies are pumped out in industrial volume by Russian troll factories, [and] emitted in an endless stream from the mouth and Twitter feed of the president of the United States, and sent flying across the world through social media accounts at lightning speed.”

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.

— Winston Churchill

Truth Decay

By late 2018, The Washington Post said Mr. Trump’s “false or misleading claims” had averaged eight per day since his taking office. By Christmas 2019, Trump’s running total had reached 15,500. But, U.S. President Donald Trump did not kill truth on his own; he is simply an extreme example of a process that started several decades ago.

Academics trace the slide into untruth to what came to be called the "Culture Wars of the 1960s." The leading edge of the baby-boomer generation was coming of age and its anthem was “challenge authority.”

Millions of young people no longer blindly accepted that politicians were selflessly working for the people, that corporations acted on behalf of society, or even that religious institutions were free of corruption.

The first casualty of war is truth.

The first casualty of war is truth.

The idea emerged that there was no longer a set of universal truths but rather a collection of smaller personal truths. Two people could view what was deemed accepted wisdom and come up with opposing views. Here’s The Guardian again: “The argument that all truths are partial . . . led to the related argument that there are many legitimate ways to understand or represent an event.”

That’s good because previously silent voices could now get a hearing. But, the downside is that the truth can be shaded; the line between fact and opinion can be blurred. And then, it’s a short step to an outright lie. As former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

How can we know what information to trust?

How can we know what information to trust?

Truth and Science

Scientists deal in facts. They may start out with an opinion, but then they go through rigorous testing of that opinion to prove it either correct or incorrect. Then, they ask other scientists to examine their work to see if it is sound. After more study and research, a fact emerges that is the agreed conclusion of many people.

But now, it’s coming to light that some so-called scientific truths are being based on bogus research. In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield published an article in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, in which he claimed that the standard measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines might cause autism in children.

Many people believed the bogus claim that vaccines could cause autism.

Many people believed the bogus claim that vaccines could cause autism.

However, Dr. Wakefield had fudged his research results, and it wasn’t until 2010 that the fraud was exposed. By then, thousands of parents had been persuaded by the study to refuse to have their children vaccinated against common and preventable diseases.

A couple of recent examples illustrate how dangerous scientific lying can be:

  • December 2019: 5,600 people in Samoa contracted measles and 81 died—mostly children.
  • January 2019: At least 30 people, mostly unvaccinated children, came down with measles in Washington state.
  • November 2018: An outbreak of chickenpox hit 36 unvaccinated children at a school in North Carolina.

These illnesses are not trivial, as they can and do lead to complications and fatalities.

Scientists demonstrate to protect the integrity of their profession.

Scientists demonstrate to protect the integrity of their profession.

In the early 1960s, the tobacco industry used phony science to protect itself. High-quality research showed that smoking tobacco was a leading cause of cancer and heart disease. No ifs, buts, or maybes—there was a slam-dunk relationship between early death and smoking.

The tobacco industry fought back by rounding up its own scientists to cast doubt on the research. They challenged the findings and said more study was needed. A 1969 memo from a tobacco industry executive outlined the strategy: “Doubt is our product,” the memo read, “since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.”

Another tobacco executive muddied the discussion by saying “Anything can be considered harmful. Applesauce is harmful if you get too much of it.” And then, they all lined up and swore that nicotine is not addictive, even though science clearly proves it is.

The Media Gets Suckered

In an effort to deliver balanced coverage, media tries to present all sides of an argument, although sometimes only one side makes any sense. There is no equivalence in the global warming story that allows those who deny it’s happening on the same platform of the 97 percent of scientists who say it is. So, activists who spread stories about how vaccines cause autism get to share a debate forum with physicians who say the fears are groundless.

In 2011, a British Broadcasting Corporation study faulted the media organization for “undue attention to marginal opinion” on the subject of man-made climate change. The Telegraph newspaper responded by saying that “BBC staff was told to stop inviting cranks on to science programmes.”

In August 2017, hate-filled racists paraded in Charlottesville, Virginia. Should the media show images of their placards and anti-Semitic chants? They express the view of a tiny minority; do they deserve air time? If the media chooses not to show the images, it stands accused of bias and lack of balance.

For the Charlottesville goons, their view is their truth. Perhaps, the role of reporters in this sort of situation is to express an opinion; to follow the lead of CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour who has said “I believe in being truthful, not neutral.”

How do we separate the real news from the fake when the media is required to present "both sides" of every issue?

How do we separate the real news from the fake when the media is required to present "both sides" of every issue?

Fake History

There are people who don’t like the way history turned out, so they rewrite it. Prime among these revisionists are the Holocaust deniers. It shouldn’t have to be said, but between 1933 and 1945 Adolf Hitler and his Nazi followers embarked on a plan to kill all the Jews in Europe.

The existence of the plan and the camps is an undeniable fact, and yet, there are people who deny it ever happened. They do this because they harbour an irrational hatred of Jews. The deniers claim that the most well-documented genocide in history has been conjured up out of thin air by Jews hoping for some political gain.

Japan also behaved with exceptional cruelty during World War II. In 1937–38, between 250,000 and 300,000 people in the Chinese city of Nanking were slaughtered. In special camps, prisoners were subjected to horrible medical experiments. Korean women were forced into sex slavery to service Japanese soldiers.

But, today, these well-documented atrocities are hushed up and scarcely revealed in history classes. Denial of genocides is a favourite of the history re-writers.

Between 1915 and 1917, the Ottoman Turks killed 1.5 million Armenians. To this day, Turkey says it wasn’t genocide; it was just one of those unfortunate accidents of war that sometimes happen.

But, the lies keep coming. Each new one piles onto the heap of others, and they combine to weaken the institutions that hold society together.

Bonus Factoids

  • By the second anniversary of his inauguration as President of the United States, Donald Trump had racked up 8,158 false or misleading statements, according to The Washington Post.
  • Totalitarian governments are built on lies. Hannah Arendt lived through the totalitarian governments of the Nazis of the 1930s and ‘40s as well the communist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. So, she knew what she was talking about when she wrote her book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Here are a couple of her observations:

“Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.”

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

Sources

  • “The Death of Truth: How We Gave up on Facts and Ended up with Trump.” Michiko Kakutani, The Guardian, July 14, 2018.
  • “The 1960s: Polarization, Cynicism, and the Youth Rebellion.” Kenneth T. Walsh, U.S. New and World Report, March 12, 2010.
  • “What Can Be Done about Pseudoskepticism?” Michael Shermer, Scientific American, March 1, 2015.
  • “RIP Truth: You Were Fun While you Lasted.” Elizabeth Renzetti, Globe and Mail, November 8, 2018.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 27, 2019:

Startling facts, not the least of which is that some people are "ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd. . ." Is it possible to begin again learning what is truth?

Liz Westwood from UK on January 27, 2019:

This is an interesting and well presented article. Shocking recent statistics show that many people in the UK deny the Holocaust ever happened.

DW Davis from Eastern NC on January 27, 2019:

Good morning(here at the moment),

I fear Trump is not the culmination of societies slide into the world of "pick your own facts" but merely a festering and visually obvious symptom of a more significant and more pervasive problem that will only be exacerbated by social media and lead to more division among us rather than be the unifying force it might have been.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on January 27, 2019:

Hi DW

This was not intended to be a polemic about Donald Trump but rather a longer view of the decline of respect for truth. However, as the most recent and extreme example of lying he stands as an impossible target to ignore. I hope he represents the lowest point of this trend but I'm not convinced this is the case.

DW Davis from Eastern NC on January 26, 2019:

Thank you for your articulate and informative Hub. I was thinking this morning of the difference between Trump followers and rational people.

Trump followers believe every lie he tells, every half-truth he utters, and every made-up "fact" he propagates because they desperately want to share in his delusional alternate reality.

Rational people realize that Trump is a huckster, a con-man, and a lifelong cheater who will say and do anything and deal with anyone to advance himself and then lie about it in the face of overwhelming evidence when he's caught.