December 20, 2016

Post-Truth - I Feel Like Alice in Wonderland


Nothing is as it seems. What I know to be real, believe to be true built on my reliance on facts is apparently passe. It's official: Truth is dead. 

The latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary has made it official. Post-truth now has an explanation: "objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." 


Of course, that definition is post-truth, so it may or may not be true. The Oxford Dictionary may be a propaganda tool written by the liberal media, the alt-right, conservative pundits, or some unknown Russian hacker. 

And, therein lies the problem that has me scratching my head. If "truth" or "reality" are no longer what they have always been, how does one separate the wheat from the chaff? How does one construct a rational response to events when rationality is under attack?

Is Mars really populated by little green men (and women)? If enough people on the Internet claim it to be so, then does that makes it so? Did we go to the moon, or just stage a launch in a studio? Is there a child sex ring being run from the basement of a pizza restaurant by a former presidential candidate? Is the government planning on installing microchips in our arm the next time we get a flu shot? 

These examples are absurd, at least to me, but believed at some point in our history. They gained traction with our fellow citizens. No matter how bizarre or disconnected from how we think the world and its citizens operate, any statement has the potential to be accepted in a post-truth world.

So, how do you determine the difference between what is downright silly or ludicrous, and that what is true, meaning facts and reality support the premise? At the risk of being seen as part of a plot to deceive, I offer the following suggestions:

1). If something seems too far-fetched to be true, then do your research rather than accept it as presented. Most of us agree that if something is too good to be true, like an Hawaiian vacation for $99, then it probably is a scam. Use that same discernment with news or "facts" that raise questions. Something important can be found in multiple sources, not just one that is re-tweeted or shared over and over.

2) Realize that truth or facts are not dependent on what you believe. They are independent of emotions and beliefs. An inconvenient truth is still true. 

3) If someone claims to have the answer to a complex or difficult question that has bedeviled humans for a long time, question that solution. Complex problems do not have simple answers, especially those that can be summed up in a 140 character tweet.

4) Does the story attack a large non-specific foe, like Big Government, or Republicans, or The Media? Such broad-brush revelations are very rarely based on fact, but much more likely emotion or a particular agenda.

5) Accept that uncomfortable "truths" may require you to change your world view or opinions about something. To ignore or deny simply because you may have to change is done at your own peril.

6) "Truth" does not change over time: the world was flat for thousands of years until the truth of its roundness became obvious. The world was always round; people just didn't have the tools or mindset to accept it. What changes is our awareness and understanding of what is true, not the truths behind it.


With all that being said, I would add a suggestion: question everything. Just like the round world example, question what you believe at every turn. The "truth" as you know it may be wrong, or not fully understood. Be ready to adjust to new, credible, information. It is not easy, it goes against human nature. But that is the only way we evolve as a species: to separate fiction from truth, rejecting the former while embracing the latter.


If you'd like to read an interesting article, check out this link from NPR: 

http://www.npr.org/2016/12/11/505154631/a-finders-guide-to-facts



24 comments:

  1. Well stated. I think one problem is that students are not taught to discern truth from fiction, to question, to evaluate information, to analyze.

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    1. You are so right. That used to be one of the primary goals of a solid education system: teach discernment and independent thinking. Being so focused on testing and conformity, our children are not being taught to think independently or given the tools to determine fact from fiction.

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    2. I miss the days when a Liberal Arts education/degree was valued. In that curriculum, students explored history, science, literature, great ideas, and learned discourse and debate.We sat in CLASSROOMS WITH OTHER HUMANS and revered lecturers and mentors (when lucky!) and learned how to listen, to value an opinion different from our own, and we explored a variety of topics that explore and expose the great truths, and our own humanity. Now,education focuses on the scientific, the technical and the "useful." And of course social media has unfortunately "dumbed down" our level of communications. (While I LOVE being able to use facebook to stay in touch with my family and friends,it is not a useful source of "news!!") I miss the days when elders mentored young 'uns and some wisdom and hopefully truth, least, was passed on... human to human. Now, we have to take it upon ourselves to delve deeper, to require more of ourselves as we navigate this place called Earth!!

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    3. That is a good summary of where we find ourselves. You point about the "misuse" of social media is important. It is designed for human interactions and connections, not as the go-to source of news and it's interpretation. But, in a post-truth world, immediacy and having one's views validated makes places like Twitter and Facebook our new Walter Cronkite.

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  2. "Question Everything", I love it Bob!!

    Of course that is what RJsCorner is all about. Thanks for the post...

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    1. The next four years might be a rather fertile time to put that statement to daily use!

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  3. Remember when we thought we could trust what we heard on the news, back when Walter Cronkite came on at dinnertime, and was thought of as "the most trusted man in America." I wonder when things changed.

    About teaching students, which I have done. I recall one of my college professors challenging a criticism by some of his students that he "taught and required knowing too many facts." He said, "Yes, I ask that you learn factual information, because without it your reasoning and analysis will be faulty. Your "opinion" is worthless unless you have your facts in line." Personally, the past election cycle, I decided to reduce my "news" consumption. I still watch BBC nightly news, followed by NBC nightly news, and segments of the PBS News Hour, but no CNN, MSNBC, and FOX. "Meet the Press" has become a strident talking heads show in my opinion, but John Dickerson on "Face the Nation" still seems to be a truth seeker. Maybe other folks know of some "trusted sources," but these are mine presently.

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    1. For the last few weeks I have been avoiding the problem: I watch CBS Sunday Morning, which is really a collection of inspiring and feel-good stories that help start my day off on a positive note. No other "news" channel makes the grade, for now.

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  4. So much of what you say is true, Bob, and so much was shaped by the latest election cycle. News channels no longer report news, but try to shape opinion. Obviously false news stories are taken by people who run with them, exacerbating the problem. Heck, even sites that advertise themselves as pure satire are used as "facts" by the ill-informed. I don't know where it stops since people no longer dig into the nuts and bolts, but want to live in a world of soundbites and short social media comments. You hit on a great topic, but I am not sure of the answer or answers. Until something changes, let's at least agree on one thing - wishing "Merry Christmas to all, and a happy and prosperous New Year as well".

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    1. I am afraid there is no generalized solution. The problem of false and misleading information will have to be questioned and rejected, one person at a time.

      And, yes, happy holidays to everyone, and a safe and prosperous (whatever your definition of prosperous) new year.

      The best to you and Deb, Chuck.

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  5. I always looked over the crazy headlines on those magazines at the checkout counter but never bought them or believed them to be true. Now that the crazy and untrue stories have moved to the Internet and Facebook they gained acceptance. I still don't read the stories but I am not sure how we reach the people that choose to read the stories, believe them and act on the misinformation. Good topic for a blog

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    1. It is today's version of Elvis is alive in Detroit, or I had a baby by a space invader. Unfortunately, the reach is wider and instantaneous, and therein lies a big part of the problem. Everything happens at hyper speed so there is no time for reflection or investigation.

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  6. I think it all started back in the 1970s when writers and reporters began feeding us the line that nobody could be objective, everyone had a bias . . . which eventually gave people the license to be as biased as they want . . . in turn leading us to the situation where aol, yahoo, gawker and other online news sources are no different from the National Enquirer and the other tabloids. So now people think astrology is the same as astronomy; UFOs are just another form of aviation; Al Sharpton is a pillar of the legal system and Sarah Palin is an expert on Putin because she can "see" Russia.

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    1. UFOs are just another form of aviation....like it!

      It comes from our society's belief that all of us are winners and need constant validation. All our thoughts and ideas are worth broadcasting to the world...kind of like blogging, right Tom?! (readers, see Tom's latest blog post)

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  7. "An inconvenient truth is still true." Love that!

    Just to further muddy the water, I read an interesting article in The Atlantic--The Case Against Reality. Guaranteed to make you question your blind trust in what your brain tells you is true. Or, as a Buddhist teacher wrote, don't believe everything you think.

    From another perspective, I wonder if part of our current problem is that there is no pause between an event and the news about it. Even "reputable" news reports have to get the news out before others do, that is, instantaneously. There is no time to check, to reflect, to question, to investigate. I find the "delayed" reports, more in depth after careful investigation, to be often more reliable.

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    1. You have identified a key problem: the instant nature of our thirst for "information" and validation. In the late 1970's I helped write a master guide for the Associated Press that covered writing style, fact-checking, and presentation. Insuring something was accurate before airing it, or sending it over the teletype, was rule #1. No more.

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  8. It seems like "anything goes" nowadays. It's discouraging to say the least. As mentioned earlier, the need to be the first news agency to report a story overtakes the need for truth. All of this has shaken my trust in everything I see, hear, read. I really dont know what the "truth" is anymore.

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    1. I can tell that, honestly, I never imagined fake news or planted stories would become anything more than a funny sidebar.

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  9. "Realize that truth or facts are not dependent on what you believe."
    That statement resonates with me. And given our human nature to surround ourselves with people having similar beliefs, we can easily get sidetracked from the truth.

    I don't know if it's a sad thing to question everything. Maybe we should be doing that anyway. When we refuse to accept a statement just because it came from the 6 0'clock newsman, or a medical doctor, or a financial advisor/ banker, we become empowered instead of taking a back seat. With easy access to information on the internet these days (all of it to be judged for accuracy), it's fun to discover things that challenge our beliefs.

    I would have made fun of someone like me a decade ago - believing that people can retire at 35 or heal cancer with extreme nutrition.

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    1. Humans seem to be hardwired to question things. Unfortunately, our recent past indicates that basic trait can be ignored when emotions or preconceived beliefs are in play.

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  10. I am not too concerned about the crazy things floating on the internet. Most often these things can be easily disproved. I am most concerned about the fact that our government officials lie to us and mislead us on a daily basis. And it is done with such finesse that we fail to question the facts and the motives. It will be interesting to see what the next four years bring.

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    1. I think government has always been less than open about what they do. I don't see most of it as lying, rather just providing partial information. And, yes, the next 4 years will be one for the record books.

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  11. Interesting to note you and your righteous readership have taken 8 years to understand lying, stealing, cheating and misinformation.
    Thank God Americans woke up during the 2016 election.
    Your good article did stimulate discussion!

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    1. While I disagree with the underlying accusation implied in your comment, I respect your right to add it to this discussion.

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