Our November topic was “Truth and Democracy.”
Our discussion focused on a recent book: Post-Truth. Post-truth is the view that all sides of an issue are equivalent, and that there is no real thing as truth. This has been used by climate-change deniers, and before that, those who sought to hide the effects of tobacco smoke and DDT.
Before our discussion we completed a little “Truth Quiz,” that had some silly questions and some more serious ones. The first question was: “What is the difference between facts and truth?” Answers by members were somewhat different but the general gist was that facts are verifiable events and truth is a more abstract idea subject to interpretation. The rest of the questions varied from simple observations (“Is the sky blue?”) to more historical issues (“Did Clarence Thomas harass Anita Hill?”). We focused not on what is “true,” but more on the process of how we arrive at our idea of what is true. For example, in the case of Clarence Thomas, how do we know what to believe? Are our conclusions based on presented facts in the same way we would evaluate evidence as a juror in a trial, or are they based on emotion, or something else?
A corollary, of course, is how people decide which politicians to support. Do we base our opinions of politicians on their parties, their personalities, or on principles? Or don’t we even know why we back some politicians over others? If we base our support on principles, what are the principles most keeping with democracy, and how do we hold our leaders to keeping their promises?
After an election is over, even if our candidate has won, our job is not over. In fact it is just beginning. If we believe in democracy we must monitor those in office to ensure that they are following democratic principles, particularly the most essential principle that “all are created equal.” Of course this is more easily said than done.
Some significant quotes from Post-Truth, by Lee McIntyre, 2019, by page number:
Page xiii. Facts and truth are endangered in today’s political arena.
xiv. Truth… is being challenged as a mechanism for political dominance. And that is why one cannot shy away from politics…
7. The greatest threat comes from those who have the hubris to think that they already know the truth, for then one might be impetuous enough to act on a falsehood….
10. What seems different in the post-truth era is a challenge not just to the idea of knowing reality but to the existence of reality itself.
13. Post-truth amounts to a form of ideological supremacy, whereby its practitioners are trying to compel someone to believe in something whether there is good evidence for it or not.
17. When a scientist put forth a theory, it is expected that it will be put through the paces of a peer review, attempts at replication, and the highest order of empirical fact-checking…
18. One of the most common claims made by those who do not like some particular scientific result is that the scientists who found it were biased.
20. Until a theory is absolutely proven, [some] believe, a competing theory could always be true. 21. In the 1950s, tobacco companies realized that they had a vested interest in raising doubt over whether cigarette smoking caused lung cancer…
25. By the time climate change became a partisan issue in the early 2000s, the mechanism of corporate-funded science denial was a well-oiled machine.
30. A 2013 survey of 4,000 peer-reviewed papers that took a position on climate change found that 97 percent agreed with the position that global warming was caused by human activity.
34. The selective use of facts that prop up one’s position, and the complete rejection of facts that do not, seems part and parcel of creating the new post-truth reality.
40. [In an experiment] 37% of (participants) yielded to the majority opinion. They discounted what they could see right in front of them in order to remain in conformity with the group.
45. Motivated reasoning is the idea that what we hope to be true may color our perception of what actually is true.
48. The “backfire effect” …when partisans were presented with evidence that one or their politically expedient beliefs was wrong, they would reject the evidence and “double down” on their mistaken belief.
51. [Research shows] …even the strongest partisans will eventually reach a “tipping point” and change their beliefs after they are continually exposed to corrective evidence.
62. …[A]ll ideologies are an enemy of the process by which truth is discovered.
77. By allowing “equal time,” the media only succeeded in creating “false equivalence” between two sides of an issue even when there were not two credible sides.
81. The goal of objectivity is not to give equal time between truth and falsehood – it is to facilitate the truth.
95. With no form of editorial control over what is now sometimes presented as “news,” how can we know when we are being manipulated?
105. Fake news is not simply news that is false; it is deliberatively false…
106. All seven American intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russian government was involved in hacking the US election…
118. Facebook and Google now account for 85 percent of all new online ad revenue in the US.
119. The answer [to fake news] is flooding it with actual news…
134. Questioning the science behind global warming “is now a required practice for Republicans eager to play to an emboldened conservative base…”
145. If you interpret a period of cold weather as evidence that climate change isn’t happening, and if millions of other people agree with your point of view, then climate change is a hoax.
157. The media stopped telling “both sides of the story” about vaccines and autism once there was a measles outbreak in fourteen states in 2015….As of July, 2014, BBC decided to stop giving equal airtime to climate change deniers.
162. Whether we are liberals or conservatives, we are prone to the sorts of cognitive biases that can lead to post-truth. One should not assume that post-truth arises only from others, or that its results are someone else’s problem.
163. If you are getting your information primarily from one source…it is probably time to diversify your news feed…..The strength of science is that it embraces an attitude of constantly checking one’s beliefs against the empirical evidence, and changing those beliefs as one learns what the facts are.
169. Just as the water will continue to rise on the homes of Coral Gables Florida – whether the residents believe it or not – so will the consequences of post-truth creep up on all of us unless we are prepared to fight them.
170. Richard Feynman: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
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The book The Future of Democracy can be ordered wherever books are sold.
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Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelors Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.