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SALT LAKE CITY — In his interrogation of Jesus, Pontius Pilate famously asked “What is truth?”
Pundits, politicians and philosophers are still wrestling with the question today.
“Truth isn’t truth,” Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal attorney, declared on “Meet the Press” last August, frustrated with what he saw as competing versions of reality. The widely mocked comment was reminiscent of the “alternative facts” touted by Kellyanne Conway, another Trump adviser, on the same show in 2017.
The meme machine works overtime when comments like these make the news. But they recall the gravity of Pilate’s question, and why it still matters, in a culture that some have pronounced “post-truth.”
“Lies are coming at the American public in torrents — raining down on them everywhere they turn,” wrote Margaret Sullivan in a column in The Washington Post Dec. 17, citing a government report that catalogs “the intentional spreading of disinformation on every platform — from Facebook all the way to PayPal.”
Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP
Counselor to President Donald Trump Kellyanne Conway, is interviewed on television at the White House's North Lawn in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Meanwhile, lying is landing some people in Trump’s inner circle in jail. They include former national security adviser Michael Flynn, awaiting sentencing for lying to the FBI, and former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, sentenced for three years for crimes that include lying to a bank and lying to Congress.
But it’s not just people at the highest echelons of government who play loose with the truth; Americans overall have become more accepting of common lies, such as calling in sick to work when you’re not, according to a 2018 survey by the Deseret News.
The trend has given rise to a new vocabulary of untruths — cue “truthiness” and “puffery” — and an array of websites that promise to ferret out the truth, such as PunditFact and Snopes.com.
Americans have not lost the ability to discern truth, but have gotten better at ignoring it, argues Abdu Murray, author of “Saving Truth, Finding Meaning & Clarity in a Post-Truth World.”
“Our problem with truth isn’t so much that we don’t understand it; it’s that we don’t like it.”
Abdu Murray, author of “Saving Truth, Finding Meaning & Clarity in a Post-Truth World"
“Our problem with truth isn’t so much that we don’t understand it; it’s that we don’t like it,” Murray said.
So, what is truth? It’s a question that keeps theologians and philosophers up at night, befuddles legal scholars and puts liars in jail — except in Burlington, Wisconsin, where the Burlington Liars Club recently honored Chuck Goldstein for the lie of the year.
“I got my DNA tested by Ancestry and found out that I’m 1/16 German shepherd,” was Goldstein’s winning fib.
Burlington’s lies are for fun; there’s much more at stake in a post-truth nation, analysts say.
The evolution of truth
When the Rand Corporation decided to publish a 300-page report on the erosion of reliance on facts and data in public discourse, the authors decided they would not define truth although their book is called “Truth Decay.”
“There are long-standing debates over the nature of truth, whether there is an absolute truth, and whether the truth is knowable at all,” wrote Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich.
Some disparate theories are that truth corresponds with, or is identical to, facts; that truth must be verifiable; that truth is intuitive; that truth is anything on which people universally agree; and that truth is anything that is useful to believe.
Aristotle defined truth simply: “to say of what is that it is.”
Aaron Thorup, Deseret News poll
Plato taught that truth is an abstract ideal that cannot be known through the senses, an idea similar to one expressed by Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians, “For now we see through a glass, darkly.“
Thomas Aquinas believed that deciphering truth was central to a flourishing life. “Man’s ultimate happiness consists in the contemplation of truth, for this operation is specific to man and is shared with no other animals.”
Postmodernist theories that emerged in the 1970s sought to demolish the concept of truth, saying that there are no truths, only perspectives. But most thinkers who have debated the topic have agreed that truth is a moral good, and untruth, a societal ill.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that every violation of truth injures not just the liar, but is “a stab at the health of human society.”
Yet there is a widespread perception that truthfulness and honesty is losing ground as a common value, seen in the widespread dismissal of President Trump’s false statements (such as recently telling soldiers that they were getting a 10 percent raise, when the raise is 2.6 percent), and in a Deseret News poll that found Americans are increasingly willing to lie if they see a perceived benefit, as in these situations:
• Is it OK to cheat on one’s taxes? 93 percent said no in 2006; 84 percent said no in 2018.
• Is it OK to inflate one’s resume to get a job? 88 percent said no in 2006; 63 percent said no in 2018.
• Are you willing to exaggerate the facts to make a story more interesting? 56 percent said no in 2006; 44 percent said no in 2018.
Another sign that truth, or lack thereof, is of increasing concern: There’s been a rush of new books on the subject, to include “The Death of Truth” by Michiko Kakutani, “Truth” by Hector Macdonald and “Post-Truth” by Lee McIntyre.
A teaching moment
McIntyre, a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and the author of two books on truth, among others, said that despite his dismay at the state of public discourse, it’s a great time to be a philosopher.
Photo courtesy of Lee McIntyre
Lee McIntyre, at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, urges people to "respect truth" by regularly challenging their beliefs.
“Professionally, this has been quite interesting. This is the proverbial teaching moment,” McIntyre said, adding that the general public’s interest in truth as a concept really took off after the 2016 election.
“I saw the network people on television struggling with this philosophical question, what’s the difference between a falsehood and a lie? How can you tell if somebody is just spin-doctoring or if there is something more sinister going on?
“People are fascinated with it,” he said. “People are scared; they want to have some place to anchor and to know, is this going to get better?”
Generally, a falsehood is when somebody says something that they believe to be true but it later turns out to be false. A lie is when somebody intentionally presents something that is false as the truth, McIntyre says.
“Post-truth is not mere lying; it’s a form of political manipulation, a form of trying to get somebody not to care about what’s true because you’re putting ideology in front of reality.”
Lee McIntyre, a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University
Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine of Hippo talked about three kinds of lies — malicious, officious and jocose — which today would be categorized as black, gray or white lies.
But McIntyre believes that a distinguishing characteristic of today’s environment is post-truth, which the Oxford Dictionary named word of the year in 2016.
Oxford deemed post-truth an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” McIntyre, however, employs it as a noun and says it’s more sinister than other forms of untruths.
“Post-truth is not mere lying; it’s a form of political manipulation, a form of trying to get somebody not to care about what’s true because you’re putting ideology in front of reality,” he said.
The effect on society is a creeping hostility toward facts that clash with our worldview, followed by contempt for mechanisms and institutions devoted to finding truth and distrust of those who claim to uphold it, he said.
Those institutions that seek to find and uphold truth could include religious groups, academia and science, the latter of which is discovering ways in which being dishonest affects our brains. Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, has studied how cheating is contagious, and how being dishonest changes our brains, making it likely that “small acts of dishonesty can escalate into larger transgressions.”
Dishonesty, Ariely believes, is a social contagion but its effects can be mitigated by reminding people of moral codes such as the Ten Commandments, he writes in “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty.”
Bob Woodward, the former Washington Post reporter whose investigation of corruption (with Carl Bernstein) led to the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974, has spoken of the need for truth tellers in a time in which news cycles are dominated by “Trump against the facts.”
But as for the culture at large, Kavanagh, a political scientist at the Rand Corporation. and co-author of “Truth Decay,” said that there have been other periods in history when some Americans, including those representing themselves as journalists, played loose and fast with the truth.
Evan Vucci, AP
White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway talks with reporters outside the White House, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
In the 1880s and 1890s, “yellow journalism” emerged with an expanse of sensationalized and exaggerated stories; this was followed by “jazz journalism,” photograph-driven stories of sex, violence and entertainment, Kavanagh said. In the 1960s and 1970s, the line between reporting and opinion became blurred with what was known as “new journalism,” and that blurred line is manifest today as people share opinions and forward links on social media.
A common element in those precursors to “fake news,” sponsored content and false information deliberately spread is a rapid change in how information was disseminated, first as news became broadcast on the radio, then television, then the internet, she said.
“In these interim periods, things can be messier, as we develop the norms and processes and institutions to govern these new information systems. There’s a period during which things seem murky, and that seems to be what we’re experiencing today,” Kavanagh said.
Does that mean that truth may emerge a victor once we adapt to the dizzying speed at which information and disinformation can be spread around the world? Possibly, she said. “We could end up in a better place in the future.”
But this doesn’t mean we’ll soon have a universally accepted answer to Pilate’s millennia-old question, or a means to ensure that people value the truth more than deceit.
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