Living in a Post-Truth America

I have no idea who coined the phrase, “Post-Truth World.” An email invitation tosubscribe to Scientific American had this as a headline: “Reject a Post-Truth World,” and that is when I saw it for the first time.

This is the way Scientific American described this new world:

Advances in science elevate all humanity, but science and journalism are under siege. 

Special interests distort facts and evidence to serve narrow economic and political goals. 

Pseudoscience and falsehoods are widely disseminated through a pernicious amalgam of

Tweets, fake news, and bluster.

 

The last round of elections at every level gave ample evidence that we have arrived

full grown to a post-truth nation.  Perhaps we need to think about truth.  Pilate asked the Christ, “What is truth?” and that has perhaps been a basic question of humankind.

 

One distortion of truth in the election campaign was to make a personal attack of the opponent rather than attack the position he or she held.  An opponent was given a label that was negative or unsavory in the minds of the electorate, such as “liberal,” “oil baron,” ”shady bank executive,” etc.  This could lead people to vote for or against another candidate based upon personality or a label rather than the candidates principles and political position.

 

Another political distortion is the half truth.  I can define it by an example.  Several years ago the leader of a Protestant denominational agency was accused of being in favor of abortion.  This would be amoral and ethical position at odds with his denomination.  To prove the charge, his opponents quoted his words, “Free choice is a wonderful thing.”  That could mean only one thing: he favored abortion.

 

I researched the literature, and sure enough, the man had said, “Free choice is a wonderful thing.” But the article he had written had nothing to do with abortion. The word abortion did not appear even once.  He was writing about religious experience and the fact that God gives us free choice to acknowledge Him or not.  To the writer, the ability of humans to have God-given moral freedom of choice was a wonderful thing.

 

A popular notion today is that all ideas are equally valid.  In a free society you can believe what you want to believe and that belief is so personal that we do not question it.  In fact, I have had students who had no idea of how to question or evaluate an idea.

 

We live in a world of ideas, but there are some ideas that are better than other ideas.  We  need to know how to evaluate ideas and to recognize which ideas are the better ones.

 

 

I started out writing about truth.  In my next blog I will pursue “truth” in relation to the notion that all ideas are equal.

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Living in a Post-Truth America: 2

Oxford Dictionaries announced  that “post-truth” was the word of the year for 2016.  The Dictionary defined “post-truth” as 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.”

Further, the editors noted that

Rather than simply referring to the time after a specified situation or event – as in post-war or post-match – the prefix in post-truth has a meaning more like “belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant.”

An article in Nature (vol. 540, issue 7631, 28 November 2016) contained an excellent analysis of how post-truth has become an acceptable part of daily discourse:

  • The  tolerance of inaccurate and undefended allegations.
  • Non sequiturs in response to hard questions and outright denials of facts.
  • Repetition of talking points passing for political discussion.
  • Serious interest in issues and options treated as the idiosyncrasy of wonks
  • “Don’t bother me with facts” is no longer a punchline; it has become a political stance.

The biggest problem in a post-truth world is determining who and what is telling the truth, and even further, not knowing what truth is. Truth, as used by Oxford Dictionaries and Nature, is not an abstract philosophical idea.  The context implies that “truth is what conforms to reality.” Therein lies a problem: what is reality? Whose reality is it? Is it an objective or subjective reality?  Is it both an objective and subjective reality?  How can we know?

I think a few questions need to be asked when something is presented as true according to the facts:

  • What is the source of the facts and is the source reliable?
  • Are the facts the real facts, or have they been altered in some way for political or religious reasons?
  • Do we have all the facts, or have some facts been withheld that skew the truth for political or religious reasons?
  • Who is interpreting the facts and do they have the qualifications for making an interpretation?

However, the public has been conditioned to hearing sound bites and reading headlines, so real thinking rarely takes place.  This may be why “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The media is often blamed for current state of affairs,  and this is partially true. The media has limited time and space to present information.  The public generally is not willing to read and/or listen to detailed presentations, and even less willing to think through the various consequences of information being accurate or inaccurate.  No one wants to watch, read, or listen to detailed reports.

The problem with condensing information into smaller, acceptable bits for the public can result in some misleading analyses of that information.  I do not believe this is because the media is “liberal” or “right wing” necessarily or that there is a media conspiracy of some kind.  Media personnel are limited in their training and ability to summarize adequately everything  that needs reporting.  We all have this limitation, for we do not know everything about everything. We are responsible for investigating what  is presented and coming to reasonable conclusions for ourselves. The post-truth world is not limited to secular society.  It is evident in the religious culture as well and the comments of the writer in Nature would be applicable to much of what is happening in Christian circles.

The public has been conditioned to believe that all ideas are equal, so there is no need to think about them. However, some ideas are better than others and we choose those ideas that are better.  This requires serious thinking and reflection, and there will always be differences of opinion about many ideas.  The public in general lacks that skill.  Living in a post-truth world informs me that I do not have complete truth, that I must consider some of my ideas may be temporary and subject to change as I come across new and better ideas. When new ideas come my way I need to be willing to make changes.

On the other hand, since I am involved in proclaiming some ideas I think are the better as a Christian minister, am I perpetuating a post-truth mentality in the process?  Do I articulate clearly my reasons for choosing these ideas and not withhold the limitations of those ideas? Am I encouraging my hearers to engage in thoughtful reflection on and discussion of what I am proclaiming?  Is my theology a series of non sequiturs?  Am I appealing primarily to emotion and personal belief?

I can’t answer these questions satisfactorily.  I believe positive change can be made in the lives of people and I can be a part of that change.  To aid in the process I can only do my best to be honest with the “facts” that I believe to be true, to present them fairly, to be open to new truth along the way, and to accept the struggle with truth as part of the journey.

Living in a Post-Truth America: I

I have no idea who coined the phrase, “Post-Truth World.” An email invitation to subscribe to Scientific American had this as a headline: “Reject a Post-Truth World,” and that is when I saw it for the first time.

This is the way Scientific American described this new world:

Advances in science elevate all humanity, but science and journalism are under siege. Special interests distort facts and evidence to serve narrow economic and political goals.  Pseudoscience and falsehoods are widely disseminated through a pernicious amalgam of Tweets, fake news, and bluster.

The last round of elections at every level gave ample evidence that perhaps we have arrived full grown to a post-truth nation.  Perhaps we need to think about truth.  Pilate asked the Christ, “What is truth?” and that has perhaps been a basic question of humankind.

One distortion of truth in the election campaign was to make a personal attack on the opponent rather than attack the position he or she held.  An opponent was given a label that was negative or unsavory in the minds of the electorate, such as “liberal,” “oil baron,” ”shady bank executive,” etc.  This could lead people to vote for or against another candidate based upon an aledged personality or label, rather than the candidates political principles.

Another political distortion is the half truth.  I can define it by an example.  Several years ago the leader of a Protestant denominational agency was accused of being in favor of abortion.  This would be a moral and ethical position at odds with his denomination.  To prove the charge, his opponents quoted his words: “Free choice is a wonderful thing.”  That could mean only one thing: he favored abortion.

I researched the literature, and sure enough, the man had said, “Free choice is a wonderful thing.” But the article he had written had nothing to do with abortion. The word abortion did not appear even once.  He was writing about religious experience and the fact that God gives us free choice to acknowledge Him or not.  To the writer, the ability of humans to have God-given moral freedom of choice was a wonderful thing.  Yes, it is true he said it, but his critics did not give the context and people were misled.  This was a half truth; the same as a lie.

A popular notion today is that all ideas are equally valid.  In a free society you can believe what you want to believe and that belief is so personal that we do not question it.  In fact, I have had students who had no idea how to question or evaluate an idea.

We live in a world of ideas, but there are some ideas that are better than others.  We  need to know how to evaluate ideas and to recognize which ideas are the better ones. The reason it is difficult to evaluate ideas is because we react positively to ideas that we already have, and ignore those with which we disagree.  Generally, we have not thought about the validity of our ideas.  They are ours, and they are OK since they are our ideas.   Professional speech writers know this about us, so they deliberately use verbal images that will draw us to agree with the speaker.

It would seem not only politicians, but other segments of society as well, believe the end justifies the means. The end determines what is true – and we buy into it – true or not. Our democracy is endangered if truth is no longer a value to be preserved.

To be continued.