Honesty, RIP: Facts take a beating across US
By Matt Sedensky
NEW YORK – Is this when it ends for that ancient ideal, the truth? Is this where it has come to die, victim of campaigns and conspiracies, politicians and internet trolls and the masses who swallow their rhetoric?
Rest in peace, honesty?
“The value of facts in a democracy has taken a beating,” said David Barrett, a political science professor at Villanova University.
It isn’t just a presidential race in which Donald Trump has climbed new fact-bending heights while branding opponent Hillary Clinton “crooked” or “lying.” Increasingly today, realities seem open to interpretation, and blatant mistruths proliferate.
“There’s a profound doubt in this country about the importance of expertise, knowledge, things like that,” said Ohio University professor Kevin Mattson. “Trump has just drawn that out to its logical extreme conclusion.”
Mattson studies the history of ideas and wrote about the notion of a “post-fact” world. “It’s people’s belief that their willing and their subjective desire for something is more important than facts that stand outside of that,” he said.
Mattson said theories originating with left-leaning academics in France and elsewhere questioning whether anything can truly be known as fact began taking hold among American thinkers in the 1970s and 1980s. There is a connection between that, he said, and the rhetoric that has been spread by some in politics.
“The belief is that there is no objective truth – if we want something to be real, then it is real,” he said.
Through that lens, it’s easier to understand vehement insistence that climate change is not real (it is, according to scientific consensus) or that election fraud is rampant (it isn’t, repeated studies have found). The disconnect from facts is exacerbated by a confusing web of information sources, both ideology-driven news outlets and lesser-known sites that peddle lies through incredible headlines, which spread on social media.
And in a world where many get their news from Facebook or Twitter, the credible reports of upstanding news sources may get less attention or weight.
“The consensus seems to have become, if the truth isn’t entertaining or fun or clickable, who needs it?” said Eva Van Brunt, a public relations consultant. “With a news cycle that moves on before the average person has even finished an article, it doesn’t matter that something isn’t true, just that it served up hungry eyes for the nanosecond that it mattered.”
Andrew Cullison, a professor at DePauw University in Indiana who studies the relationship of skepticism to politics, said the internet has allowed lies to gain traction and for people to insulate themselves from those who disagree. Controlled studies have found that, even when provided evidence that something is false, many simply increase their level of confidence in a belief’s validity. The shape of public skepticism has shifted, Cullison said, causing many to look with suspicion at opposing views rather than to question their own.
“It’s easier to get a lie to stick and spread,” he said.
Rep. Bill Foster, a Democrat from Illinois, has experienced the jarring shift firsthand, having made a living as a Harvard-educated physicist before winning a seat in Congress in 2008. Running for re-election in 2010, Foster was defeated in a race in which his support of Obama’s economic stimulus plan became an issue. His opponent, he said, convinced voters the stimulus was a failure even as most economists agree it helped reduce unemployment. Facts were no match for rhetoric.
“In science, if you say something that you know is not true, it’s pretty much a career-ending move, and I get the feeling that that is pretty much the way it used to be in politics,” Foster said. “But more and more, you see the difference between a scientific fact or a historical fact and a political fact.”
A political fact, he explained, is something people become convinced of, but which isn’t actually true.
Paul Fidalgo of the Center for Inquiry, which advocates for evidence-based reasoning and publishes Skeptical Inquirer magazine, urged people on both sides to “take a breath and take a step back and examine why you believe what you believe.” Without identifying our own falsely held beliefs, he said, solutions are impossible.
Indeed, it’s hard for democracy to function when citizens come to believe, in the crossfire of claims not necessarily rooted in fact, that no one can be trusted to tell the truth, said Whitney Ross Manzo, a political science professor at Meredith College in North Carolina.
“Policymaking cannot be done,” Manzo said, “if everyone doesn’t agree what the simple facts of an issue are.”
In this year’s presidential race, fact checkers for countless news organizations, including The Associated Press, have scrambled to keep up.
Although Clinton is a favorite target of conservatives who point to her emails, Benghazi and a litany of her political positions as proof of her dishonesty, Trump has made more false statements, by far.
“Donald Trump has a problem with accuracy,” said Angie Drobnic Holan, editor of the fact-checking operation PolitiFact. “To me, the question is how badly that will hurt him on Election Day.”
The answer to that question may provide a new gauge of the value of facts in society.