Pat's View: The battle for the truth
By Patrick Robinson
Unless you live in an isolated place, away from most societal issues, or are simply unconcerned with what anyone else thinks, you have a model in your mind of what’s true and what isn’t. But that model, literally the shape of your world, whatever you think it is, is today almost constantly under attack.
You might think that what is true is in accordance with measurable reality, or further that the scientific method, based on empirical and multiple proofs is a good baseline.
But not everything we deal with in life yields to that kind of testing or analysis.
In 1632 Galileo Galilei published the results of his astronomical observations in which he argued for a sun-centered model of the solar system. At the time the Vatican (which ironically today maintains its own telescope in the United States) was opposed to teaching this idea and imprisoned Galileo.
The idea of what was true at that time was based on what leaders and learned people said. The vast majority of people were not educated after all. Over time, through the industrial age and up through the age of electronics and now what we call the information age, as more discoveries were made, more truth was seemingly revealed. More people were able to seek more education and the American experiment in democracy made it possible to have divergent views get a hearing.
But for as long as I can remember our political leaders, every single one of them, has at best hedged the truth, and at worst just plastered their time in power with long chain of untruths.
People want to trust their leaders. But that has grown more and more difficult and it’s getting worse. That has always been true of politics of course. Leaders always want to present the best case which often means misleading or leaving some information unsaid. This is much like the concept advanced in the book the Peter Principle in which “everyone lies to the boss” to either curry favor or avoid punishment. In a democracy, presumably the people are the boss and the leaders responsive to them, hence the lying.
But the distortion of what is real and true creates almost as if by design, a distorted path forward.
For a very long time the “fourth estate” meaning the media has served a purpose that most people misunderstand and which has now shifted dramatically in dangerous ways. The press was traditionally supported by an advertising model which kept it relatively healthy. But the press is still a business, reliant on amassing a large audience and acting as an advocate and to provide a frame for political issues.
With the rise of social media and the loss of barriers to publishing, millions of voices, many of them ignorant, caught up in their own echo chamber, all compete for the same audience that was once the province of those who not only knew the verifiable facts of the day but knew how to analyze, compare, and draw reasonable conclusions from them. As their audience has been reduced, so has their influence, but perhaps more dangerously with so many ignorant voices, many of them figuratively shouting from the rooftops, the din of misinformation has grown deafening. That in turn has resulted in greater mistrust, more division, more polarization. Who is telling the truth?
Anyone? Is there a way out of this swamp of sinkholes?
I hope so. But to get things to improve it’s going to take some very responsible measures by government, traditional media, and social media companies to help people trust more, get better grounding in what are verified facts and how to think more critically in the face of an avalanche of assertions.
Media has cruised along for many decades with a blind assumption. “If we tell you it’s true, you can trust that we’ve checked it out.”… The problem is that people now don’t trust the media. Even if you show them proof, many will choose to keep believing a complete falsehood. To combat this, it’s not enough to claim “We stand for truth” or “We report, you decide” or “Fair and Balanced” or any other marketing slogan. I am suggesting that news needs a kind of footnotes section. Links to other stories do this a to an extent. But those are largely ignored except by search engines. I’d like to see all stories online that literally have a “sources” section. I’d like to see a ratings agency funded by the government with both liberal and conservative employees provide “news trust” ratings.
I’d like to see social media companies publish those ratings next to links so people have at least some guide as to the truth of a political claim.
The way we’re going now is unsustainable.
One side will win, and that will mean the end of American democracy.