Truth or Consequences

The shenanigans in the Senate over the past couple of weeks illustrate starkly one uncomfortable fact: We live in a post-truth world. The truth does not matter anymore. All that matters are money and power. If you have money and/or power (often, but not necessarily, the same thing), you can do whatever you like. The law can’t touch  you. Conversely, if you don’t have money or power, you have no redress. You’re screwed.

Donald Trump recognized this years ago. His whole corrupt career has been based on ripping people off and then deploying a cadre of lawyers to stonewall endlessly. Filing one appeal after another, browbeating witnesses into signing non-disclosure agreements — whatever it takes.

The Internet has put the final bricks in the coffin of democracy. Well, the Internet and television and scientific journals and the philosophy of postmodernism and, I’m sure, a few other things that I’m forgetting about at the moment.

The Internet is such a maelstrom of conflicting information that nobody can sort through it to find the truth. And when the truth is no longer available — or rather, when you can pick and choose among a welter of mutually contradictory “truths” — you have to fall back on your emotions. What feels right just has to be right, because who can say it’s not?

This process will be amply illustrated if you find yourself talking to a conservative. You can lay out the facts until the cows come home; it won’t matter. The conservative is sure you’re just parroting the “liberal media.” He has bathed in the lies of Fox News and other media that he finds emotionally congenial, so it’s obvious to him that you must be wrong. He isn’t even faintly interested in fact-checking — because whose “facts” do you trust?

Sadly, there’s a grain of truth in that absurd contention. Here’s how tough it is:

From time to time my Facebook friends post links to news or opinion stories that they feel are interesting. I click through and read the story — and not infrequently, I find that the story is not bylined. It was written and posted by someone who is not willing to stand behind it. It may assert that “scientists” have discovered something, but without naming the supposed scientists or providing links to the publications in which their findings are documented.

Those are red flags, of course, but they’re also (to mix a metaphor) the tip of the iceberg. Because what if there is a byline? What if the alleged scientific findings were published in a reputable journal? None of that is a reliable indication that you’re reading facts! The byline could be a fake name, and the scientific journal may have been scammed by a scientist who was faking his data.

That’s exactly what happened in the case of the vaccine “controversy.” A scientist made up some fake data, it was published, it was embraced by a bunch of frightened people who thought they had found an explanation for the rise in autism rates — and when the “science” was debunked, those frightened people didn’t change their minds! They continued to operate on the basis of their emotions: on the basis of what they wanted to believe.

Or maybe, you know, maybe we still don’t know everything about vaccines. I’m not an anti-vaxxer, okay? But look at the track record of reputable scientists in some other field, such as dietary recommendations. We now know that the information on nutrition that we were being fed, for decades, by the medical establishment was in some cases highly dubious. For one thing, the sugar industry and the meat industry had their big fat thumbs on the scales, paying off scientists and government officials to make sure their profits weren’t endangered.

So who knows what kind of diet is really good for you? Are GMOs bad, or are they okay? Don’t ask me; I haven’t a clue. An ordinary person can’t possibly sort out the conflicting claims. (Your doctor probably can’t manage it either; don’t bother asking her for advice.) So we eat whatever we feel like eating, or, more likely, whatever advertisers have convinced us to crave. We abandon truth in favor of decision-making that is based entirely on our emotions.

Recently I read an article suggesting that scientific journals are biased in favor of publishing studies that document a significant experimental outcome. Studies that fail to find a statistically significant correlation between whatever is being studied and the results of the study — those papers tend not to get published, because they’re boring and don’t tell you anything. The result is, if you go searching for reputable studies on subjects like diet or medication, there’s already a bias baked into what you learn, no matter how meticulously the studies were conducted. If ten studies show no correlation between factor X and outcome Y, while two show a correlation, you’ll be reading about those two. You’ll never find out about the other ten.

I’ve seen the post-truth dynamic playing out in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). A woman (a Latina) who was passed over for a job ran up the flag of racism. The whole denomination was thrown into an uproar, and it has yet to die down. As Todd Eklof points out in his book The Gadfly Papers, we still don’t know whether the hiring decision was racist: It may have been, or it may not. Shamefully, however, the UUA higher-ups were not interested in finding out the truth. They issued a white paper that failed to dig up the facts. In the end, the UUA was steered by one woman’s outraged emotions. Emotion, which was visible, easily triumphed over fact, because the facts would be hard to uncover and hard to interpret — and anyway, who would believe the facts? If the facts turned out not to support the woman’s accusations, nobody’s mind would change. People would just think the alleged facts were a cover-up. People who wanted to believe the accusations of racism would continue to believe, no matter what a fact-finding process happened to discover.

Even if the truth is available, truth doesn’t matter. If you can steer people’s emotions, you have the key to power. This is why media giants such as Facebook, Sinclair, and Fox are so dangerous. They don’t present facts; they manipulate emotions.

Vladimir Putin understands this. Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell understand this. But the Democrats don’t seem to have a clue. They’re still trying to make a case for the facts and the truth. It’s the honorable thing to do, but it’s a fool’s errand. As they say in New York (and somebody should tell Chuck Schumer this), “Fahgeddaboudit.”


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