Beginning in 2016, the Think-Off Committee established the new category of Honorable Mention essays to provide a way to showcase additional excellent essays beyond the top four finalists. Five Honorable Mention essays have been selected from each side and printed below, with permission from the authors.
Yes, the 2016 Election Has Changed Our Perception of Truth:
“Archaeology is the search for facts, not truth. If it’s truth you want Dr Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”
With that simple statement, Indiana Jones defines our conversation, clarifying that Fact and Truth are not the same thing. Facts are provable while truth is perceptual, so let us begin our exploration by examining that dichotomy.
In a criminal trial the facts establish that defendant Smith caused the death of Jones. However, the jury is expected to decide the truth…was it murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide, or self defense? The jury is charged with determining Truth, based upon Fact. The two are not automatically interchangeable.
Though many advocate that “honesty is the best policy” we all know that it is not always the best thing to do. Any man who has faced the question “Does this make me look fat?” knows better. Despite that we generally assume that truth is, and should be, tethered to fact.
While he likely wasn’t the first, Dr Joseph Goebbels told us that a lie can become the truth, if told often enough and loudly enough. He then proceeded to prove his hypothesis as the rest of the world watched. In the end, we asked “How could that happen?” It seemed almost impossible.
However, in the 1930’s we had the advantage of being on the outside looking in. American society in 2016 was on the inside, and now we know exactly how it could happen, although unlike the Germans we have discovered firsthand that our perception of truth can change.
The author Flannery O’Conner observed, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” Flannery was wrong. It is the facts that do not change. We have learned that truth can be completely separated from facts and still be accepted as truth.
Mark Twain said, "The most outrageous lies that can be invented will find believers if a man only tells them with all his might." He was right.
Setting aside the existing formal structures of philosophy for a moment, I believe there are two types of truth that we must consider: personal and perceived.
Personal truths are those which we have developed for ourselves, the things we believe. They are based upon our lives, learning, and experiences. Some are likely based upon facts, while others, specifically those of a religious nature, may be based more upon faith. From time to time we may choose to revisit our beliefs…our personal truths… balancing them against new information or changes in norms of society.
Perceived truths are those which present themselves through our interaction with others. They are often simply expressions of the opinions of others, and we are often more openly judgmental about them, for they may be dramatically at odds with our own beliefs. That does not make them less truthful for others.
Campaign promises have always been problematic. With experience we have learned that such promises and statements should be taken at face value, acknowledging that the candidate may be truthful in his or her desire, but limited by their ability to convince Congress or a State legislature to follow their lead. However, in most cases we could expect that the candidate was speaking their truth in a general sense.
The 2016 election, however, has presented us with very different situation. For perhaps the first time we have listened to a candidate who utters words we know to be untruthful when compared with the facts. These are no longer simply policy proposals, but often devolve into the world of lies. We might find the words pleasing, promising a better world, but they are completely disconnected from facts. Often they utterly deny reality.
Because of this our perception of truth has changed. We have rightly become more suspicious and skeptical.
We have also seen how our perception of the truth can be altered by the social media of the internet, often in postings related to the election. Where the news media was generally assumed to present a truth connected to reality, we are now faced with media sources that openly lie, even to the point of outright fabrication. The need for fact-checking has become commonplace and a new industry has arisen, charged with debunking a continual storm of falsehoods.
Given all of that, our perception of truth has changed, and in the process we have become a more fearful society, untrusting of each other and the information that informs our decisions and lives. Truth is no longer what it once was.
In 1958, Senator John F Kennedy coined the phrase “the missile gap”. He campaigned that the Eisenhower Administration was weak on defense. Kennedy was shown the actual numbers the CIA had. There was no missile gap. But the truth didn’t matter: the tactic was working, and it would help him win the White House.
Every presidential campaign features lies and distortions. Sometimes, as in 1960, they directly influence the outcome. But even those that don’t – say, the Obama 2012 campaign claim that Romney paid no income taxes – have a cumulative negative effect: reinforcing our biases, and lowering our standards.
In the first episode of Stephen Colbert’s Comedy Central show back in 2005, he introduced the word “truthiness”, describing the artificial truth substitute that was part of morning coffee in the Bush White House. Colbert was funny. But the dozens of commentators, columnists, and reporters who repeated and adopted the word were not. It seems to me now that the news media embraced “truthiness” as a hip-sounding way to avoid saying, The President is lying.
That’s just one way the 2016 election has changed our perception of the truth. When the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine both characterize the sitting President as a habitual liar who can’t be trusted, you know something’s happening here.
It’s not the nature of truth that’s changed, nor its political inconvenience. Lies have always been, will always be, part of politics, because it’s about power, and lies are so useful in so many ways.
Some of my friends seem to think that the 2016 election demonstrates that, now, suddenly, the truth doesn’t matter to people, or that we can’t tell the difference. They say that after decades of propaganda, after years of the digital echo chamber, after months of the limelight being on the star of a reality television show, we’ve reached an unprecedented level of disorientation, denial, mass illusion.
But people haven’t changed – take a look anywhere in history, to find that we’ve always been easily misled, deceived and stampeded.
Nor has the morality of truth changed. Bearing false witness is unacceptable, not just now but in all human societies. Forbidden, because it destroys social bonds, makes it impossible to live together. Forbidden, because it steals a person’s ability to choose for themselves. Just as physical coercion turns another person into an object, lying treats a person as a means to the liar’s purpose, an object to be manipulated.
What’s changed is our perception of Truth in relation to other core values – like fairness, security and freedom. Before last year’s election, we thought of “the truth” as something to be debated, discovered, decided by history. But now, we’re also seeing Truth in a different way: as the foundation of public morality, and the essential ingredient of public life.
Starting with the age of television, our elections have become a form of mass entertainment. 2016 has shown us the difference between advertising and public discourse, between brand loyalty and patriotism, between show business and democracy. Show business depends on emotional appeal, not some depiction of empirical truth.
And the difference matters. In a democracy, one‘s interests are defined in terms of tangible results: a bridge or an education or a tax cut. In a show-biz democracy, our “interest” is our experience as part of the audience, the psychological result. As with any effective tv commercial, our choice is to be based on which brand gives me a symbol, slogan or image that makes me feel good about myself?
The 2016 election has put the truth in a new light. For me, formerly content to be a spectator, a kibitzer, a consumer of politics, the truth compels me to see myself as a citizen, and to act like one. I’m not alone in this. I believe more and more of us will make the effort to identify what matters to us, and get up off the couch.
No one knows what happens next – how far the program Steve Bannon calls “the deconstruction of the administrative state” will be advanced, or what unexpected attack or cooked up crisis will influence public events. We know it won’t be pretty: the struggle for who gets what is bitter, and long. But already, with a new understanding of the value of truth, we’ve demonstrated something that was long over-due: We won’t accept being lied to.
The Great American Think-Off is in total disarray. The director of the New York Mills Cultural Center has been skimming organizational funds and dumping them into a secret Swiss bank account. It was recently revealed that many contestants have assured their place in the final round of Think-Off competition with “charitable donations” to the Cultural Center ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Some local townspeople think the Cultural Center is a front for ISIS. And if that weren’t enough, several members of the Cultural Center board have been implicated in a lucrative sex-trafficking ring.
Sounds pretty ghastly, doesn’t it? But there’s just one minor problem: none of those claims is true. (Not even close!)
But, unfortunately, these.days “truth” doesn’t really matter-instead, it’s our perception of truth that counts. The world of news and information has become profoundly different. In an era where things routinely go “viral,” if something is viewed often enough, it takes on at least the patina of “truthiness”-after all, how can something possibly be untrue if I can find it in so many places, packaged so attractively, and worded with such passion?
Traditionally, people have had to do actual research before something they write can reach a mass audience. They need to convince a “gatekeeper”-an editor, publisher, or producer-that the message has news value and can be documented. What we see on the CBS Evening News or read in the Wall Street Journal is the end product of an enterprise built around accuracy. Above all, professional journalists-from their first day of J-school to their last day before retirement-are trained to get it right. Even one small lapse can literally cost them their jobs and even their careers. Just ask NBC anchor Brian Williams, who, by making one factual misstatement about his experiences in the Iraq war, was suspended without pay for six months and has never returned to the NBC anchor desk. If news organizations do not have credibility, they have nothing; that has been the guiding principle of the professional press, and it has served us well.
Today, all that has changed. Now, some guy named Eddie who thinks that aliens from outer space have taken over the mind of Donald Trump can become an instant newsmaker. Anyone can merely tweet something, impulsively, and through those tweets reach an immediate audience, and there are no fact-checkers to verify the accuracy of such assertions. Anyone with a smart phone, anyone with a blog, or anyone with an axe to grind can tell the world about their view of reality. And in the process, our sense of the “truth” has become incredibly more elusive. It is doubtful that even a small portion of what we read on line would meet the rigorous standards that professional journalists must adhere to every single day.
With the 2016 election, we reached new lows in the search for truth, and new highs in the sheer scope of the fakery. Take the Russian involvement in our electoral process, which by almost any account was one ginormous disinformation campaign; some estimates put the total U.S. readership of the bogus Russian accounts at 213 million. An entire team of Russian operatives was behind such fabricated stories as
“Pizzagate,” a story that claimed Hillary Clinton and her campaign chair were running a pedophilia ring out of a Washington, D. C. pizza parlor. Or, take a man named Cameron Harris, who was hired last year to plant false stories online; more than six million people read postings of his fake news. Some of the headlines included, “NYPD Looking to Press Charges Against Bill Clinton for Underage Sex Ring,” “Tens of
Thousands of Fraudulent Clinton Votes Found in Ohio Warehouse,” and “Hillary Clinton Files for Divorce in New York Courts.” As if it really mattered, several of his pieces were explicitly debunked by snopes.com, a myth-busting site, but once such stories are out, they gain a sort of toxic traction-their mere presence gives them a weird semblance of potential authenticity and fills the room with the foul odor of doubt.
We are in a downward spriral, built upon a deadly trifecta that’s founded on (1) a woeful lack of media literacy, magnified by (2) poor critical thinking skills, and contaminated by (3)an almost total disregard for what constitutes civil discourse. In any such environment, how can one say that our perception of truth has not been altered?
Searching for truth has traditionally been considered a valued activity. While truth is not easily defined, we seem to know intuitively what it means. Seeking truth.is often a difficult road to follow with few clear signs along the way. Taking shortcuts becomes an inviting temptation to escape the rigor and challenge of the quest. These detours sometimes lead us to simple answers to complex questions. Our perception of truth falters when we stray from the path of clear and logical thinking. The 2016 campaign and election is an example how our perception has changed by taking the easy way out.
A model of going the extra mile to establish the truth is the American justice system. The approach used to determine a verdict is generally successful although there have been some notable- exceptions. DNA evidence has been presented to cast doubt on previous murder convictions so as to clear the prisoner or at least bring about a new trial.
Years ago in Michigan I served as a foreman of a six person jury assigned to a drunk driving case. Before we were accepted on the jury we had to agree to not give the officer’s testimony any more credibility because he wore a badge. We were also not to make the assumption that the defendant was guilty just because he was stopped by a police officer. He was innocent until proven guilty. We were instructed to follow the evidence.
The prosecutor presented the case, and the police officer filled in the details. One evening the officer detected some erratic driving on the part of the defendant, pulled him over and gave him a breathalyzer test. The results showed his alcohol level to be twice the legal limit. The defense attorney contested the accuracy of the breathalyzer. Evidence was presented by the prosecution that the device had been tested at the proper intervals although some time had passed since the last inspection. After the prosecution and the defense summarized their positions, the judge gave us final directions as to how to approach our decision making.
I felt considerable responsibility for us to get this right. If we convicted the defendant unfairly, his life would be greatly inconvenienced with his punishment losing his license for a period of time. If we let him off too easily, he could be a continued danger on the streets with perhaps his intoxication causing innocent people to lose their lives.
I led the other jurors through the evidence. We believed that the police officer was honest and diligent in performing his duties. We further decided there was not sufficient evidence to discount the breathalyzer reading. We found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s natural to believe there’s an objective truth that transcends the interpretation made by our fellow humans. However, this version of the truth is often inaccessible to someone who wasn’t on the scene. If we as a jury can’t discover the actual truth, we need to get as close a possible using the tools at our disposal, usually testimony _and evidence. We struggle with what we’ve heard and what we’ve seen.
We’re not interested in shortcuts. In today’s political climate, there is great distrust on all sides as our citizens try to determine the nature, values and future of our country. We often rely on unfounded assumptions to help us discern the evidence that politicians and the media are transmitting to us non-stop. We can’t even agree on the facts.which are the basic starting point to solve problems together. We may disagree on what they mean, but we must agree on the facts. We may differ on whether to put money into defense versus education but should agree with how much we’re starting with.
Many today are not interested in matching their quest for answers with the integrity typified by the American justice system. Unlike jury members who are trying to determine what really happened in a situation, these people do not want to struggle to learn the truth. They want to believe whatever information, documented or not, that supports their side. They are more than likely to take the first available off-ramp and exit the search.
This perception of truth has occurred before in history. Nazi Germany a prime example. The tendency to bend the truth never completely disappears, but has become much
more noticeable in the United States recently as a result of the 2016 campaign and election.
Politics today is keeping our better instincts from reaching their destination.
It was in the dying hours of 2015 that my wife, son, and I found ourselves sitting in an examination room with a developmental pediatrician. It had taken the better part of that year to get a referral and schedule an appointment in the hopes of determining why our son, three years old by that time, still wasn’t speaking. It wasn’t shocking that at the end of the appointment he was diagnosed as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but it was a shock, nevertheless. As we left the clinic that evening I tried to comfort my wife and myself by saying, “Nothing has really changed, our son is the same person leaving as he was going in tonight. We just put a name to the thing we already knew we were dealing with.” Though not completely false, this amounted to little more than a comforting lie, and not a very convincing one, either. Even if the diagnosis didn’t change our son, it did change my and my wife’s perception of what we were going through. It forced us to face some hard questions and to start exploring new and unfamiliar paths for possible solutions.
Similarly, the 2016 elections did not change what was already going on in this nation.
People were divided, angry, and intransigent in their beliefs before ballots were cast and none of that changed afterward. The trend of turning to sources of information that agree with our own ideological biases and shunning those that don’t has continued unabated. Perceptions of “truth” have changed in the wake of the 2016 presidential elections to be sure, but it would be a mistake to think it was a consistent or universal change across the nation.
Following the diagnosis of our son we had a brief period of relative quiet and reflection followed by furious research and work to line up a course of treatment and education.
The end of March saw the three of us board a plane for Nashville to meet with an expert in delayed speech for advice and a second opinion. It was in our hotel room afterward that I came to fully appreciate how different our perceptions of the issue (the diagnosis and what we needed to do going forward) were. One was satisfied that the first doctor had made a good diagnosis, the other was disappointed that the expert hadn’t offered anything more, no hope that a simpler, or at least more straightforward and effective, remedy was available to us. We talked about our diverging opinions and we came to agreement on how to proceed. Not moving forward wasn’t an option and we had to be in accord for any solution to be effective. We still aren’t always on the same page, but when we get too far apart we talk about it and reset. The road we are walking down is a long one and we still don’t know what the final destination will be, but we agree it is the one we need to go down.
As a society, on the other hand, we no longer seem interested in agreeing upon any single truth as a common point of reference in our debates. Facts and beliefs are misconstrued as being interchangeable. Policy debates and political disputes are pitched as all-or- nothing grudge matches, scores are kept, and victory is held up as the only valid indicator of a truth’s value. Perceptions of truth have most certainly changed, but not in a uniform way. For some the results of the election justified the uncompromising course they have already set for themselves and encouraged them to push things further, faster. For others it was a wakeup call to how low our national political debate has sunk.
Wherever your perceptions lie, one thing should be obvious. We as a nation have stopped listening to each other. Rather than searching for the truth many now strive to generate one that satisfies their ego and desires. Until all sides can start coming together and agreeing on where the truth lies this slide will continue. The arguments will become more heated and bitter. Our problems will continue to fester and spread for as long as we refuse to have an honest conversation amongst ourselves.
No, the 2016 Election Has Not Changed Our Perception of Truth:
I have observed every presidential election since Kennedy-Nixon. Since then, and perhaps before then, politicians on both sides have continued to tell lies with a smile, a sincere look, and without a blink. Some have told. bigger lies than others, but we have become accustomed to the nasty taste of their soured words. The 2016 election was no different–lie after lie after lie. Perhaps the lies were more numerous, arrogant, and bolder than usual, but they were lies nevertheless. We, the people of this country, understand what the truth is, and our perception of that has not changed.
Oh, yes, we would love to hear the truth from a politician, but then he or she would never be elected. We have the most murders of any country in the world. In fact, we have more murders in one city than does any other country have as a total count. We have the highest divorce rate in the world. We have more prisons and prisoners than does any other country in the world. We have the highest rate of obesity in the world. Now, is that what we want to hear? Do we really want to hear the truth? Of course not, we want to hear how great we are, how strong we are, and how just plain wonderful we are. We want to “make America great again;” that’s what wins votes, not the truth.
I remember very well the Nixon-McGovern election of 1972. Nixon, whom most people already viewed as unethical and having a “spotty character,” won forty-seven states, the greatest landslide victory in history. He won on the idea that he would make this country great again, and people believed him.
On December 16, 2016, Sociological Cinema posted on Facebook a cartoon showing a picture of George Washington, Richard Nixon, and Donald Trump. George Washington says, “I cannot tell a lie.” Richard Nixon says, “I cannot tell the truth.” Donald Trump says, “I cannot tell the difference.” This does suggest some evolution of the idea of truth, but not to our perception of it. A lie is still a lie. We learn to live with it.
Most people understand the difference between the truth and a lie. We are raised at home, in school, and in church to tell the truth. However, not too many years pass before we learn the consequences should we have to tell the truth. Sometimes, maybe a small lie is in order.
I remember when my two brothers and I were playing cowboys and Indians in the living room. Mom and dad were gone, and we knew that romping in the living room was not allowed. As my younger brother, the Indian, stabbed me with his rubber knife, I fell back onto the end table. The problem was that the end table had a vase on it that fell to the floor and broke into many pieces
We sat and stared at each other for quite some time before the blame started.
“Boy, are you in trouble, Mark,” said Barry.
“You’re in trouble too. You’re the one who pushed me,” I ranted.
“I didn’t do anything,” said Jay, the oldest.
“You were a cowboy with me. Dad’s going to kill you too,” I said.
It didn’t take long before ideas were tossed out and one was finally agreed upon. Beatle did it. Beatle was our dog, and he wasn’t allowed in the living room. But it wasn’t our fault, he just came in without our seeing him.
So when our parents came home, we all stuck to the story of Beatle’s recklessness. Poor Beatle got yelled at some, and we did too for not watching him well enough. That one lie, however, sat on our consciences for many years until my mother’s 50th birthday when we came clean on the broken vase. Much to our surprise, her response was, “Of course I knew that Beatle didn’t do it. Your faces told me then that you would never be politicians. Always tell the truth, that way your mind won’t be burdened for years to come.”
Our perception of the truth hadn’t changed even though we had altered its seams so we didn’t stumble. We know what the truth and a lie are. One can cost you peace of mind, and the other can set you free.
The election has helped confirm our perception that politicians are liars, but our perception of truth remains locked in the safe of our psyches forever.
When I was ten years old, I told my little sister that we won her as a prize at the county fair. She believed that lie for two years. I didn’t say it for any monetary gain, nor did I say it to get myself out of trouble. I did it because older brothers sometimes tease their little sisters.
When I was sixteen years old, the President of the United States of America lied to me (and to the rest of the American people) when he said he did not have sexual relations with a White House intern. That lie was told in an effort to escape punishment. Different motive, same crime.
The problem is, we have all lied. If you just thought to yourself “Well, I’ve never lied,” you lied just now. Our recent election didn’t change our perception of truth; truth is optional, for many reasons, and this fact was established long ago. The Judeo-Christian belief system has, as one of its Ten Commandments, the phrase “Thou shalt not lie.” Logically, this tells us that lying was enough of a problem thousands of years ago that God needed to address it.
Since lying is so ubiquitous, the fact that people do it is no longer the problem. Our new task is trying to tell truth from lies, fact from fiction.
In the months leading up to the American Presidential election in 2016, it was revealed that a group of Macedonian teenagers deliberately posted false news, much of it about Trump, on websites they created. They even went so far as to create thousands of fake Facebook profiles to like and share the links, thereby increasing traffic to their pages. In the modern era of pay-per- click internet advertising, these teenagers made a relative fortune. On the other hand, many Americans believed what they read. The more sensational the story was, the more it was circulated, no matter its validity. To this day, many people don’t realize that the “news” they read during the campaign held no truth at all. They don’t care. They still shared it freely. The truth of a story has become irrelevant.
In the summer of 2016, during his campaign for the Presidency, Donald Trump told the American people, in reference to our embarrassing health care issues and our confusing political process, “Nobody knows the system better than me. Which is why I alone can fix it.” He also told us, “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words." Trump made these statements to get elected. Are they lies? Absolutely. Do people believe them? Enough people did to win him the election.
So who can we believe? My own experience from twenty years ago has told me that sometimes we can’t believe our President. Our current President, on the other side of the aisle, is no different. He once claimed that climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese to make America less competitive in manufacturing, then later called that a joke, then later denied the whole episode. He even promotes certain specific types of lies, as reported in a Time Magazine article: “As a businessman, Trump wrote in praise of strategic falsehood, or ‘truthful hyperbole,’ as he preferred to call it.” President Trump isn’t perfect. Sometimes he lies, but we can’t be mad at him for that. Everyone lies. Our greatest obstacle moving forward is knowing what to believe. If Trump claims that Obama tapped his phones, do we believe him? If people in Trump’s administration claim to have zero ties to Russia, do we believe them? If a major news outlet reports that Trump’s inauguration crowd was smaller than Obama’s, is that fake news?
The great Bill Murray is quoted as saying, “So, if we lie to the government, it’s a felony. If they lie to us, it’s politics.” Clearly, we know that sometimes politicians lie. But a certain lie, tweeted and shared and spread by all die-hard Trump followers, the millions of people who blindly believe anything he says, could be disastrous. As another famous politician once said, “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” It almost sounds like something Donald Trump might say in private. The scary part is that quote came from Adolf Hitler.
The year 2016 came and went, and my perception of truth did not change. As a scientist, I seek truth in the scientific method. People can lie, form conclusions from inadequate information, and manipulate statistics, but the truth remains. We may not know the truth, but the truth is out there waiting to be uncovered.
The scientific revolution of the modern era began with an underlying assumption that truth could be found by using the scientific method. Isaac Newton formulated laws to explain gravitation and the movement of objects by testing, measuring, and devising complex mathematical formulas to support his laws. Some people claim that quantum mechanics disproved Newtonian physics, but Newton’s laws are still relevant to people who worry about crashing a car or having a pan fall on their foot.
Scientists often miss the truth. There are always a group of people delighted when the scientists are wrong. At times, we celebrate scientific error so much that we forget that the scientific method gave us the food we eat, the medical practices that allow us to live with little fear of death and the lights in our room.
Some of the most famous scientific mistakes had to do with humans. Other disciplines have made similar mistakes, including my field of agriculture, but people remember the time when dietitians said to avoid eggs better than the time when entomologists said that spotted wing drosophila flies could not survive in areas with hard frosts. Mistakes are more likely when looking at humans, insects or plants, because there are more variables. Rocket scientists calculate the trajectory of objects moving through a vacuum. Dietitians try to calculate the energy use of people who have varying levels of mitochondria in their cells, absorb food at different rates and lie about how much they eat and exercise. Naturally, the dietitians make mistakes. I also make mistakes.
My own views on truth have been shaped by working with the trees, shrubs and plants which produce the fruit we eat. I am frequently asked to answer why plants are dying or not producing a crop. Newton explained how an apple could fall from a tree. I try to explain every factor that influences an apple’s taste, quality and size from the moment a floral bud is initiated in July until the fruit ripens 15 months later. Determining the truth in these cases is difficult, because there are countless variables: weather patterns, soil, insect pests, diseases we can see and diseases we can’t see.· The people who tell me about their plants forget key details. A third of the plant is underground. My diagnoses will be wrong at times. If I and my clients are right more often than we are wrong, we make progress. We learn how to control insect pests without killing bees or increase yield with less fertilizer.
In the current political discourse, two sides have formed, each claiming to have a lock on the truth. Our current situation is by no means unique, because there have always been people and groups of people who claim to know all the truth. In reality, no one person will be right all the time and no one person will be wrong all the time. Werner Heisenberg talked about the movements of atoms when he said, “The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is know.” This principle can apple to everyday life, because the more accurate we are on one factor, the less accurate the other factors are. We can’t know everything about everything. For some, not knowing all truth is a tragedy. For me, it makes life endlessly interesting.
Progress stops when people give up searching for the truth. Ever since Newton tried to figure out why apples fell to the ground, that search for truth has led humans on an extraordinary series of scientific advances. We don’t always know the truth, but we should always collect and evaluate data, and continue to hav: open debates and discussions. tP I fear for the future, because I see people of all political persuasions trying to silence rather than debate those who see the truth differently, whether the discussion is over science or foreign policy. Few people have ever been fooled by a strawberry plant. Such humiliations help open our eyes to know that we don’t always have the truth.
The 2016 election did not change our perception of truth; it merely revealed our existing relationship with the truth. We, the people, by our very nature and the nature of our republic, have always had a complicated relationship with truth. This is nothing new. But, this election did not upend each individual’s upbringing, education, and life experiences to reframe perceptions of truth. Politics have always been adversarial, the media has long been biased, and we as individuals have always coalesced into groups based on identity. We’ve always sought to control narratives and reinforce self interest We have a misguided tendency to blame anything and everything on this election cycle because it’s easy.
What has changed, rather recently given the course of history, is our ability to convey our truth. Communication has experienced a revolution; accessibility to information has changed. Life is radically different than 30 years ago. Innovation gave us the internet in the 90’s, Facebook in 2004, and Twitter in 2006. The dissemination of both opinion and fact, and the reach of that information, has exploded. We are connected in ways, not possible a few decades ago. Today, in ten minutes online, I can read CNN or Fox,watch a live a panda cam in China, search porn, add to Wikipedia as an author, look up song lyrics, and access my son’s current grades.
This evolution has provided the conditions for a growing vulnerability as it relates to truth. Our perception of truth is not static by its very nature. The recent election, at its core, was bound to be a perfect storm. Two deeply flawed candidates, scandals, a populace already divided into factions. It was a manifestation of ego, identity politics, and blatant demagoguery. The barrage of media (traditional and social) screamed at us to pay attention. And it worked–we paid attention. The sensational display was made possible by current communication. But we cannot conflate noise and visibility with an actual changed relationship.
Society is evolving, as it always has. It’s messy and more visible than ever. Election coverage, terrorism, immigration, and gender debates are like crack for the media, and by extension, the populace. Throw a story out and see what drives ‘likes’, re-posts, and ratings. And, let’s be honest, Americans have always liked a good fight. Ideological differences are encouraged and protected by our very Constitution. The first amendment is alive and well and, fortunately for some, does not require truth in any way. Truth is often a casualty when emotions are stronger than facts.
We’re struggling and don’t currently have values shared by our country. The election revealed this, but it did not create this reality. Perhaps what we value and what we tolerate are changing. We had already become insular with no shared definitions of truth. Rather than debate or seek to understand, we readily accept te idea that there is no truth. Armchair existentialism is alive and well. And now, in painfully public ways for general consumption, we demonize those who espouse contrary ideas. We make assumptions about who they are, generalize, and discount them as individuals entirely based on our perception of truth. We do this with no civility, accountability, or honor. We call ourselves principled and feel good about it. And the reach is deep-many of our educational institutions are now structured in such a way to ‘protect’ children, our future leaders, from differing thoughts and words.
My son is growing up in a world with a very different relationship to truth. He is beyond confused about race, religion, gender, and politics. One morning he told me he was unfriending the neighbor mom on Facebook because he didn’t want to have hate for breakfast. He couldn’t handle the barrage of re-posts and vitriol with his Captain Crunch. If he wasn’t raised in a home that demands responsibility of thought, he could be vulnerable to opinion presented as fact. In our home, there is only one correct response to a differing opinion or interpretation of truth-to get curious. We seek to understand differences and follow them to the end. We seek knowledge and original sources. And, in the absence of fact, o’r shared truth, we seek to understand where an opinion or emotion came from. One’s perception of truth can change, and perhaps should, when hearing another’s personal story.
My hope is that my son heeds Thomas Jefferson’s advice, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”
About a quarter of a century ago, I worked for a small tech company as a software engineer and I was on a beta-site installation at a pharmaceutical company with our latest V.P. of engineering, Ed. This new V.P. was billed as being someone who could “close” a sale. I was present in a meeting with Ed and one of the pharmaceutical company managers when I heard Ed make a statement that was incorrect. I corrected him. He corrected me and continued with his sales pitch. I soon realized that he had not made a mistake. He was purposefully misleading the customer. Ah, so, that is how he became such a good “closer”. When I returned home, I brushed up my résumé and moved on. I had no intentions of working for a shmuck like that.
I remember another meeting, at another company, in which a contractor explained to a different V.P. of engineering why the contractor’s thermal-printer print-heads were superior to another head we were considering. When the contractor left, I said: “You know Ohms Law, right?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then you know that he was spouting a complete line of techo-babble. It is not a matter of voltage driven or current driven, what determines the heat output of a strictly resistive print- head is wattage – determined by both voltage and current.”
A good lie must have a little bit of truth to it. The perfect lie muddies the water by not being completely false, but by misleading you to think it might be true. Yes, I have seen my share of untruths told in the private sector. It’s not just politics where people lie to get ahead. But politicians do it most blatantly and damagingly, and they have for many years.
Aside from working in the computer field, I also enjoy reading history books. One of my favourite reads has been Thucydides. He was an Athenian general who arrived, with his army, one day too late at the battlefield around 424 B.C. The Athenians had fought the day before he arrived and lost, so he was disgraced and exiled. With nothing better to do with his life, he did what all retired generals do, he wrote a book about all the battles that he could not participate in. Thucydides observed and documented The Peloponnesian Wars and he accurately profiled one of the most golden tongued politician of his age: Alcibiades. Thucydides spared no venom on this charlatan. Alcibiades was an Athenian general, until he defected to the Spartans. When the Spartans figured out his game, he defected to the Persians. While he was with the Persians he tried negotiating an arms sale of the latest Persian Triremes to the Athenians. The deal could not be closed, but it did get him back into the good graces of the Athenians, where he started leading troops again. In 415 B.C. Alcibiades was the most persuasive proponent of having the Athenians wage war on Sicily – a war which destroyed the Athenian army and navy and ultimately brought about the end of Athenian democracy.
We humans have not evolved very much in 2400 years. We are still susceptible to those flamboyant politicians and “closers” who spin lies which people want to believe. We can still be conned by the occasional unscrupulous, ambitious, orator whose words defy logic, facts (alternate or otherwise) and of course… the truth.
2016 has not changed our perception of the truth. There have always been opportunists willing to do anything to cut-a- deal which will enhance their personal stature, but at everyone else’s detriment. Most of us can recognize such people when we see them, but occasionally one of these characters says just the right thing at the right time to cloud our better judgment. When such a shmuck becomes the leader of our country we can’t quit the country and get another – like we can change jobs. We need to call-out the lies each time we identify them, and boldly proclaim to everyone with ears to hear, that the emperor has no clothes on.