Is Truth Truly True?
One day in the 1980s, working in the federal government, I went to a Minister’s office to help write a response card for Question Period. These cards scripted answers for Ministers to questions that the Opposition might ask that day. My contribution was as the ‘subject matter expert’ on purchasing a certain type of specialized equipment.
The communications aficionados in the room immediately began to conjure ways to ‘spin’ the cost of the equipment. After a little while I asked “Why not just tell the truth?” They were flabbergasted. But they accepted my recommendation after I demonstrated that giving the precise figure would make any potential controversy disappear.
The equipment and costs were hard to argue about, so embarrassment – which of course is the goal of the Opposition in Question Period – would arise only from a perception that the Government was reluctant tell the truth!
Why is spin better than transparency? Why can’t people just tell the truth?
According to my internet searching, the connotations of ‘spin’ can be story-telling (spin a yarn), misdirection (put a spin on the ball in various sports), or deception (the spinner on a fishing lure). But whatever the slant, spin diverges from frank description.
In Aristotle’s framework, spin belongs to the realm of rhetoric, not to the realm of merely recounting or describing accurately. Spin destroys trust, as philosopher Kieron O’Hara shows in his 1990 book Trust: From Socrates to Spin.
It has become so difficult nowadays to tell or detect or perceive truth in the public arena, where the future of humanity and our planet are at issue.
A short, readable book called Post-Truth (MIT Press, 2018) by Lee McIntyre provides an account of the campaign in recent times to dismantle objective, reliable accounts of reality. It explains some of the intellectual underpinnings too, including how the subtleties achieved by post-modern philosophy have been perverted to suggest that all claims about reality are equally valid.
He traces the conscious crusades – by the tobacco industry, the oil lobby and “intelligent design” supporters – that created “the blueprint for how climate change deniers would later fight their own battles: attack the existing science, identify and fund your own experts, push the idea that the issue is ‘controversial,’ get your own side out through the media and lobbying, and watch the public react.”
The success of these campaigns shows that the claims of feelings can banish truth (evidence, objectivity) from societal decisions. And psychological studies show how ego protection, motivated reasoning and wishful thinking can make us cooperate unconsciously with the perversion of reality.
The stakes are high, including climate change and vaccination. Against today’s juggernaut of “alternative facts” and confirmation bias, McIntyre offers a bit of advice. First, proclaim the truth immediately, persistently and calmly when lies are broadcast. Second, practice an open mind; guard against falling into the echo chamber of confirmation bias.