This American Lie

A WSU professor asks: do facts still matter in the United States?

  • January 25, 2019
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  • 5 Questions
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  • By Jefferson Robbins

Ten years ago, Washington State University professor Steven Stehr got involved in a large-scale National Science Foundation project, training doctoral students in the sciences about how their work could affect, or be affected by, public policy. The idea was to create scientists with a toe in the waters of government.

“As an outgrowth,” Stehr says now, “I became interested in the topic of how knowledge gets used in policy debates.”

The timing was right. Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report had made “truthiness” — the comedic notion that if a concept feels true, it’s a legitimate foundation for law — into a buzzword, and senior George W. Bush advisor Karl Rove was credited with dismissing journalists and historians as a powerless “reality-based community.” Stehr’s studies grew into “Is Truth Really Dead in America?,” his presentation for the Humanities Washington Speaker’s Bureau. To Stehr’s mind, the devaluation of truth and facts that’s now taking place in American government and media isn’t really a new phenomenon.

“People have strategically used language, for as long as democracy’s been around, to try and make problems look a certain way,” he says. “Because if you can define what the problem is, you have a big leg up on what solution is applied to it.”

 

Humanities Washington: Why is it sometimes easier to believe a lie, or a mix of lies and fact, than the truth?

Steven Stehr: Because it reinforces your membership in a tribe. It’s social identity, really. One of the people at Yale that studies this phenomenon poses the question: What if Sean Hannity came on one night and said okay, I’ve changed my mind — climate change is real, and we need to do something about it very quickly. He’d probably lose his job, his audience, his friends, people that think like him. We all act implicitly every day on inadequate theories about how the world works. It’s easier to just reinforce the narrative.

How do we measure the volume of untruth entering the public discourse?

The Pew Research Center did a really interesting study last year, where they gave a random sample of people 10 statements, and asked them to say whether they were factual statements or opinion statements. Aside from being woefully unable to sort fact from opinion, the biases ran in predictable ways. Only 40 percent of Republicans said President Barack Obama was born in the United States, where 90 percent of Democrats said that was a factual statement. Part of the problem is we’ve been so overwhelmed by opinion on social media and on cable TV shows. One of the problems of the 24-hour news cycle is that news is expensive, but opinions are cheap. When you turn on CNN — and I’m a pretty sophisticated consumer of political news — I often can’t tell what Anderson Cooper is peddling as news and what as opinion.

Is distrust of sources a part of the problem?

Certainly. People gravitate toward that news with which they already agree. It’s uncomfortable to hear alternative narratives to the ones that they have inside their heads. If you look at Millenials, the last figure I saw was about 65 percent of Millenials get their news completely from social media, and of course, we know that Google and Facebook have algorithms that push information at you that you already are likely to agree with. If they’re directing you toward things you already agree with and you’re not interested in critically analyzing, clearly that’s going to degrade the social basis of what we believe to be true.

“We all act implicitly every day on inadequate theories about how the world works. It’s easier to just reinforce the narrative.”

Are facts mutable and truth immutable, or is it the other way around?

I stay away from that philosophical discussion of what is truth. For purposes of a public presentation to non-specialists, I don’t worry too much about what I mean by truth. What I mean is empirically demonstrated observations, and certainly, those observations can change. That’s one of the first things you learn in a methodology class — about Karl Popper and the fact you can’t prove a hypothesis, you can only disprove it.

How does our country get past social identity and find valid truths to agree on?

One of the reasons to be optimistic is that, increasingly, it seems that we are willing to name and shame — that is, to call out people through fact-checkers and Snopes and Politifact and the Washington Post. There’s been a big explosion in these fact-checkers that maybe only has impact around the margins, because the people most likely to read these fact-checkers are the type who are already pretty discerning. I also have some faith that the marketplace of ideas is generally pretty self-correcting. The free exchange of ideas is a pretty healthy thing. The issue is going to be for the 30 or 40 percent that want to believe the lie anyway, and calling them out on it probably isn’t going to have any impact. Again, there’s pretty good evidence that if you challenge somebody on climate change, they’ll dig in their heels even more. My overall conclusion is that truth really isn’t dead in America — that every day, we rely on experts; we rely on “facts.” It’s just the margins — in really value-driven policy areas, like immigration, for example — where there’s room for people to dispute what’s factual and what’s not.

 

Steven Stehr is presenting his Speakers Bureau talk, “Is Truth Really Dead in America?,” across the state. Find an event near you. This talk is co-presented with the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service.

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