‘Truth decay’ ripping us apart warns Obama

Fake news: Conspiracies about Walt Disney and a blue horse in Denver are just two of many.

Is truth REALLY decaying? Barack Obama argues that without a universal idea of truth, society cannot function. Others argue that truth is simply getting more complex – and more interesting!

Do you believe that Walt Disney cryopreserved himself before he died, and that Disney created the film Frozen so that it would not show up in search results? Or that strange art at Denver International Airport carries warnings of the apocalypse?

Some people do. And there are concerns that this kind of popular conspiracy theory is undermining the very basis of truth.

Former US President Barack Obama argues that we are currently suffering from “truth decay”, a process in which people increasingly come to disagree over the most basic facts, and no longer trust institutionalised sources of information.

Truth decay has been evident this year. Donald Trump has spread unfounded rumours about voter fraud in the recent election. Fake news about the Covid-19 pandemic, claiming that it is linked with the rolling out of the 5G network, has also been disseminated widely.

Obama’s fear is that such a breakdown of truth is harmful to democracy – if people do not agree on basic principles, then they start to treat political opponents as enemies. Disagreement over facts can block compromise and sow mistrust.

But we have not always treated “fact” and “truth” as one and the same.

Literary historian Richard Firth Green suggests that our belief in truth as fact can be traced back to the later Middle Ages. Before this, truth was thought to reside in people: hence we can still describe a loyal, trustworthy person as “true”.

After the Scientific Revolution, European thinkers came to believe that “truth” meant “backed up with empirical evidence”.

But in the 20th Century, some philosophers began to criticise this idea. French thinker Michel Foucault argued that truth is not discovered by human beings, but rather it is produced by them. “Truth” has no objective existence, he says; it is a word that we apply to a certain way of understanding the world.

This implies that the growing complexity of truth could be a positive thing. Many think that young people today are more capable of navigating the pitfalls of online misinformation and can present truth in interesting new ways.

The situation could encourage creative use of the interplay between truth and falsehood. It lends people the opportunity to construct elaborate theories that have a whiff of truth about them, even though they are, to many, outlandish.

For example, last year some started to claim that the world had actually ended in 2012, due to a fault in the Large Hadron Collider. The theory claims that, to save humanity, scientists moved our collective consciousness into a parallel universe that was almost identical, but with some small differences.

The theory points to shared false memories as “evidence” that we used to inhabit a different world. Some people are convinced that they remember the Statue of Liberty being on Ellis Island rather than Liberty Island, and that Nelson Mandela died in the late 1980s. According to the theory, these are residual memories from our old, slightly different world.

Of course, this is not “true”. But it can be fun and interesting to arrange flawed evidence so as to create the impression of truth.

So, is truth decaying?

Truth cavity

Yes, say some. They argue that democracy can only function if everyone agrees on what is true and what is false; otherwise we cannot convince others that our approach is right. They suggest that conspiracy theories are not a more creative form of truth, but simply a means of avoiding complex and urgent problems with overly simplistic or delusional explanations.

No, say others. They think that truth has always been a complicated and multifaceted thing. “Facts” are not synonymous with “truth”; they are the products of interpretation. Philosophers have argued over the nature of truth for millennia, and have still not found a common answer. The meaning of truth changes according to time and place, and “true” and “false” are never black and white.

You Decide

  1. Are there some circumstances in which it is right for governments to lie, or should they always tell the public the truth?
  2. Can we ever prove that we “know” something to be true, or can we only ever believe it to be true?

Activities

  1. Do lies travel faster than truth? Have someone pick two facts, one true and one false, and tell each of them to a different person. Those two now pass their facts on to other people. If someone hears both facts they can choose which one to pass on. After one minute, see which fact more people heard.
  2. How should truth be defined? Can truth be “discovered” from the real world, or is it always constructed by human beings? Write down some thoughts and then discuss it with the person closest to you.

Some People Say...

“The truth is always something that is told, not something that is known. If there were no speaking or writing, there would be no truth about anything. There would only be what is.”

Susan Sontag (1933-2004), American essayist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that the “post-truth” era has a material basis. When people can feel their economic status falling, even if they are not actually becoming poor, they tend to demand drastic political change. They become more receptive to the false, but easy, solutions offered to them by political leaders, and they react angrily to those who accuse them of lying. As such, restoring trust in politics has to entail more than building faith in a common truth.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over the extent to which “truth” ever corresponds to the real, physical world. When English writer Samuel Johnson was asked to prove that the world really exists, he hit his foot on a stone and said, “like this!” But German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that humans cannot perceive the real world: we can only experience “phenomena”, mental representations of it. Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that truths are simply metaphors that human beings invented to understand the world.

Word Watch

Cryopreserved
Cryopreservation is the practice of keeping a human body at very low temperatures in the hope of maintaining the function of its organ to be revived at a future date. No-one has yet been successfully revived.
Barack Obama
President of the United States between 2009 and 2017. Previously a senator from Illinois, he was the first Black president in US history.
5G network
A system for connecting mobile phones to the internet. It is currently being rolled out to replace the 4G network on which most phones run.
Scientific Revolution
A process between the 1500s and the 1600s in which science entirely changed how we understand nature. Science also became an autonomous discipline in this period, separating itself from philosophy and theology.
Empirical
Empiricism is the belief that all knowledge comes from sensory experience, especially the observation of things in nature.
Michel Foucault
One of the most important thinkers of the 20th Century. He believed that knowledge and power produced and reinforced each other, and that institutions like schools and hospitals exist to discipline human beings.
Large Hadron Collider
A huge machine almost 27km wide that is used to fire particles at each other at enormous speed. Before it was first used, some feared that it might create a black hole and destroy the planet, a prediction that scientists quickly debunked.
Statue of Liberty
A 46m sculpture given to the USA by the French government in 1886. It stands on Liberty Island in New York City.
Nelson Mandela
A South African freedom fighter and politician who ended apartheid, the country’s system of racial segregation. He died in 2013.

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