Reflection on What is Truth (Part 2)

We’ve considered religious truth and scientific truth. The first is dependent upon authoritative foundational stories of a narrative/religious tradition for its understanding of truth. The second is dependent upon the rules of the scientific method for its understanding of truth. Are there other ways of identifying “truth”?

When two people are sitting down over a cup of coffee or a can of beer and gossiping about some neighbor, there is an assumption that the information which is being shared is true. It may be incomplete or misinterpreted but it is assumed that the person sharing the information is trying to pass on information that is true to the best of his or her knowledge. The information learned through this means is tentative and subject to correction as better information becomes available.

This type of information is filtered through our cultural and religious narratives, as well as helps to shape those narratives. We treat some information sources as more authoritative than others. If the information source has professional knowledge about the topic, we tend to consider that source as more authoritative. If the source has direct, eye-witness knowledge we tend to accept that source as more authoritative. If the source of the information is drunken uncle Buck, then we give it little; if any, authority.

Our working assumption is that the information being passed on from an authoritative source is a reasonably accurate approximation of objective reality. Which brings us back to the question of what is objective reality?

When we speak of objective reality we imply that the subject of our conversation has a reality that is not entirely dependent upon us. Thus, if I am describing a new car, the basic assumption is that the car is real. The existence of that car is not dependent upon me thinking about it. My unique perception of the car is an interaction of the independent existence of the car and my perception of the car. My perception of the car is shaped to a certain extent by the sensory apparatus of my eyes and brain, as well as my experience of cars but the car exists independent of me perceiving it.

This is similar to the news we receive from journalists. They tell us what they have learned about topics of the day. Normally, the information they provide is accurate and complete. What they tell us is true to the best of their knowledge but is tentative and subject to clarification as additional information becomes available. In most cases the information is presented in a narrative context that interprets the information in a particular manner. For example, the same news item can be presented on Fox News and MSNBC and be interpreted in very different ways. When the House of Representatives passed a bill recently to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA;Obamacare), Fox News presented the news in the context of an outstanding success for the Republican Party. MSNBC presented the news as a disaster for the American people perpetrated by a few obsessed partisan politicians.

Another phenomenon is disinformation or “fake news”. These are news items that are false. They are presented as true and accurate information but are false in some significant manner in order to manipulate the perception of the listener. This is the type of information we often see in advertisements and in political campaigns. For example, in the last few days of the presidential campaign last Fall, several Internet blogs circulated the rumor that a child sex trafficking ring operated out of some pizzeria in Washington DC and some people in the Clinton campaign had were involved. The rumor was treated as a news items for a day or so, until its falsehood was discovered. However, in the meantime this fake news did damage to the Clinton campaign.

Another term we’ve heard about recently is “alternative facts”. When a journalist is putting together a story he or she will gather as many facts as possible related to the story and try to craft an accurate and comprehensive account. However, the story is written through the interpretative filter of the journalist’s perception of events, as well as the interpretative filter of the particular news network that will publish it. The result may be an emphasis on certain facts that are consistent with the interpretative filters at work. This is not a conscious attempt at disinformation but simply part of a natural process that is inherent in reporting the news.

So, at CNN or MSNBC a news item about the disintegration of the ice cap at the South Pole might focus on facts that support the conclusion that global warming caused by man-made pollution is the fundamental cause of the loss of the polar ice caps. At Fox or Breitbart news the same event might be presented with facts that emphasize that global warming is part of a broad weather cycle that is a natural process and not necessarily a function of man-made pollution. Both approaches make use of “facts” that are from legitimate scientific sources but the facts that are used reflect the interpretative filter of the journalist and news agency that is publishing the news items presented. Alternative facts are legitimate facts but simply facts that don’t fit our interpretative filter.

Now, if someone says that 60% of the people are in favor of a policy decision and polls show that only 20% of the people are in favor of the policy, then you are not dealing with alternative facts. You are dealing with either sloppy thinking, hyperbole or an out-right lie. An alternative fact must be a fact by any reasonable definition of the term.

We have grown cynical in recent decades, finding it difficult to believe much of what we are told. We assume that the stories and facts with which we are presented are so much “spin” and political power games meant to manipulate us. When we listen to the pundits on TV or read articles we seem to encounter opinion more than facts. Everyone has an opinion but these opinions do not seem to be rooted in facts or logic. Assumptions are not questioned. So called “facts” lack authoritative sources that would establish them as facts by any definition. There is little critical thinking presented in any of this. The relationship between these opinions and objective truth is tenuous at best.

As Christians, we are supposed to be dedicated to the truth; after all, Christ presented himself as the “truth”.  We must demand more from our leaders and our news sources than mere opinion or fake news. For us to make meaningful decisions about who to vote for or which policies to support or oppose, we must know the objective truth about each. We must be able to sort through the interpretative filters of the news providers or the politicians. We must learn to spot and reject disinformation or fake news. It isn’t just a matter of civil duty but it is an essential criterion for making moral decisions in our complex world.

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