Something happened to truth in the last 50 years or so. Where once we had the ideal of objective truth based on evidence, we now have contentious argumentative truth, based on opinion and belief. And I miss the old kind. Let’s look at two divided nations, ours in 1968, and ours in 2016, and how they deal with truth. I like the old way better.
Let me take you back to 1968. I was in college. The U.S. was in the throes of the war in Vietnam. The country split apart over the war, civil rights, free speech, the military industrial establishment, and a presidential election. President Lyndon Johnson faced opposition inside the Democratic party from Robert Kennedy, first – but Kennedy was assassinated. Martin Luther King was assassinated that same Spring, and we had riots in a dozen major cities. Newspapers and television news called them race riots, but they echoed the frustration of an entire generation all over the world. There were riots that year in Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City, and many other cities. Johnson stepped away from re-election. It became Hubert Humphrey, the liberal senator, vs. Richard Nixon, the former vice president.
And in the background, we, as a society, believed in old-fashioned objective truth. We actually argued over evidence, with the shared conviction that evidence and validation of facts mattered. For example, those of us who opposed the war in Vietnam believed the government was hiding the objective evidence related to casualties, progress of the war, raids on Cambodia, and so on. Those who supported the war believed the government’s press released described the truth. Those of us who believed in sweeping change on civil rights believed that separate could not be equal, and those who fought for status quo insisted it could.
So we argued about the evidence, which we believed was a matter of finding the facts. Were we winning the war in Vietnam, or not? Were we supporting a government that represented its people in Vietnam, or not? Had we invaded Cambodia, or not? Was separate but equal acceptable, or not?
Please notice the difference between then and now. Back then we believed that objective truth, which we called evidence, or facts, would end arguments. Today we don’t. The U.S. economy today isn’t growing or not, healthy or not, based on gross national product growth rates, unemployment, or other objective numbers. Instead, we nurture two radically different truths, depending on where we stand in polarized politics.
As you read this, you know exactly what I mean.
For example, unemployment is down to about 5% now, from more than 10% seven years ago. The economy is producing jobs now, hundreds of thousands per month, instead of losing jobs seven years ago. Those numbers prove something to some of us, and prove nothing to others. Each side has its arguments.
For another example, a recent poll showed that significant numbers of Americans believe President Obama was not born in the United States. And significant numbers believe he is Muslim. A couple of generations ago, arguments on those points would have been ended by what we then believed were objective facts, also called evidence. Today, however, evidence is discounted. There are no objective facts. Everything is based on what we believe.
Back then we looked to statistics and reliable middle-of-the-road journalists. Now we look for crackpots. If you don’t agree with me, my sources are crackpots to you. And your sources are crackpots to me.
I noticed the other day in a comment stream on my local newspaper. One commenter challenged another for evidence. The other responded with URLs of blog posts by crackpots. The act of publishing used to imply fact checking and reliability, and, therefore, factds and evidence. Opinion was there too, but set aside as opinion. Now opinion (of crackpots) is pushed forward as evidence. We seek what comedian Steven Colbert called “truthiness.”
I studied Journalism in grad school in 1970 and 1971. Journalistic ethics were a big deal back then. The country generally depended on a slowly declining number of newspapers and three major television networks for news. The journalists of that time generally recognized that objective truth, based on evidence, was technically impossible but still the ideal, the goal. They strove to disclose their bias while still aiming for objective truth. They wanted evidence. Opinion was rampant, but there was the idea that opinion and truth were different things.
One thing that has happened, since then, is that the market for truth split into segments. In 1968 any major news source could only make money by uniting an entire audience around the goal of objective truth based on evidence. Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley need to stay in the middle, to seem unbiased, to optimize the audience and the potential revenue of news. Today the market is so much bigger, so much more splintered, that even large news organizations can make money by addressing only specific segments. So the phenomenon of segmentation that used to drive a few niche magazines can now drive entire news networks. Roger Ailes showed the world a new way to make money in the middle 1990s, with Fox News.
It’s now a common behavior: opinion, repeated often enough, serves as a surrogate for truth. Evidence is discounted, ignored, or manufactured. People are citing blog posts with wild claims and bizarre opinion as if they were evidence.
And that’s bad. I miss arguing over evidence. And I miss arguments that end with facts.