Monday, January 9, 2017

Fake News and Post-Truth: Does truth matter… or even exist?




“Does truth exist?” When I stumbled on this question on GoodReads, I rolled my eyes. Sophomoric, dorm room rap-session stuff.  But the more I thought, the more I realized the inquiry relevant in contemporary “post-truth” society, rife with “fake news.


My take is that facts matter, since they get us closer to reality.  So by ignoring facts, fake news is dangerous. You cannot even run a household without facts. Like your checking account balance and electric bill amount.


Imagine ignoring those facts. You don’t like your utility, so you skip paying your electric bill. And you “pretend” your balance is higher than listed, so you write checks over your real balance.


The result? Checks bounce, and they cut-off your electricity.


Rationalizations and emotional fantasies DO NOT alter reality. In fact, they often lead to reality sneaking up on and smacking us. So basing political opinions on fake news can be dangerous.


Problem I see is that fake news exploits emotion. Consider that Facebook’s most shared “news story” over October was fake, containing conversations and emails that never happened. It’s untrue title is bombastic --  "Wikileaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS… Then Drops Another BOMBSHELL!" Worse, this is only one of many fake news stories that floated around Facebook in the election’s final weeks.


It’s one thing to dislike Secretary Clinton for her record or personality. It’s another to dislike her due to lies.


Put metaphorically, “Don’t write a check on a fake report. It’ll bounce.”


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That said,  we need emotions. People with damaged limbic systems, the brain’s emotional center, struggle to make even the simplest decision. At best, decisions are based on facts and reasoned, with emotions coloring our interpretation.


Example. It is a fact that Donald Trump lost the popular vote by 2% and yet won the Electoral College by 14%. But imagine how both a Wyoming Republican and a California Democrat would feel about that fact.

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Though most discussion participants supported my position, others argued that there is no truth, only society-sanctioned opinion.


One smart participant in GoodReads discussion presented the classic Buddhist Fable of the Elephant to illustrate this.

If you are unfamiliar, the parable runs like this.


A raja orders several blind people to describe an elephant, The first grabs a tusk, and says “An elephant is like a plow.” The next hugs a leg, and he says “An elephant is like a column.” Another touches an ear, and he says “An elephant is like a winnowing basket.” And then, the men argued, convinced they were right, and others wrong.


For sure, this parable argues for relativism: we can only know part of the truth. But the parable does not show, as that commentator posed, no truth exists.


Instead, the elephant -- reality -- exists. It is the truth the blind men are fighting over. The raja, symbolizing divine elevation, understands this. So the parable does not argue relativity. It cautions us against being cock-sure of anything. Certitude impedes our grasp of the truth. Instead, we must heed other’s truths and enlarge our worldview to include their “facts.”


This does not imply blind trust of others. Instead, as Reagan said, “trust, but verify.” So the tusk-holder would guide the ear-holder to the tusk, and then confirm the ear. Together, their description or reality would be more true.


And since fake news exploits our emotions, it drives people apartby confirming their pre-held assumptions. Which isn’t good. As Ben Franklin put it, referring to Britain putting American rebels to the gallows, “We hang together, or we’ll hang separately.”


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