Truth is complicated in today’s fast-paced world
The truth is often stretched in the name of a good story. But that rarely bothers us. Some nitpicking quibblers demand accuracy in every story. But the truth is often boring or complicated. So we embellish or simplify.
Journalism and nonfiction writing are, however, held to a different standard. The fibs of Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly and Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Rubin Ederly are worrisome. So are other scandals involving authorial confabulation. Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea,” embellished much of his story.
One of the challenges of truth-telling is that gullible audiences rarely question heroic and inspiring stories. We like tales that fit our preconceived notions. Liars often tell us what we want to hear. Through repetition, untrue stories come to be accepted as true — perhaps even by the liar himself. The best liar is, after all, the one who believes his own lies. Lying and self-deception go hand in hand. Audiences deceive themselves, too. Once trust is given, it is difficult to admit you’ve been duped.
This points toward troubling questions about the foundational stories of culture and tradition. The same social and psychological forces that explain lying and exaggeration today were also at work in the past. The witnesses of history most likely embellished in the name of a compelling narrative. Those with vested interests bent the truth to their own purposes. The victors told heroic stories at the expense of their victims. Meanwhile, credulous and captive audiences repeated what they were told.
George Orwell warned that when lies pass into history, they become truth. Cynics will conclude from this that history is mostly hogwash. The cynic sees power, propaganda and self-promotion at work in politics, religion and culture. Given our recent experience of liars, phonies and frauds, it’s possible that much of what passes for true history has been warped in Orwellian ways.
On the other hand, perhaps P.T. Barnum was correct when he said, “You can’t fool all the people all the time.” We hope that the truth eventually comes out. But of course, even that quote from Barnum is in dispute — some attribute it to Abraham Lincoln. And so it goes.
Truth is complicated. Knowledge takes diligence. And perfect certainty is rare. In important cases, we set up elaborate procedures for finding the truth. The courts use an adversarial system and assumptions about the burden of proof. Scientists engage in methodical experimentation, while subjecting their conclusions to peer review.
Philosophers advise us to doubt everything. We know that our senses can deceive us. Eyewitnesses and experts exaggerate, misremember, ignore evidence and misinterpret data. Occasionally the experts deliberately lie. Truth only arrives at the end of the long, deliberate process of sifting and winnowing, which includes a substantial dose of self-examination.
But gossip, public opinion and the media work differently. In the world of tweets and pompous posts, there is little time for fact-checking or deliberation. Self-examination and expressions of doubt are rare in the public sphere.
The speeding flow of contemporary information leaves little time for study, reflection and inquiry. Each scandal, crisis and event seems to require an immediate response. But truth is a tender flower. It dies in the hot house of instant opinion and incessant self-promotion.
Truth-seeking requires nurturing attention, quiet reflection and open-minded inquiry. Truth results from attentive listening and careful observation. Truth-seeking is not glamorous. It looks like a scholar in her study, the scientist in the lab, and the jury in the jury room. This is quite different from the breezy certainty of the celebrity blowhards and vain pundits who stand to profit from the tales they tell.
We know that people stretch the truth. Healthy skepticism is always in order. But we should resist cynicism. The fact that we know that there are so many disgraced liars gives us a reason to hope. These scandals may be viewed as an encouraging sign that, in the long-run, most liars will be caught with their pants on fire.