The fight for facts

by Tom Regan

It’s been about 20 years since I had my first brush with the way people can twist or deny facts to suit their own political agendas.

I had accompanied a friend, an experienced reporter who had spent many years in the Middle East, to hear her give a talk to a group in Boston. My friend was articulate, balanced, and insightful in her presentation of what she had learned and seen during her many years covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other issues in the region.

But what then happened remains with me to this day. The group, who were particularly anti-Palestinian, basically took many of the things that she had said and turned them completely around in their meaning. It was like my friend had said the color was red and her audience repeated back to her ‘you said it was blue.’ My friend tried to correct this misunderstanding, but despite her efforts, this group was only hearing what it wanted to hear. Or to put it another way, they had already made up their minds what the facts were, rightly or wrongly, and they would not be convinced otherwise.

The label “fake news” is being tossed around whenever people read, see or hear a news report they disagree with. (photo by Zeptonn, Creative Commons)

This is a dangerous time for facts. Not only because it is often difficult to sort out meaningful ones from information that just might be background noise, but the political environment in this country has become so charged and divided that both sides want to ignore the veracity of events and words and create their own interpretation that suits their own agendas.

This is particularly the case right now with supporters of Donald Trump, but it is a problem that crosses the political spectrum.

The recent excellent piece by longtime Wisconsin conservative radio talk show host Charlie Sykes in the New York Times outlines how conservative media was too gung ho in undermining the legitimacy of mainstream modern media. The idea was, in his words, to challenge the interpretation of events as depicted in much of this media, which conservatives saw as too biased towards liberals, and add nuance and understanding to the interpretation of political events so that they didn’t seem so one-sided. What happened, however, was the conservative media just denounced everything that traditional media published or broadcast as lies, misinformation or, as we would say in current parlance, “fake news.”

The result, Sykes argues, is that many conservatives now won’t believe anything traditional media publishes and as a result ignored many of the legitimate warning signs about Donald Trump’s stability, temperament and truthfulness.

As I noted above, liberals can ignore facts as completely as conservatives. Many of the same liberals who would praise NASA scientists for their work on climate change, will denounce scientists who say that GMOs won’t not harm humans, regardless of the scientific evidence, or regardless of what group of scientists wrote the report. Even reports that say we need to be careful with GMOs, but say that overall, their benefits outweigh any harm, are still dismissed. Their belief that GMOs are harmful is more important to them than many studies that would say otherwise. As well, it seems that, like conservatives, the more evidence that is presented that GMOs are overall harmless, the stronger the belief becomes that they are dangerous. Holding their position is more important than changing their view.

The battle to restore legitimacy of facts will be a difficult one. In this postmodern world in which we live, subjectivity matters above all. And there is some validity to the idea that we should not accept facts at face value, but do our best to deconstruct them to find the real truth at their core. But that requires effort, effort I’m not sure that people are willing to make. It’s just so much easier to let your cultural or political beliefs dominate your life rather than question whether or not they are true. If this continues, facts will indeed become an endangered species.

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