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Living With Truth Decay

“Once a policy has been adopted and implemented, all subsequent activity becomes an effort to justify it”

— Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984. p. 245).

In the 20th-century but still fun party game called Telephone, people sit in a circle and someone whispers a phrase or sentence to the person to the left, who whispers it to their left, around the clock, until it reaches the original speaker, who annunciates what s/he sent and received. The final utterance may make sense, but it is almost never the one sent and is often complete nonsense. This is one form of truth decay.

Truth is a relatively scarce commodity. Science progresses by disproving theories, not proving them (that only happens in mathematics). In the real world, everything you know to be true just hasn’t been disproved yet, so it’s a good idea to stay tuned.

Not only is the amount of truth finite, it doesn’t grow very fast. Facts and opinions, on the other hand do, thanks to an intensive bombardment of truth-deficient information. Factoids, received wisdom and regurgitated opinions about everything imaginable rain upon us like nuclear fallout. Attempts to verify facts that swim in oceans of discourse finds them as slippery as eels. Truths decay like echoes do, sloping toward unintelligibility inside our echo chambers.

Fishing for evidence floating in the Net is far from compiling facts in a controlled empirical study and—contrary to the scientific method—is likely done to support a hypothesis, not to disprove one. In any event, facts are not truths. Truth rests on facts, vetted as dispassionately as possible. For instance, it’s a fact that mean global CO2 in the atmosphere officially was 404.55 PPM at the end of 2016 and 406.75 one year later, or one-half a percent more. Here are other fun facts about that:

Legend: PPM of CO2 in air trapped in Antarctic ice cores, 1000-2000 AD (Etheridge et al.)

You can fit an exponential curve to the facts in this graph. Exponential growth never ends well. That’s not a fact; it’s a truth based on the fact that growth rates can’t become infinite.

There are people who deny these are facts. There are other people who say they’re no big deal. Still others take them seriously while not admitting any specific import. And then there are those, probably most of humanity, who believe and may fear them but absolve themselves of any responsibility or them. They are all truth-impaired.

Dubious facts and regurgitated opinions about climate change and everything imaginable surround us. This disinformation explosion makes it harder and harder to identity verities embedded in what is mostly noise. Right, left or center doesn’t matter; when compadres spin online threads, their self-reinforcing feedback rises to a shriek like a microphone pointing at a loudspeaker.

It might help to tap into our opposition’s telephony and vice versa; lurk on their news outlets and blogs, not to troll them but to discern what truths and biases bend their opinions. Such an exercise can be really painful, I admit. It is hard for me to scroll through articles on alt-right sites like Breitbart News that spew venom at libtards, progressives, immigrants, blacks, you name it. But ever so often the shoe fits, as when kicking at Wall Street banks. The Left has no corner on truth, even if its facts and logic are better. In an essay on Medium about Canadian academic Jordon Peterson, a self-described rational social critic whose manipulative language comforts alt-rightists, Aaron Huertas asserts (emphasis his):

political debates aren’t really about who has the most or best facts or even who has the most consistent logic. Politics is about which facts are considered relevant to a debate and what kind of logic we should follow in creating, following and enforcing laws.

In other words, facts (and arguments based on them) are more likely to be perceived as true by those exposed to them if they feel they are relevant to the issue at hand and seem actionable. And besides relevance, people filter facts in all sorts of ways, not the least of which are their sources. If you happen to believe that climate scientists are a grant-grubbing cabal seeking only to advance their own careers, very little that they put forward will persuade you that they know of what they speak or even believe it. You might even call findings like the above “fake data.”

It would help some if we had more scientists and citizens scrutinizing facts diligently without jumping to conclusions. A measure of skepticism is a good thing, as is watching out for confirmation bias. But objectivity is a scarce currency, especially for those with a dog in the fight or who believe in revealed truth, whether from holy books or school curricula or incessant propaganda; the quasi-theological belief, for example, that a divine invisible hand is poised to deliver them from satanic bureaucracies to the promised land of free markets. Is it too much to ask them to study the theologies of market manipulators? Have they not witnessed what belief in survival of the greediest hath wrought?

Investment bankers, fast traders, futures speculators, and hedge fund honchos know how to game the system and have the algorithms, lobbyists, and offshore accounts to prove it. Insulated from lesser beings by their wealth, influence, and privilege, incessantly striving to be the richest kid on the block, greed’s depredations hardly impinge on their umwelts. Anyone who complains about falling behind is simply a sore loser, and that’s the truth.

While the fog of self-interest is a major factor, some truth decay is definitely deliberate, especially when things get politicized. Take the dueling Republican and Democratic memos from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee regarding Russiagate. Senators of both parties heard the same testimony and looked at the same documents, but apparently (only the GOP’s has been released) the facts they found significant are completely different. One might call this classic confirmation bias were the whole proceeding no more than a Kabuki charade whose mesmerizing purpose is to obscure how the public’s business gets done.

Of course, determining “which facts are considered relevant to a debate” is itself irrelevant when debate really isn’t about determining truth, as is generally the case in politics. If one side’s facts can’t be squarely challenged they can simply be deemed irrelevant or ignored by the other. In The Doubter’s Companion, “A dictionary of aggressive common sense,” John Ralston Saul defines Facts as “tools of authority,” elaborated as:

Facts are supposed to make truth out of a proposition. The trouble is that there are enough facts around to prove most things. They have become the comfort and prop of conventional wisdom; the music of rational technocracy; the justification for any sort of policy, particularly as advanced by special-interest groups, expert guilds and other modern corporations. Confused armies of contradictory facts struggle in growing darkness. Support ideological fantasies. Stuff bureaucratic briefing books.

He then quotes from Diderot’s definition:

You can divide facts into three types: the divine, the natural and man-made. The first belongs to theology; the second to philosophy and the third to history. All are equally open to question.

Truths are no longer seen as propositions that numerous minds converge upon in the course of assimilating facts from sustained observation and controlled experiments. Except for true believers who trust in once and forever divine revelations, the search for truth has now been almost fully automated. Today’s truths are spat out from search engines and algorithms grinding up big data. They are the stuff that sponsors of telephone surveys and focus groups “scientifically” reduce opinions to. Unlike truths, opinions are fickle things with brief half-lives. Were they not, the billions spent on marketing and election campaigns would be utterly wasted.

And so, to the extent that opinions can be swayed, what their holders hold true mutates in sympathy. Get used to it; we’re no longer in an age of information scarcity and revealed truths. Technology’s exponential asymptotic frenzy overloads our circuits with messages, events, interactions, facts and opinions constantly at odds and competing for our loyalties, causing the temperature of discussion to rise. In other words, more information makes us more riled up and confused. That and testosterone poisoning.

At the same time, and partly for the same reasons, science is piling up facts as never before, some of which trickle into truths when they support or undermine theories, even if most go to support grant applications. Achieving a scientific consensus takes contention and debate and a willingness to abandon theories when new evidence indicates things aren’t what they seem.

Like scientific ones, political truths have half-lives, and the more radioactive they are, the faster they decay. It doesn’t make sense to insist that an unstable isotope is a certain substance when it’s on the verge of becoming something else. Perhaps partisans should stop labeling themselves and their rivals long enough to let whatever truths they hold transmute into more stable substances that can be worked with.

In armed conflicts, truth decay can lead to mission creep, especially when the underlying premises are shaky. As Tuchman’s quote, referring to US policy regarding Vietnam (for which one could readily substitute Afghanistan) illustrates, unfortunate facts on the ground rarely erode confidence in value propositions and their ultimate payoffs. Instead of admitting error, cutting losses and making restitution, the protagonist doubles down. It is rare that a nation, leader, or individual is big enough to own up to bad judgments, much less to admit that they were based on false premises.

The persistence of human error that bends not to evidence of truth decay seems to have been with us for all of recorded history. It’s a serious problem that seems to have no lasting solutions. People don’t handle doubt well, especially self-doubt, and are hardwired to ignore obvious evidence that what they believe just ain’t so. Confirmation bias stands before truth like a nightclub bouncer, never admitting troublemaking thoughts. And truths that manage to slip past tend to get seated at tables in the back reserved for Cognitive Dissonance and told it’s wonderful to have you here. Enjoy the show. No talking please.

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Geoff Dutton is a reformed geek turned columnist, novelist, and publisher hailing from Boston who writes about whatever distortions of reality strike his fancy. Turkey Shoot, his novel interrogating the lives and times of members of a cell of terrorists in Europe, recently received an award for Courage in Fiction. You can find more of his writing here and at Progressive Pilgrim Review. He welcomes correspondence at geoff-at-perfidy-dot-press.

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