This morning, a friend of mine sent me a link to this article documenting Rush Limbaugh’s recent comments about the water quality in Prince William Sound. Discussing oil spills, he claimed that the pristine water quality of the Sound is proof that we need not worry about cleaning water after such accidents. Nature, he asserted, cleans itself. Unfortunately, according to experts, “one of the most stunning revelations of Trustee Council-funded monitoring over the last 10 years is that Exxon Valdez oil persists in the environment and in places, is nearly as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill.” So, Limbaugh was just wrong. (I remain agnostic on whether he was lying or just mistaken since I have no interest in either attacking or defending Limbaugh.)
Coincidentally, I just finished writing an article in which I reference last year’s debate about the morality of death panels, emphasizing that health care legislation never created death panels and that no one suggested they should. Add to these, the persistently false claims that President Obama never showed his birth certificate or that the one he showed was a forgery and countless other examples, and I am forced to ask whether truth is relevant to political opinion anymore. There are plenty of good reasons to be conservative, there are plenty of good reasons to be moderate or liberal, yet as a philosopher, I am always baffled by those who seek to win arguments through fabrication. If the goal of politics is simply to gain power, then what does that say about the role of honesty, character, and truth in modern democracies? (Perhaps, we should all read Thucydides’s The History of the Peloponnesian War together and consider his view on the role of power and the fickle public in Athenian democracy.) If one wins an argument by persuading people of falsehood, then I am Socratic enough to think that everyone involved lost and no one won anything.
There are plenty of psychological reasons why people make mistakes about judgment; many of them have to do with the human desire to preserve their own beliefs. A phenomenon called confirmation bias explains how people selectively register evidence for their point of view rather than notice facts that contradict their opinion. Simply put, if someone is of the political opinion that all Muslims are terrorists or that all terrorists are Muslim, then he or she will neither notice nor remember the new stories about non-Muslims engaging in terrorist acts. If someone is suspicious that his (heterosexual) wife is cheating on him, then he will be hyper-sensitive every time he sees her talking to a man but not register the many instances of when she is talking to a woman, even if she talks to women significantly more often than men.
However, confirmation bias is about people’s experience and not about news reports that must be vetted by groups. The news reports I cited above are all the products of tremendously complex processes involving reporters, writers, producers, and others, all of whom acquiesce to the false claims in the story. Granted, maybe Limbaugh specifically acted without consultation, but if so, he is likely unique in doing so. In other words, I am arguing that to maintain such falsehood the media must do so intentionally – I claim that they know they are lying and that they are okay with it. It is neither new nor noteworthy for me to observe that many news services preach to their respective choirs: there are conservative, moderate, and liberal news outlets and they attract conservative, moderate, and liberal audiences respectively, although certain media labeled as conservative or liberal may not necessarily be so. (I’m thinking here of NPR specifically but also of the New York Times.)
The question I am now asking is whether truth has any relevance to political beliefs – at least as far as the media is concerned – and I ask you what would it take for you to change news channels or even political allegiances. Does knowing that there were never proposed death panels or that Obama’s birth certificate has been viewed and confirmed make a difference to those who don’t like Obama? If it doesn’t make a difference why doesn’t it, and if you refuse to believe these facts, then why do you reject them? They’re true. Several years ago there was a widely believed e-mail documenting findings that George W. Bush had the lowest IQ of all American presidents and that Republican presidents in general had lower IQs that Democratic ones. Many people I know reveled in it even though the email was a hoax and no such study ever existed. Did knowing it was a hoax change their perception that Bush is stupid? No. So what, if anything, could change their mind about that?
In the end, I’m asking not just about human political-psychology, but also about the role of truth in itself. Perhaps I’m becoming a crotchety old man (I can hear my wife in the background respond with “perhaps?!?!?!”), but I’m wondering if truth holds any place in public discourse or if, in the end, all anyone wants is to win or be believe that they are right. If so, is there anything we can do about it?