Reflections on “The Truth”

“Something has to be true to be real, but it doesn’t have to be real to be true.” ~ Madeleine L’Engle, as told to Leonard S. Marcus in The Wand in the Word, pg. 109.


Suddenly everyone is obsessed with “the Truth.” Whether it’s the talking heads with their demands for Truth and their accusations of lies, or the internet companies who sit in judgement about which pieces of information shared on their platform are True and which fail to meet their standards of Truth, everyone points to a single word, Truth, while ignoring that the very concept of Truth is contentious, nebulous, abstract, and as a consequence of all these, dangerous.

The great risk of this crisis of Truth is the damage it will do to free speech and public discourse.

The modern crisis of Truth stems from a variety of issues including the ubiquity of information available through internet sites and social media services, the rapidity with which information can be generated and shared, the ease with which historical information may be dredged and resurrected, and the dynamic nature of language which allows for multiple interpretations of the same event or idea using different word choices that results in highly disparate versions of the exact same event or idea.

When something bothers me, I write to try and make sense of it and myself. I think of this kind of writing as journal writing or reflections or meditations. This set of connected meditations is my own exploration of Truth. Although I have been working on it off-and-on over the past few months, I expect my reflections will continue to evolve as I consider the topic further and respond to new, unexpected information or scenarios. During the writing, a structure took shape that included the definition of Truth, problems with identifying Truth, and conclusions about how my own reflections have changed my perspective on the Truth and the way I interact with the world. I made the stylistic choice to capitalize the words True and Truth as the topic of Truth is the focus of this essay. Despite being motivated by the sort of partisan distortions I recognized from those agencies who perceive themselves as authorities in Truth, I made every effort to avoid partisan examples as I believe doing so would only serve as a distraction from my main goal: to explore my reactions to this idea we call “The Truth.”

The Truth Is Only a Problem When We Disagree

People don’t question the Truth when they agree. Instead, as people move further from agreeing with one another, the idea of the Truth becomes increasingly important. The Truth provides a justification for why one person’s arguments can supersede another’s. So this concept, this idea that we call Truth, is only recognizable through contrast.

This may not seem particularly insightful except, when you think about it, if people are only aware of this concept, Truth, when they disagree, then they aren’t actually reflecting on the concept of the Truth: rather, they are focused on whatever ideas are disputed. This means any understanding about Truth as a concept is actually distorted by people’s natural tendency to find their own assumptions and conclusions as “correct” or “accurate” or “right” while those that don’t match are “incorrect,” or “inaccurate” or “wrong.” Since we only become aware of Truth through disagreement, it makes sense that people will associate Truth with whatever they believe — whether it’s actually True or not. People do not ask, “What do I mean by ‘the Truth’?” or “What do you mean by ‘The Truth’?” Instead, they ask, “What is the Truth?” and never consider that without reconciling the first two questions, it may be impossible to answer the third.

There Is No Universally Agreed Upon Definition for Truth

On the one hand, we believe the Truth is easy to recognize when we encounter it, but in reality, any definition for the Truth will invite debate. As I interpret it, Truth is the recognition that an individual piece of information meets believable standards of accuracy that are greater than the disbelief about that information’s accuracy. 

But not everyone will find this definition of Truth satisfactory. There are as many definitions for Truth as there are people, and further, it is even possible that from one moment to the next, each of us could find alternate interpretations for what we consider the Truth. While many definitions for the Truth are vague or fuzzy or based on how a person feels, the most dangerous definition of Truth is the belief in an objective Truth that supersedes every and any alternate interpretation of information, especially because that objective Truth typically happens to be our own Truth.

By this I am not arguing that there is no objective Truth in the universe; instead, I’m arguing that knowing it is outside human capacity and fits more firmly into the realm of whatever flavor of deity suits you. Thus objective Truth is beyond our pay grade; we should avoid it lest we overextend ourselves and fall victim to our own hubris. “But,” you think as you read these words, “how can you tell me you know what the Truth is? Aren’t you being a hypocrite?” No. The reason I’m not being a hypocrite is because I am telling you what I think, not what to think.

Problems with the Truth: My Opinion Is Still Just an Opinion

It is amazing, when you think about it, how many of the things we believe are Truths are really just opinions. The previous sentence, for example, is an opinion. It puts forward a proposition or assertion that is arguable. Maybe it’s accurate, maybe it’s not. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. This entire reflection is an opinion. Maybe you will agree that it makes sense; you might even agree that I’ve captured the Truth, or perhaps you will shake your head and question how anyone can reach such conclusions.

The distinction between Truth and opinion is difficult because so much of our understanding of the world is predicated on belief. In fact, every time I speak, write, or think, my assertions are predicated on my own understanding which is limited by my available knowledge, remembered experiences, or personal conclusions. The verbs that we could use are all recognizably about this understanding: think, believe, know, conclude, understand, realize, feel. Although I might say, “I was born on February 20th, 1999,” it is implied that “I think I was born on February 20th, 1999.” When I profess, “My car is gray” or “Rain is falling,” I am actually acknowledging “I understand my car is gray” and “I know rain is falling.” As I write, each sentence, each topic, each assumption is predicated on my thoughts and beliefs so that each sentence could technically begin, “I believe…” or “I think…” or “In my opinion…” 

Sometimes we include words like “I think” to help personalize our writing, to remind our readers that our assertions are our own and based on our available knowledge, remembered experience, or personal conclusions. You may believe that an assertion like “I was born on February 20th, 1999” is irrefutable. However, it is possible that the date is not factually accurate. While the likelihood that a person’s birthdate is not actually the date that person recognizes is infinitesimally small, the fact remains there is a possibility; it is not impossible, and in fact, I can think of one person who I know who celebrates a different birthdate than their actual literal birthday. Further, the specific date is predicated on use of the calendar for the United States and many other countries, but not all countries, so the defined birth date is based on a shared understanding of the naming for dates.

Truth requires a foundation built upon these shared assumptions, otherwise it cannot recognizably be the Truth.

Problems with the Truth: Details, Devilish Details

Human beings are fundamentally imperfect (despite everything we imagine about ourselves); therefore, our communication is fundamentally imperfect which leads to inaccuracies, omissions, and additions — and these are only some of the distortions that appear unconsciously; they don’t take into account willful or purposeful distortions of information meant to mislead or obfuscate. 

Think back to any recent ephemeral conversation that you’ve had. No transcript for this conversation exists (except for our highly subjective and notoriously imperfect memories), but if one did exist, and if we could go back to analyze the words you and every other participant spoke in this conversation, and if we examined the accuracy of those comments or contributions, what percentage would actually be the Truth? For most of us, the answer, we believe, is all of them. But is that so?

Missy and I had an argument once after she told a co-worker that our son Alex got a scholarship that covered all but some amount of his tuition. At the time, I interjected, “Actually it was some other amount.” She later told me that it didn’t matter for the purposes of that conversation what the specific amount of the scholarship actually was. Her co-worker didn’t need to have the clarification made because the purpose of that conversation was to talk about the scholarship, not the dollar amount. In my mind, it was more important to call attention to the accuracy of the facts, which I think we can agree would have been the Truth of the situation. But for her communication, that Truth was secondary or ancillary to the main idea of the conversation.

While I was the mayor of Clifton, one of Missy’s former co-workers called her in a panic because a pipe had burst and water was spraying all over her basement. She asked Missy to ask me to contact the village maintenance director to turn off the water at her house as soon as possible. When I called him, I did not explain the back story — that my wife was actually the one who was called. I just told him that the resident contacted me with an emergency and asked him to go to her house and shut off the water immediately. In this case, I chose expediency over accuracy with the end goal to get him to her house as quickly as possible over understanding the details that were actually irrelevant to the emergency.

How often do we share information that is, say, 90% accurate because the remaining 10%, those details, are superfluous to the point we are trying to make? Or how often do we have to roll details up into a summary because the relation of the information needs to be shortened or the attention span of our audience is flagging? Every day we make decisions about what to include and what to omit from our relation of information.

From this, it is clear to me, at least, that accuracy — which I equate with Truth — is not always a priority in relating information. And this is True for the majority of our verbal communications with others.

Problems with the Truth: The Truth is Actually Hard Work

Once upon a time we had institutions that acted as gatekeepers of Truth. Newspapers, publishing houses, media networks, corporations, organizations; these bodies existed to disseminate information. Maybe they did a good job telling us the Truth, and maybe they didn’t, but by their very existence serving as sources of information they created a perception that certain institutions and organizations could be trusted as keepers of the Truth. And these gatekeepers put enormous resources into the Truth. It wasn’t easy to spread information. Publishing a book took the combined energy of a team of people like editors and typesetters and marketers, not just an author. Publishing a newspaper took another team of people from the printers to the paper carriers each of whom brought specialization and unique knowledge to make sure information could be disseminated as efficiently as technology allowed. These teams collaborated to create a product that — if it didn’t actually have higher standards of Truth — was perceived as having a standard of Truth that would make the product trustworthy and reliable.

Now we find ourselves in a world where anyone with access to the internet can say anything to the world that he or she wishes. While it has always been True that anyone can say anything, the reach of such statements has never been so wide as it is in the modern world with social media accounts, blogs, podcasts, and any other technological service that permits immediate global dissemination of and access to information. Producing information in the modern world on the internet is not the same as producing information in the pre-internet world of books, magazines, and newspapers. 

Coming out of the pre-internet world with its gatekeepers and its teams controlling information, we consumers expect that the information we are encountering today will be similarly vetted, researched, double-checked, or even triple-checked. But today’s information is closer to ephemeral conversations than it is to the kinds of products that were generated through the combined efforts of a team. Although tweets or posts today are not strictly ephemeral (because, as we all know, the internet doesn’t forget), they do come from a place that is not rigorous, that is not researched, and that is not double and triple-checked. Much of today’s information has more in common with the expectations for ephemeral conversations than with the Truth-type information that we expect from gatekeeper organizations.

Problems with the Truth: Understanding Is Not Static

In addition, the quantity of information being generated is greater than at any time in history. I am thankful that there is no record of my twelve-year-old thoughts for the world to access and remind me about. I’ve learned a lot since I was twelve and I expect to learn a lot by the time I’m seventy. We humans grow over our lives by continuing to refine our knowledge about the universe. Inevitably the person we will be is going to eclipse the person we are now. But the content we have created cannot similarly evolve; it remains static and unchanging, fixed forever like a picture of that moment when we wore our least favorite shirt ever and our hair was an embarrassing bowl cut and the camera caught us looking cross-eyed. It’s not always our proudest moment. 

We as a culture continue to treat all information as equal, both the evolved and the unevolved. By this I mean we ignore the reality that people grow and change. Worse, we continue to imagine that information from today’s present will somehow never be eclipsed by those progressions of self that are inevitable as each of us passes through time, acquiring new insights and information, refining our perspectives, and changing into new individuals. I think of this as “The Pinnacle Fallacy,” which means imagining this moment as the pinnacle of your existence while ignoring that in one year or ten years or twenty-five years, you will have moved on to a new pinnacle. In other words, you aren’t a static creature in this ever-changing cosmos just because your perception, that ubiquitous you, feels unchanged from present moment to present moment.

Problems with the Truth: Misapprehension

Errors are not only the province of the individual who evolves through time. The gatekeepers themselves, historical truth-tellers, are not immune to errors. My father-in-law was, as an Iroquois County Sheriff’s Deputy, involved in a car chase that ended with his vehicle in a field. He rammed and disabled a fleeing vehicle. The event was recounted in two separate newspapers. His version differed from both published accounts. That means there were three different versions of the events of that chase. In one newspaper, the fleeing car rammed his squad car. In another, he rammed the tail end of the fleeing car. In his version, he rammed the front of the fleeing car. (And as an aside, none of these are likely the Truth because I can’t remember which version was told by the newspapers and which was told by him since it was twenty years ago… the only thing that sticks with me was the discrepancies between the written versions in the Watseka newspaper and the Kankakee newspaper compared to his verbal account.) 

For the purposes of the Truth, as it is held aloft and demanded from those who claim there must be a single objective Truth, which of these three accounts gets to be that Truth? I have the most faith in his version as he was involved rather than the newspaper accounts which were interpreted second-hand. And my own limited experience with reporters and news stories has been that there is typically some nuance or fact or piece of the story that differs  in their relation of events from my experience participating even if it’s only the spelling of my last name (and if you can explain to me why it is that news reporters can’t spell Winkel correctly, I’d appreciate it).

Problems with the Truth: Loading Language

The sheer number of word choices available to speakers and writers in English offers anyone with a large enough vocabulary the opportunity to twist the Truth. There was a joke once about a political figure; probably this has been told about figures from every party who can’t get a break from the newspapers. It goes something like this: Did you hear about Andy? He was in a boat on the lake and he got out and walked across the water. The next day the newspaper headline read, “Andy Can’t Swim.” What’s always tickled me about that joke — told even as poorly as I’ve done here — is the way it plays on the Bible story of Christ walking on the water and twists that miracle to describe a failure. It reinforces what all of us should remember: information can always be manipulated.

For example, verbs are lovely tools to distort information and load language, and this is something writing teachers push when they babble and cajol about “strong verbs.”

Look at this statement:

Alton walked to work today.

As a Truth statement, there is very little to question about the propositions in this statement. It is a relatively neutral statement in that I have no assumptions about either Alton or his work.

Let’s see how our perception changes when we adjust the verb:

Alton trudged to work today. Now Alton’s action, which remains the movement from point A to point B, has suddenly become a labor of despondency. Alton either hates his job or hates his life or hates something because he is a trudger. We don’t trudge without reason. 

Alton marched to work today. Now Alton has an entirely different personality. He is marching, which is proud, determined. Maybe he is going to ask for a raise. Maybe he is determined to confront his boss, or to solve a problem. We don’t know what, but the verb changes our expectations for Alton and his work day.

Since the verbs all convey the same basic directional movement of a person from point A to point B, the difference in the manner that they describe can be arguably a matter of interpretation. This sort of verbal manipulation introduces a subtle distortion, and it may be done consciously or unconsciously. In an example like this, the distortion does not appear to be problematic. Imagine, however, a concerted, repeated distortion of this type over a series of sentences or further, a series of news articles. In such a case, the individual word choice may not be arguable, while the accumulated consequence of the distortions creates a result that could very well transform the information being related.

This type of distortion can always be created through word choices and is not limited to verbs. Adjectives, adverbs, the placement of prepositional phrases, the arrangement of clauses; each of these has the potential to distort in a subtle manner the interpretation of assertions. We might refer to these distortions as having either positive or negative connotations, but the end result is that it is possible for facts that are otherwise True to be manipulated and distorted away from the Truth.

Problems with the Truth: Cherrypicking

It’s not possible to know everything. With the glut of information available today, it’s not even likely that any of us can access all of the information that could contribute positively to our understanding of a particular situation, event, concept, etc. So cherry-picking is an inevitable consequence of the enormous amount of information and our much smaller attention/time.

There is also the more egregious and purposeful cherrypicking which takes place when a person with an agenda willfully selects from the available information to present only those pieces of evidence that support a particular Truth while omitting or ignoring any evidence to the contrary.

And, there is unintentional cherrypicking which can take place when a person fails to recognize evidence to the contrary because of his or her personal scotomas, those unintentional blind spots that we all have and fail to recognize.

Cherrypicking distorts the Truth by presenting only those pieces of information that confirm the Truth that one wishes to establish. If I declare that sunsets are always pink and then provide only evidence of pink sunsets, my evidence appears to support my assertion, and without contradictory evidence, it appears that I have established a Truth. With cherrypicking, it is only possible to be refuted when someone questions or investigates the evidence as provided. In a world as complex as our own, this is increasingly difficult because investigating the truth is time-consuming and most of us don’t have the free time to do it. We are also increasingly dependent on people, organizations, and institutions to provide these sorts of investigations for us, but the problem now is that our investigators, like Truth gatekeepers, are frequently less interested in the Truth and more interested in framing a narrative that matches their agendas. 

So more information has not led to a better understanding of the Truth; instead it has muddied the Truth and created even greater doubtfulness.

Problems with the Truth: The Truth Has Layers

Our universe is a web of causality where one result can have multiple causes or one cause can have multiple results. The more I encounter, the more confident I am that this complexity means the truth is rarely on the surface. Surface Truth, in comparison to Deep Truth, is usually more palatable, more easily understandable, and more believable. Deep Truth is more problematic because it is also True, but recognizing it or acknowledging it would usually open up some sort of challenge or discomfort or conflict, so it is shrugged aside in favor of Surface Truth.

Let’s say that you take a new job. The Deep Truth is that you’ve been disgruntled at your current job for a long time, you’ve had problems with your boss who is an asshole and who keeps demanding more from you without any kind of credit for the effort you are putting into your work, and you have been increasingly aware that the environment which, when you started, seemed enthusiastic and energizing, has become toxic and frustrating. But when people ask why you are leaving, you explain that you were able to get better pay and benefits, plus the new job is closer to home. All of these are your Surface Truths because they are all reasons and they are all True, but if you were pressed, in your heart of hearts, to acknowledge the most influential reasons why you took the new job, out of all the justifications, you would have to acknowledge the additional Truth that your soon to be former workplace had become a nightmare and for your health and sanity, you felt compelled to leave. You don’t share that, however, because burning bridges has never been your way, and you’d like to keep some avenues from that job open, even if there’s never going to be any chance that you will revisit your life there.

Some people are naturally more aware of layers of Truth than others, and the consequence of this is that such people will always have Surface Truths to camouflage their Deep Truths. There’s never any reason to admit to a Deep Truth when a Surface Truth will do. It’s the Truth equivalent of “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

Conclusion: Science Is Not the Truth

Recently, “science” has become synonymous with the inarguable objective Truth of the expert. Treating science in this way is dangerous because it completely misrepresents what science actually is. Science is a process, not a solution. It is a process of consensus that requires evidence, experimentation, debate, and reproducibility. And even when science has risen to the level of consensus, most scientific ideas are only good enough to last until they are disproven and replaced with new ideas. That’s why it is so difficult for a scientific idea to rise to the level of a “law.” Science cannot be truly science if there is no debate or argument and it certainly can’t be the Truth. But that is exactly what is happening with social media platforms and web search services that throttle or filter any results that don’t match the current consensus of science. There are absolutely risks from purposeful, intentional misrepresentation of ideas; I understand that there is a danger in sharing information that has the potential to spread harm. But my focus here is Truth and the recognition of Truth and anyone who moves their justifications from “I am following the advice of scientific experts” to “I am following the science” has just moved from a True statement to an un-True statement. The first statement gives me the opportunity to explore the credentials of the scientific experts, look at their records, their successes, and then make a decision about the value of their advice; the second statement offers no such confirmation. Increasingly our leaders have distorted the word “science” to represent the inarguable justification of their decisions while failing or refusing to acknowledge that within the scientific community there exists a minority of alternate viewpoints.

Conclusion: Haste Makes Waste

Currently, information shared on the internet has the potential to generate revenue through advertising, and advertising revenue is calculated through some kind of formula based on site visits and ad interest. Before the internet gave us the ability to share content digitally, newspapers published stories daily. As with digital news, print news organizations generated revenue from advertising, but another profit stream for newspapers or news magazines included the sales of physical copies. A big news story would result in an increase in newspaper or magazine sales. 

A “scoop” was when one news organization published a story before another news organization, and since most markets included at least two competing news organizations, a “scoop” would increase physical paper sales. As this “scoop” incentive to publish information before your competitor has always been a motivator for news organizations, internet news likewise survives on publishing news as rapidly as possible. But the side-effect of this is predictable because in a world where rapidly shared information of any value is more important than patiently verified information, the rapidly shared (and potentially inaccurate) information takes priority. NPR, for example, has sometimes included a disclaimer when reporting news stories that are breaking:

This is a developing story. Some things reported by the media will later turn out to be wrong. We will focus on reports from police officials and other authorities, credible news outlet, and reporters who were at the scene. We will update as the situation develops.

Unfortunately, I see very few organizations that recognize that the Truth of a situation evolves as more information becomes available. Instead, most prefer to present news that is controversial or alarming and that will increase advertising revenue rather than publish cautious, deliberate, conscientious reporting.

Evidence that this hasty reporting is problematic can be seen when an author or organization retroactively edits a news story to match current information. I’m not talking about superficial edits like adding an apostrophe. I’m talking about the kinds of edits that reframe a news story so the news organization appears to have been more accurate than what it actually was, or on a different side of an issue than what it originally presented. 

Orwell described the retroactive editing of information in 1984. As readers, we recognize the irony when this type of deceit is being perpetrated by “The Ministry of Truth.” It is all the more disturbing to note that the exact same dishonesty recognizable in Orwell is being practiced by individuals and organizations under pretense of Truth.

Conclusion: Certainty is Dangerous

As Dickens closed A Tale of Two Cities, his rabid revolutionaries slavered over the guillotine justice that they wished upon their enemies, and Dickens reflected that before the hungry blade fell silent, the revolutionaries would also feel its bite.

So certain where they in their justice that it never occurred to them that the tool of justice could be turned upon them.

As I have reflected, there are dangers from elevating any one Truth above its alternatives through any means that involves censoring or control of opposing viewpoints. That risk is that any endorsement of censorship must also include an invitation for you, too, to be censored. As certain as you are that your Truth is the Truth, others who disagree and can present convincing arguments to the contrary, or who control your means of communicating information, can control your message. They can filter you or cancel you just the same way you have celebrated the filtering or canceling of others. Therefore you should never celebrate the censorship of ideas or information unless you are willing to accept the censorship of your own ideas if some other authority in the world proves capable of having the means to censor you.

I am not advocating here the idea that you can never be confident that you understand the Truth. I am advocating the idea that you should never equate your certainty in the Truth with virtue. Being somehow aware of the Truth does not give you the moral high ground over others because in this universe of infinite complexity, you can expect to be incorrect at some future time.

I am also advocating that people realize: the more certain you are that you are in possession of the Truth, the less certain I am that you are in possession of the Truth. I have an immediate reaction to anyone who steps in front of me and says, “The Truth is X and only a fool doesn’t know this,” and increasingly, this is the tactic used by people who are sharing information. They cloak themselves in condescension, they acknowledge none of the alternate viewpoints and dismiss everyone else with either smug disdain or outright insults.

Your perceived infallibility is a symptom of your perceived ubiquity; both are fallacies, distortions of perspective brought about from an inability to be anything other than what you are. Christ said, in one of his most profound and universal admonitions, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).

When controlling the Truth, the Thought Police imagine that they are making the world a safer place; they are restricting dangerous falsehoods from spreading, they are regulating facts to only those that are “approved,” they are imposing a narrative that is, so they believe, the True narrative. But the consequence of this control is the complete destruction of any Truth because without access to all information, I and others like me cannot trust the information that I do have access to. Better to have access to all the Truths and all lies than to only have access to approved Truths which may only be lies.

When the available information is unfiltered, determining the Truth rests with me and my own agency; when the available information is filtered — even ostensibly to protect me — my agency has been replaced by the control of another whose agenda (altruistic, of course; such control is only ever described as altruism by those who are protecting me) has the clear potential to be corrupted and abused, to mislead me and remove my own ability to think critically and independently. Inevitably, inexorably, there can be no other conclusion when the Thought Police are policing thought except for a complete breakdown of trust of all information. Rather than any information having value, none will.

 In Naked Lunch, William Burroughs explained, “You see control can never be a means to any practical end. … Control can never be a means to anything but more control … like Junk.” And Burroughs isn’t referring to garbage or unnecessary objects when he points to junk; he’s referring to dope, to heroin, because like a drug, control is addicting, and any control can only have, as its goal, more control. That line struck me when I read it twenty-five years ago, and it comes back to me with regularity any time control raises its head as a solution to any problem. In our modern American quest for Truth, I believe “Control can never be a means to anything but more control.”

Digression: Lies

Any discussion on Truth requires at least some mention about lies. Like Truth, the taxonomy of lies becomes increasingly difficult as we scrutinize what, exactly, lies are. My focus in this reflection has has been to think about the Truth, problems with the Truth, and some conclusions about how to identify the Truth. It was not my intention to get sidetracked into what could be a very time-consuming trip dissecting lies, so I will digress here for a moment as lies are inextricably linked to Truth.

When people disagree, it is not unusual for one or both of the parties to point to information from the other party and label it as “a lie.”

My friend John and I were talking a few years ago and I said, “I’ve always thought it was impressive that you played the role of Demetrius after Tom got strep throat the day of our high school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Upon hearing this, John immediately said, “I’m complimented that you remember it that way, but it was actually Sean who played Demetrius after Tom got strep throat.”

Looking at the information, it appears that both of us remember that Tom got strep throat while both of us believe that a different actor took his place. I remember John and John remembers Sean. As it is only possible for one of these options to be correct, one of us is accurate and the other of us is inaccurate.

A note in a yearbook explains that it was Sean who took over the role of Demetrius along with his own role as Tom Snout which means my memory, and my statement, was inaccurate; it was not the Truth. But was it a lie?

To answer this, we need to look at what we mean when we call something a lie. The denotation of the word “lie” is an intentionally false statement. There are three components to a lie:

First, it is an assertion.

Second, it is false.

Third, it is deliberate.

My statement, that John was the one who took Tom’s place, only matches two of these three components. First, I made it as a statement. Second, it is false. Third, it was not deliberate but was the result of some sort of memory error. I recalled that John did this, but in fact, as John reminded, it wasn’t him. If all three of these components are necessary for my statement to be a lie, then it is not a lie.

Interestingly, the word lie doesn’t always require these three components when it is used to describe someone else’s assertion. Rather, of the three components (assertion/false/deliberate), the first two are clearly recognizable and the third is a matter of interpretation, therefore any one can choose to interpret any piece of information that is a false assertion to be a lie because there’s no way for me to verify whether the assertion was deliberate or not. In this instance, John did not declare that I was lying, though in an alternate example — especially one that is polarized and political — it would be easy to imagine that John could call me a liar because I was in error. 

Further, we know that a lie is a deliberate false assertion, and if we choose to lie, we usually do so with the intent of cloaking our lies as Truths. I can’t think of a reason why a person would lie and broadcast that fact: “I am lying when I tell you John took over for Tom when he got strep throat.”

The consequence of this observation is the recognition that labeling information as “a lie” is what we do to other people’s information. If we do choose to lie, by its nature, the lie is intended to be cloaked or hidden so that its lack of Truthfulness isn’t recognizable. We don’t want our lies identified as lies; we want them identified as Truths.

As with Truth, lies are only visible through contrast. There is a difference between labeling something as Truth and labeling it as lies: We will acknowledge our own Truth and others’ Truth, but we only acknowledge others’ lies. I can’t stress this enough: because the label of lie or liar is only applied to others, the three conditions of a lie (assertion/false/deliberate) are actually reduced to only two conditions (assertion/false) because the third (deliberate) is unknowable by the person doing the labeling. As that person has no way to know whether the information was presented deliberately, that condition has lost any real substance in the modern definition of either lie or liar. Thus by this new and misleading definition, being wrong and lying are the same thing.

A liar is one who tells lies. In modern English, I can think of no equivalent for one who speaks the Truth. Once upon a time the word “soothsayer” was applied to someone who could foretell the future, but even that term was related to prophecy, not honesty. While there are many adjectives that describe honesty, this lack of a noun in English (or at least, lack of my knowledge of any in English) tells me that the default expectation is that a person is a Truth-teller and the exception is that the person is a liar.

But as noted above, that person, the liar, may actually not meet all three of the criteria of a lie because even if you don’t believe you are a liar, your statements may be labeled as lies. 

Conclusion: We Should Not Allow the Knaves to Erode Truth and Discourse

My default is, I believe, the Truth. I don’t purposely lie, at least, in any way that I am aware of. I was raised to respect honesty, and I believe I’ve raised my children with similar expectations. Not everyone shares this value. There are different triggers that justify lies. One person may excuse dishonesty because the other person “deserved it.” Another may think that whatever benefit is received from the dishonesty makes the lie worth it. Regardless of the motivation, purposeful deceit impacts discourse when it lures people to believe that it is the Truth. And some people in the world who have different values than I do have no reservations about lying. Lies are their currency, the company they keep, and the ocean that they swim in. 

There is a type of logic puzzle called “Knights and Knaves” where the Knights can only tell the Truth and the Knaves can only lie. Only in word problems do such creatures exist, and the Knaves of the real world are all the more difficult to identify because they tell both Truths and lies. 

These real-world Knaves find justification for lying when they believe that the ends justify the means, and I fear it is this value system that will undermine free and open discourse. In our real-world version of Knights and Knaves, Knights tell the Truth generally and only lie when certain conditions come up that push them to do so: self-preservation, avoiding stress or conflict, minimizing damage, etc. Knaves, on the other hand, have a goal that includes the dissemination of mis-information, and have a value system that makes no distinction between either the Truth or lies; instead, they only see value in information that suits their goals. 

To help explain, let’s posit a community with a controversial and expensive park project on the docket for the local authorities to consider. The Knights on either side of the project, either pro or con, will share their own opinions and understanding on the project and attempt to convince one another through traditional discourse; the Knights would not lie in the traditional sense. 

The Knaves on either side look only at their endgame: “We want the park to be funded and built” or “We want the park to be dropped from the budget” and then they assault the world with any information that they can to push for their goal. Not only any information, but as much information as they can to disrupt the traditional discourse of the Knights. The more Knights that the Knaves can convince, the more effective their campaign.

The Park Knaves can cherry-pick stories that bolster the credibility and integrity of the local authorities; they can share excerpts from opinions of famous experts on the value of parks and recreation (while omitting any information from those same experts that would otherwise undermine their goal); they can offer rosy projections or forecasts that imagine the beatification of anyone who steps foot on the lush grass and experiences Nirvana; and although I certainly can’t imagine the breadth of their lies, they will lie frequently and repeatedly to distort the information out there in favor of their endgame: getting the park approved. 

The Anti-Park Knaves, meanwhile, will find news information to malign the local leaders — even baseless accusations are newsworthy because they cast a shadow and doubt; they will scour the past for anything to assassinate the characters of any proponent of the park; they will find experts who dispute the need for the park; they will offer their own dismal projections or forecasts that prove what a quagmire the park will become financially; and, like the Park Knaves whose methods I can’t imagine, the Anti-Park Knaves will use lies, the more frequent the more useful, and they will have no qualms about this because their endgame is to stop the park by any means necessary.

The differences in information presented by the Knights and the Knaves in this situation don’t seem all that different. They might even share some of the same information, but where the Knights default is to tell the Truth, the Knaves default is to spread mis-information, especially knowing that more information is, to our limited time and attention, a persuasive feature in establishing Truth.

I don’t offer here any solution for our real-world Knaves because I don’t know what solution there can be. As I reflect on Truth, I’m operating from a perspective where I value Truth and honesty, but how can you combat a full-frontal assault on Truth and honesty by people who do not share your values? 

At my second-most cynical, I worry that the values motivating the Knaves — values of “the ends justifies the means”  — are replacing the traditional Knights’ values that generally prioritize honesty and integrity. The result of this erosion is information entropy in which all information is manipulation and there is no Truth.

At my most cynical, I worry that this has always been the case and I’ve been too blinded by my own worldview to realize that the values that I thought were present in others were nothing but my expectations about myself transferred to the rest of the world.

Conclusion: Embracing Refutation Is Uncomfortable but Essential

The Truth is somewhere between an assertion and its refutation. When I assert that it is raining outside and you refute that statement by saying the sun is shining, the Truth will be at either one end or somewhere between these opposing viewpoints. Just because I say something is True and you refute it with an alternate assertion doesn’t mean that one of us is correct; both of us may be incorrect; alternatively, both of us may be correct: the world is complex enough that two people can see the same thing and have different interpretations of it (just look at any Democrat and Republican who witness the exact same press conference and one sees a choir of angels while the other sees hell’s pandemonium). 

But refutation, as a contrast, provides a necessary alternative to reinforce the Truth or un-Truth of an assertion. 

Real refutation requires at least some familiarity with the assertion; it requires some understanding, and should be relevant. It is a presentation of opposing information and it allows the reader or listener or viewer to draw conclusions for him or herself. 

But recently, refutation appears to be unpopular. It has been replaced as a strategy by people who use outright dismissal, insults, or censorship.

A dismissal is not a refutation. “Your point isn’t even worth my time,” may feel like the kind of condescending logic that your middle school crush used to turn you down when you asked him or her to go out, but it is not a convincing rhetorical strategy to point out the problems with your assertion. 

Those who insult take condescension one step further. They are so condescending that rather than simply dismiss your assertion as meaningless, they instead turn it into an opportunity to vilify you, as though painting you into an ogre justifies their assertion. If you don’t believe or agree, you are a $&*@#! son of a !$?#@. The greater the disagreement, the more vile the insulting descriptions — though recently, it seems that the nuclear option is the only option, and anyone who doesn’t agree deserves to chew on their very own nuclear winter.

Censorship makes use of control to stop an alternate viewpoint, and even when censorship is arguable, the use of this strategy to silence opposition leaves open the possibility that the opposing viewpoint could be squelched because of alternate motivations than simply being un-True. Power, authority, profit, control, all of these are possible justifications to silence an alternate viewpoint that have nothing to do with being right or wrong, thus anytime censorship is used it invariably undermines itself because it removes the agency from those who would otherwise have been able to use the refutation to draw their own conclusions.

Afterword: Embrace Openness and Uncertainty

With the internet, information began to shift from top down news sources to bottom up fact gathering. It’s a different experience. Where previously there was the “sage on the stage” version of Truth, the expert who could provide the information and context, such clarity was replaced by the chaos of countless contradictory accounts or opinions. Aggregating the Truth became much more difficult. In Phillip K. Dick’s short story, “Minority Report,” there are precogs who predict crime before it happens. Dick chooses three precogs so there can be consensus. But the future isn’t actually fixed or at least, precogs don’t always predict the same things, so when one of the three precogs sees a different future, it’s called a “minority report” because a majority predict one outcome and the other predicts some alternate, contrasting outcome. This is similar to assembling a news story. Many facts can be sifted through and assembled, but even done with the best intentions, there can be a minority report alternative that could exist that, through its very existence, throws the credibility of the released version into question.

We are experiencing a shift from centralized authority of information to de-centralized information and the reality is that there is no way to process all of the information to assemble the Truth. 

We’ve fooled ourselves and accepted through faith that gatekeepers like media companies, publishing houses, news outlets were able to do this and tell us what is True, but now we realize that assembling Truth requires selecting from a great many accounts. Constructing a news story requires framing the story in a certain way, and sometimes that requires omitting some details or adding others. And the omission of an account can transform the Truth just as certainly as the inclusion of an account can. The critical thinker can’t help but question the veracity of everything. The Truth is that there is no absolute, irrefutable Truth. We are living in a post-Truth world.

Our great modern crisis is that there is no expert who can wrest order from the chaos of information and anything that can is inevitably Big Brother: and to give him power (even in the pursuit of Truth) is to abandon ourselves.

This means we need a new understanding of Truth, one that is not carved in stone tablets and presented from an authority figure who can, unquestioned, dictate it to the masses. It’s going to be a Truth built like science around a consensus between individuals, agencies, and experts whose voices have spoken to us personally, have convinced us personally. Truth can never be State sanctioned, it must be personally sanctioned.  This crisis means that my own Truth may not match those of my friends or family or community, which has always been an invisible fact since it was understood that we don’t bring up politics or religion in polite conversation. And the consequence is that there will always be alternate Truths, minority Truths that I may dislike or disagree with but I can’t control my Truths could be controlled next. Since there is no standard of Truth that can be universally applied, the censorship of anything I disagree with means I agree to be censored by some other agent of power who doesn’t agree with me, and that is a position I am unwilling to take.

This isn’t really a change to the world; it’s how the world has always been, but we just never realized it. The way information has been distributed has changed and now we must figure out how and it has created a fundamental revision in our expectations for information.

Pandora’s box is open. People think censorship will somehow restore the box, pack all of those dangerous visions, distorted Truths, the nightmare of misinformation back and latch it closed, making us safe and protected. The end result of that control can only be absolute silence and an inability to think critically; in short, we can give up our humanity.

Instead we must live in a new era, an era of vigilant skepticism, an era of constant doubt, an era in which we are all the new scientists: ever uncertain and ever open-minded.

Distortions and Obfuscations in Discourse

Recently, I have been struggling with arguments in print, on the internet, in podcasts, and on news programs that fail to provide meaningful support or refutation but, instead — for me, anyway — only appear to distort and obfuscate. In many cases these strategies appear to be used with the authentic belief that they are effective and convincing. Other times, I think they are deliberately used as sleight-of-hand trickery to distract from whatever real issue is being debated. As I find these strategies unconvincing in others, I want to be aware of them for myself, to identify and avoid them whenever possible.

As this list is a work in progress, I expect to think further about it and revise it based on future observations and experiences.

Comparison Strategies

These strategies compare some value between the disagreeing parties that is alternately framed as the measure of effectiveness rather than the actual issue under debate.

Certainty > Uncertainty: “I know I am right, therefore it is clear that you are wrong.”

Strident > Less strident: “If I scream louder than you, I am right and you are wrong.”

Care more > Care less: “If I care more than you, I am right and you are wrong.”

Care less > Care more: “Why do you care so much? It isn’t that big of a deal; you’re just blowing things out of proportion.”

Frequency > Infrequency: “The more I repeat my assertions, the less credibility your assertions have.” This is similar to “My insult for you = your identity.” Both use brute-force repetition to influence the limited attention/endurance of others. This strategy makes use of familiarity: a familiar concept is accepted more easily than an unfamiliar concept, so repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat until your statement is accepted as unproblematic.

Having been wronged > Everyone else: “I was a victim, therefore you have no right to question me.”

Indignation > Any other claim: “How dare you question me?” This is similar to “Having been wronged > everyone else” except with “Having been wronged,” there is either actual or perceived victimization; with “Indignation > any other claim,” there’s only offense. “I’m offended and therefore have no need to justify myself” could be another way of explaining this.

Any assertion > No assertion: “My statement is stronger than your lack of a statement.”

My moral high ground > Your moral high ground: “As I have connected my statement to moral conditions, it is better than your position which does not have the same level of moral conditions connected to it.”

My vocabulary > Your vocabulary: “I have more grandiloquence than you, therefore you are wrong.”

What you don’t know > What you know: “Compared to those with knowledge and understanding, your ignorance is proof that you are wrong.” This does require some explanation. Most recently I’ve noticed this used in response to legal cases in the news, and when someone either supports or rejects the ruling, an opponent will ask, “When did you pass the bar exam?” or “When did you become a lawyer?” Basically, the idea here is that because you can’t know everything, you can’t know anything … at least, when you disagree. Education doesn’t actually protect you from this argument because by this logic, even if you are educated, or have experience, you still don’t have as much as some other expert who automatically trumps you with his different interpretation. Most recently, I found this argument used to push against a commenter who supported a judge’s ruling in a case. So the critic, who discounted the judge’s ruling, asked the person who supported the ruling, “When did you pass the bar exam?” These same critics, who appear to place so much faith in the bar exam as a measure of value, then discounted the judge’s ruling because they didn’t agree with her application of law. She obviously didn’t fully understand the law or else she would have ruled differently. This does show why our legal system includes an appeal process and why, at the final level of appeals, a decision must be reached by majority: because people, even experts, don’t always agree.

Consequential Strategies

Consequential Strategies move from a cause to an effect and use a since/then or because/then type of construction.

Any error = Irredeemably erroneous: “Because you were wrong once, you will always be wrong.”

Accurate Once = Always Accurate: “Because I was right once, I will always be right.”

My insult for you = Your identity: “I have called you an insulting or degrading name; I have used that name repeatedly; through repetition, I have made my name for you familiar to others so that it is no longer novel or unexpected; for all of these reasons, my insulting or degrading name for you is now your identity.” This is similar to “Frequency > Infrequency” because both strategies rely on repetition.

My disagreement with you = You are always wrong: “Because I disagree and because you have failed to agree with me, you are an irredeemable idiot whose judgment cannot be trusted on any subject.” This isn’t exactly like “Any Error = Irredeemably erroneous” because it’s not based on someone’s error but instead on the act of disagreeing.

My disagreement with you on subject A = My disagreement with you on subjects B, C, D, etc.: “Because I disagree with you on one subject, I will not agree with you on any other subject.” This is particularly distorting because it means that disagreements (including any strategy listed here) may not actually be genuine; one party may be transferring its disagreement to an entirely unrelated subject, and because the end goal is to undermine the credibility of an opponent, it may be that multiple strategies on different subjects are used to overwhelm the opponent or perceptions of the opponent.

Updated 2022/02/16 to include “What you don’t know > What you know.”