When Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press” accused Sean Spicer of spreading “falsehoods,” Presidential spokesperson KellyAnne Conway called them “alternative facts.” Social media erupted with mockery of the term, making up other wishful thinking “falsehoods.”
This is the next step in the evolution on the ongoing attempt by certain portions of society to undermine the importance of facts. It started years ago with a conflation of “facts” and “opinions.”
For instance, within the Scientific Method, a theory is an interpretation based on a large amount of supporting factual data, and is the closest scientists get to declaring a belief to be “fact”; in common parlance, a theory is an interpretation that is consistent with any amount of data, and often does amounts to being an “opinion.” So one of the first modern attacks on facts was the claim that evolution is “just a theory,” and is therefore on par with Creationism.
Part of the challenge is nuance. While some things are clearly facts (“Donald J. Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States on January 20, 2017”) and some things are clearly opinions (“football is more entertaining to watch than baseball is”), much of what we communicate contains some elements of fact and some elements of opinion.
Even language can be a factor. On the National Geographic program “Brain Games,” narrator Jason Silva showed how describing a car collision as a “bump” or a “smash” can significantly affect witness recollections of the speed of the collision. The reality of the collision is a fact, but its severity contains an element of opinion.
A decade ago, Stephen Colbert introduced the word “truthiness”: Facts are less important than feelings. Statements that feel right, regardless of a lack of evidence for them or even evidence that contradicts them, have truthiness.
Sensitivity to the nuance of language has led Wall Street Journal Editor Gerard Baker to announce that his paper would be avoiding the word “lie” when reporting on Donald Trump. He argued, “‘Lie’ implies much more than just saying something that’s false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead.”
However, by avoiding “lie,” we blur an important distinction.
On “Meet the Press,” Todd and Conway were discussing Spicer’s claim that more people attended Donald Trump’s inauguration than Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, despite photographic evidence to the contrary.
Todd followed the lead of the WSJ by avoiding the word “lie.”
Conway compared Spicer’s comment to a false Time magazine report that Trump had removed a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr., from the Oval Office.
When we insist on categorizing every statement that’s not true as a “falsehood,” with a single blanket term, we open the door for this sort of comparison.
There are three major sorts of falsehoods: Lies, errors, and communal fictions. An error is a statement that the communicator believes is true, but isn’t. It seems reasonable to conclude that Zeke Miller’s report that the bust had been removed was an error. The bust had been moved, and Miller could not see it from where he was seated, as Trump himself admitted. Miller apologized for the error.
Jokes and other fictions told for entertainment are accepted to be false by the people participating in them. The Onion is a parody news site: Its claims of truth are over the top (“the single most powerful and influential organization in human history” (http://www.theonion.com/about/)), and most of its stories are obviously false. Their stories are occasionally mistaken for being true. However, today’s headlines include “Explanation of Board Game Rules Peppered With Reassurances That It Will Be Fun” and “2-Year-Old Unaware He’s Basis for 6 Couples’ Decisions Not To Have Kids”: Mistaking The Onion for truth is carelessness, not an act of deceit on the part of the website.
A lie, though, is a falsehood that the communicator knows is false and which is intended to be taken as true. I understand why journalists would be cautious about stating that a particular falsehood is meant with malice or deceit, but there is a point at which rational people can no longer accept an argument that a given falsehood was merely an error.
Errors are committed through sloppy journalism and are corrected, as in the case of Miller’s report about the bust. Communal fictions make little pretense about their truth; people who make them do not hesitate to admitting to them.
Lies are committed as acts of deliberate attempts at subterfuge. “Hillary Clinton is running a child sex ring out a pizza shop” and “Trump supporters chanted ‘We hate Muslims, we hate blacks’” are lies that emerged on fake news websites. Neither CNN nor The Onion deliberately provide fake news.
The concept of fake news is not new: The National Enquirer and The Weekly World News were around decades ago. Prior to the internet, though, it was easier to isolate reports that had come from those sources. Now, through Facebook memes, it’s easier for someone to create a convincing lie and have it spread quickly through well-meaning people making errors. Fake news sources have proliferated.
In recent years, and especially in the last election cycle, fake news sites have become a major source of revenue. And because conservatives tend to be more likely to believe these sources, this likely helped Trump win.
It is also not new for politicians or their spokespeople to make statements that are false on their face, deliberately and without error.
However, when we hesitate to call lies out for what they are (as trivial as they might be, such as Spicer’s comments about crowd size), we move further into the “post-truth world” where truthiness is more important than truth.
Saying we are “post-truth” implies that the war on facts is over, and that “facts” have lost. We cannot afford that language, and we cannot afford to cede that victory. Times may not look good for the relevance of reality, but the forces of facts must regain our ground.
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