A Harpswell friend recently wondered how we can be in a post-truth world, in which facts don’t matter, when she’s so worried about truth. This got me thinking: Maybe we’re not post-truth – at least not in any literal sense.

If we were beyond distinguishing fact from fiction, we wouldn’t fret about what is and isn’t true. Scientific findings about climate change and COVID-19 wouldn’t get deemed hoaxes, because without truth, there couldn’t be hoaxes.

My friend’s question made me realize that many people I know, myself included, have become hypervigilant about truth: We’re afflicted with Post-Truth/Hypertruth Anxiety Disorder. Fact-checkers are our therapists.

• Rhetoric and reliability: According to philosopher Lee McIntyre, Donald Trump need not speak truthfully – he can just “dominate (our) reality” to get us to act in ways he wants. This, according to Aristotle, requires rhetorical skill, which can be used by “virtuous or depraved” persons for “good or bad purposes.”

Mixing some truth in with (intentional) falsehoods (aka lies) can make one’s rhetoric more persuasive.  Cunningly disguising lies as facts can get more people to adopt one’s agenda.

Accepting assertions obtained from people and processes that typically yield truth is called “reliabilism.” When we take unreliable sources to be reliable, perhaps swayed by skillful rhetoric, we think we know the truth when we probably don’t.

• Confirmation bias: We may also trust unreliable sources owing to confirmatory bias – the tendency to accept information if it supports what we already believe.  It’s exacerbated when a belief is core to one’s self-concept/identity. That is, we tend to reject or distort information that challenges our self-identities.

Because Americans have become so ideologically polarized, confirmatory bias is stronger than ever and fuels our “truth wars”  – what Barack Obama calls America’s “epistemological crisis,” in which “we do not have a common baseline of fact.” Without “the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false … our democracy doesn’t work.”

This unfolds in real time, with millions of Americans still relying on the demagogic rhetoric of Trump and his congressional enablers, insisting on the baseless “fact” that the election was rigged and so remaining unsettled at best. All to delegitimize Biden’s legitimately won presidency.

• Matters of fact vs. opinion: Distinguishing fact from opinion is especially challenging. As the Pew Research Center demonstrates (take Pew’s online test), we tend to take opinions we agree with as facts, and facts we disagree with as opinions. We tumble to confirmatory bias. I have caught myself tumbling.

We must be clear about the basics. Factual statements can be found to be true or false; they require evidence. “The Earth is flat” is a factual statement – it has been tested and found false.

Opinion statements cannot be tested, yet they may include facts. This complicates matters. “The full moon tonight is beautiful” contains a factual matter (whether tonight’s moon is full), but the statement about its beauty is a matter of opinion.

Expert-informed opinion is tricky, too. Medical advice about wearing masks is opinion based on facts. Deep waters!

• Survival and sanity: Being told that “up is down” can make us crazy. With even dying COVID patients in denial about the pandemic, we should worry whether any evidence can penetrate firmly held false beliefs that threaten our lives and our democracy.

Rather than worry, we can work to avoid falling prey to confirmatory bias and unreliable sources. This begins with asking ourselves why we believe some assertions and disbelieve others. What evidence do we rely on (or ignore) to make those judgments? Is that evidence sufficient to test the claim? Doing this has helped me realize that sometimes stronger evidence is required.

Similarly, rather than argue with someone who takes to be true what I find patently false, I ask for their evidence. Then I offer mine and wait for their response. If I get one, I invite discussion of the strengths (and/or weaknesses) of our respective evidence.

This strategy increases the odds of civil conversation – for those who seek it. Sadly, many may not. And turning from the claim to its relied-upon evidence is no silver bullet. Debates about the evidence itself can be fierce.

So even if civil conversation ensues, we may each end up where we started. But then we’re talking to – not at – each other. That’s no small accomplishment, in these democracy-degrading, insurrectionist-inspiring, divisive times in America.


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