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Mares: Truth

Mark Twain once wrote "The Truth is a precious commodity, and you must use it sparingly!"

It’s a funny quip, but these days perhaps too many of us have taken it to heart - in politics and out.

We don't even talk about Truth much anymore. Instead, as comic Steven Colbert has it, we talk of "Truthiness" in which statements have only the appearance of truth.

A recent article in the Economist talks of a disturbing and perhaps lasting shift towards a "post-truth politics" in which feelings readily overwhelm facts. Aided by new technology, a deluge of facts and a public less trusting than it once was, some politicians are getting away with a new depth and pervasiveness of falsehood.

Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel-prizewinning psychologist, and he identifies one possible cause as the human tendency to avoid or deny facts that would force our brains to work harder. This makes us more susceptible to conspiracies theories. And we create our own realities.

Politicians have longed played on these tendencies. Ninety years ago Hitler wrote that, “In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because... in the primitive simplicity of their minds [the people] more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.

The notion of "Post-truth politics" is further abetted by a pervasive loss of trust in public institutions generally, and in political ones specifically. And with dramatic changes in the way the knowledge of the world reaches the public through the Internet – massive oceans of information make it difficult to tell the objective from the subjective.

As a result, it’s increasingly common for people to create self-reinforcing online communities that function simply as intellectual echo chambers.

More and more people today get their news from the social media giant Facebook, that rejects the very idea of being a media company - which would mean taking some responsibility for content. Instead, it hides behind a computer algorithm of "what's trending."

Meanwhile, as unsubstantiated opinions proliferate, main-stream media struggles to maintain traditional journalistic principles like fairness and balance without abandoning factual accuracy.

But as a student, journalist and teacher, I believe that the search for an objective, if imperfect, truth, is a fundamental part of the kind of critical thinking that allows us to make responsible, moral decisions.

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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