By MATHEW WADSWORTH
It is convention season in America, and as anyone who has glanced at any news website after a big political speech knows, that means it is spin, half–truth, mistruth, and outright lie season in America. One Fox News commentator declared that Paul Ryan’s convention speech was good news for the economy because “The Romney-Ryan campaign has likely created dozens of new jobs among the legions of additional fact checkers that media outlets are rushing to hire to sift through the mountain of cow dung that flowed from Ryan’s mouth.” Somehow, I expect the Democrats to fare little better at their convention.
The fact that politicians like to spin and distort the facts when they are talking to a sympathetic audience is depressing, but hardly groundbreaking news. What has been truly depressing about the last few weeks is the number of claims pushed by various groups that have been debunked.
Early last week, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reached a major settlement in the seemingly mundane area of children’s toys. “Your Baby Can Read” is a $200 program marketed at parents that promises that it can teach babies as young as 9 months old to read. At first glance, that might seem ridiculous, but the company has convinced millions of parents since 2008. Unfortunately for the company, the settlement it just reached with the FTC for false advertising forces it to pay a $185 million fine, which is roughly its entire gross sales since 2008. This parallels the decade-long battle Disney has been fighting over claims that its “Baby Einstein” videos falsely advertise their educational value.
An even more prevalent piece of conventional wisdom fell earlier this week when a new high-profile study found no evidence that organic produce is any more nutritious or healthier than conventionally grown produce. In theory, organic foods are grown without man-made pesticides, growth hormones, or manufactured fertilizers. Consumers have paid more for organic products for years on the belief that organic growing methods meant a tastier, healthier product. Now, it turns out that may not be true.
People and corporations spreading mis-truths, half-truths, and outright lies about all areas of life seems to have become increasingly prevalent. Political speeches only need to be vaguely grounded in reality, product claims can go unverified for years, satirical news articles can be mistaken for real news, and on and on.
Stephen Colbert used his inaugural show in 2005 to introduce the word “truthiness.” Dictionary.com defines truthiness as “the quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion, or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like.”
Disturbingly, more and more of the modern world seems to rely on truthiness rather than truth. Why bother with facts when what I feel supports my position so much more effectively?
This increased reliance on truthiness seems to be paralleling the increased Balkanization of the nation’s mass media. It is so much easier to lie and spin reality when you are speaking to a sympathetic audience. People are expecting a certain version of events, they are expecting facts to support their preconceived world-view, and there is a good chance that they can find the “facts” that they want to hear among the staggering number of cable channels, newspapers, blogs, and websites available to the modern American. If you do not like the version of events being reported on ABC, you are free to switch to CNN, Fox, or your favorite blog to find a better version of reality.
Even something as basic as an encyclopedia is open to interpretation in today’s world. In November 2006 Andrew Schlafly and his conservative supporters decided that popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia was too liberally biased based in part on Wikipedia’s policy of referring to dates using CE and BCE. Failure to use AD and BC clearly demonstrates that Wikipedia “contains bias against the achievements of Christianity and conservatism,” so Schlafly and his supporters founded Conservapedia.com to promote a conservative version of reality. The “about Conservapedia” page brags that “no other encyclopedic resource on the internet is free of corruption by liberal untruths.”
The Conservapedia definition of “a liberal is someone who favors censorship of Christianity plus increased government spending and power… Many liberals favor a welfare state where people receive endless entitlements without working… The liberal ideology has worsened over the years and degenerated into economically delusional views and intolerant ideology.” Contrastingly, “a conservative is someone who rises above his personal self-interest and promotes moral and economic values beneficial to all. A conservative is willing to learn and advocate the insights of economics and the logic of the Bible for the benefit of all.”
Conservapedia has received over 250 million page views.
So what is the solution to all this truthiness? Ironically, it may be the very balkanization of the mass media that has caused so much of it in the first place. The mainstream media stranglehold on information is beginning to break down as certain bloggers are beginning to be viewed as legitimate enough to be invited to major events. A recent PBS opinion piece pointed out that in previous elections the press has “often cover[ed] even the most obvious lies as ‘one side’ of a dispute.” With the rise of bloggers and independent fact-checkers from all sides of the political spectrum, the press has been much more aggressive about exposing blatant lies in the 2012 election. Headlines after Paul Ryan’s convention speech included “Mr. Ryan’s Misleading Speech” and similar titles.
Of course, “fact checkers” are still human, despite their claims of independence. Fact checkers need to make a living too, and they don’t get page views by saying “You’re mistaken and here’s why.” They get page views by telling “people who need no additional encouragement to be angry and unreasoning… pants on fire, you’re a liar.”
In the 1927 case Whitney v. California,1 Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis eloquently wrote “if there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” This statement has been shortened to the much more common saying “the best remedy for speech is more speech.”
That seems to be the only solution to today’s truthiness. There is no turning off the tap. The explosion of media sources is here to stay. The government has neither the financial nor the constitutional nor the moral ability to examine every piece of information out there for authenticity, so truthiness is here to stay in all walks of life.
The only possible solution has to be hearing as much information as possible from the broadest variety of sources possible. The problem is not when Conservapedia, Fox News, or the Huffington Post is one of your sources for information. The problem is when any single place is your only source of information. The problem is when people see obviously fallacious claims like a company that can teach your baby to read by 9 months old, yet they believe them anyway because someone was allowed to make the claims.
Use the powers of reasoning you were born with, look for information from as many sources as possible, and remember to always question everything.
1Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 277 (1927)