A old friend of mine—a friend from way way back, I mean; I’m actually older—recently published a nice piece in which he argues for all of us to expand the sources of news and information we regularly sample and to rediscover the ability and the inclination to think critically. You can read it here, and when you get past the cows and the sharks (you’ll see) he makes a good point about how in today’s world our experience and exposure tend to drive most people into a set of beliefs that become impermeable to facts and reason. Unfortunately.
Today I was looking through articles I’d saved to write about some day, and found one that relates to Joe’s post: from almost three years ago, Rex Huppke’s Chicago Tribune obituary for Facts.
To the shock of most sentient beings, Facts died Wednesday, April 18, after a long battle for relevancy with the 24-hour news cycle, blogs and the Internet. Though few expected Facts to pull out of its years-long downward spiral, the official cause of death was from injuries suffered last week when Florida Republican Rep. Allen West steadfastly declared that as many as 81 of his fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives are communists.
“It’s very depressing,” said Mary Poovey, a professor of English at New York University and author of “A History of the Modern Fact.” “I think the thing Americans ought to miss most about facts is the lack of agreement that there are facts. This means we will never reach consensus about anything. Tax policies, presidential candidates. We’ll never agree on anything.”
Through the 19th and 20th centuries, Facts reached adulthood as the world underwent a shift toward proving things true through the principles of physics and mathematical modeling. There was respect for scientists as arbiters of the truth, and Facts itself reached the peak of its power.
But those halcyon days would not last.
People unable to understand how science works began to question Facts. And at the same time there was a rise in political partisanship and a growth in the number of media outlets that would disseminate information, rarely relying on feedback from Facts.
Though weakened, Facts managed to persevere through the last two decades, despite historic setbacks that included President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, the justification for President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and the debate over President Barack Obama’s American citizenship.
“American society has lost confidence that there’s a single alternative,” [Poovey] said. “Anybody can express an opinion on a blog or any other outlet and there’s no system of verification or double-checking, you just say whatever you want to and it gets magnified. It’s just kind of a bizarre world in which one person’s opinion counts as much as anybody else’s.”
Facts is survived by two brothers, Rumor and Innuendo, and a sister, Emphatic Assertion…
…and a not-so-distant cousin, Bald-Faced Lie, all of whom now appear regularly in the political “reality show” that passes for journalism on the 24-hour news networks.
(Relive the debut of “truthiness” right here.)