Truth is the property of being in accord with facts or reality. Truth is usually held to be the opposite of falsehood. Our problem today – and it is a major problem – is that falsehood in politics, religion, and contemporary medicine is being promoted as truth and the actual truth-speakers are being condemned and threatened as conspirators or leftist trouble-makers. Some observers say we have moved into the “post-truth era” in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and populist opinion.

I remember Yale University historian Timothy Snyder writing in the New York Times last year: “When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions… Post-truth wears away the rule of law and invites a regime of myth.” (NYT, January 9, 2021. “The American Abyss”)

When people loose the ability to be critical observers and critical thinkers and are unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we have a problem. A young fundamentalist Christian told me recently that our Earth is only 10,000 years old. I chuckled and said: “Well today we know from radiometric dating that our Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.” He frowned and said at me: “Well that’s your opinion. I disagree based on what the Bible says.”

I said maybe we should talk about biblical interpretation. He frowned at me and said he did not want to discuss biblical interpretation because: “A true believer does not interpret the Bible but believes the Bible and follows it.” Well that was his opinion I guess.

I found it painful to read last month that Dr. Anthony Fauci, and his family are being threatened for speaking the truth. “Sometimes the truth becomes inconvenient for some people” Fauci said. 

Fauci’s critics, like Lara Logan on Fox News in November 2021, have been   comparing him to the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. Others have gone to Washington DC, with AR-15 rifles and a to-kill list of “evil” targets, that included Fauci. A fellow from California did that last month. 

On Sunday, January 23rd, thousands of people rallied against vaccine mandates in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Fauci’s name was scrawled on derogatory signs. A woman from Yorktown, Virginia held up a homemade sign depicting Fauci’s decapitated head in a noose. Her sign read: “HANG EM HIGH.”

In the last couple decades, strong sentiments of anti-intellectualism and distrust in scientific authority have developed and spread throughout U.S. society. It is all part of our contemporary disinformation and truth decay. Disinformation leads people to distrust everything. Contemporary digital media, unfortunately, is more often better attuned to distorted information than to truth. Today anxious people turn to authoritarian political and religious leaders whose rhetoric simply makes them feel good. They don’t have to think about it.

So what does one do? 

Well we can help people develop critical thinking skills. This is an essential part of education: learning to critically observe and to ask questions. What is the source of the information? Is it a reliable source? People who spread fake news and “alternative facts” sometimes create web pages, newspaper stories, or “doctored” images that look official, but aren’t. Trusted online fact-checking sites like Snopes can help to verify stories that sound too good to be true.

And of course we all need to combat ignorance. As an historian and a theologian, I realized long ago that a great many church leaders need remedial historical and biblical education. They may be well-intentioned but too often what they say about church history and biblical understandings is simply not true. And it creates problems like arrogant clericalism and ecclesiastical misogyny. The historical Jesus, by way of example, contrary to what I still hear from church authorities, did NOT ordain anyone at the Last Supper. And yes there were men AND women among his key disciples. And there were women apostles.

My focus on For Another Voice is to try to speak clearly about accurate historical, theological, and biblical information. Not just my opinions but information drawn from reliable documented primary sources. I acknowledge as well that I am not infallible.

What sources of news can one trust? Well I do trust the Associate Press, as an independent global news organization dedicated to factual reporting. I find it a reliable source of accurate and unbiased news. I find Fox News, on the other hand, not only anchored in a far-right bias but often giving reports that are misleading or simply not true. This is especially the case when Fox offers political commentary or reports about contemporary medicine, Covid-19 for instance, and climate change. Fox News has also been a strong supporter of QAnon, the dangerously cultic far-right political movement.

And I find it very disappointing that, according to the RNS: Religion News Service, 47% of today’s U.S. Catholic bishops, when they want to know what’s going on in the world, say they tune-in to Fox News. 

A credible news report will include a variety of facts, quotes from bonafide experts, official statistics, or detailed, consistent and corroborated eye-witness accounts from people on the scene. If these are missing, one should question the report’s truth and accuracy. Does the evidence prove that something definitely happened? Or, have the facts been selected or “twisted” to back up a particular viewpoint?

By way of example, my hobby is genealogy. I have discovered, however, that some family history websites do not provide truthful information but are full of family folklore and much misinformation. Last year I read on a family history website that my paternal grandmother died in Indiana and her remains are buried in Michigan City, Indiana. Not true. She died in Watervliet, Michigan, near where she had lived in a small house built by my father. I was there. Burial was in Montpelier, Indiana. I was at her funeral. But, when I sent an email asking that the information on the website be corrected, I was told I had to be “mistaken” because the information came from a “real genealogist” and not from an “amateur” like me. So…what is “real” and what is “true”? Who are reliable sources of information. One needs to document, document, and document.

Finally, one should use common sense! Bear in mind that fake news is designed to “feed” biases, hopes, and fears. I use Facebook because it enables me to stay in contact with family and friends. But I also realize that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media contain massive collections of user-generated content: flooded with real news, allegedly true reports or blatantly false information. One needs to be a critical user-observer.

Ultimately people will come to the realization that denying the truth doesn’t change the facts. But sometimes the process goes painfully slow. I often think about the old proverb that goes back to the first century Greek philosopher Plutarch: “The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small.”

  • Jack

12 thoughts on “Truth Decay

  1. I am grateful for your thoughts and knowledge you have shared with me. I am 94 years old now. I had such hopes my generation would leave this world in a far better place. Someone needs to write a novel, not a history book, which retells the story from beginning, NEW story of our earth, animals and people and heavens in the light of all we know today to be true. Joseph Campbell, Rene Girard, The Story of the Universe film material, the true simple story of Jesus’ teachings. church and state crucifiers of Jesus, not blaming the people, Christianity on track, the Constantine aristocratic version, virtuous and sinners, Luther as a truth sayer religious leader and others, Popes, both good and bad, councils, monks, crusades, Doctrine of Discovery, all truth and so much more. All research together in a new story written in one piece for new generations, persons surviving in this newly developing era, moving on.

  2. One of the best things I appreciate about your blogs is that when you present a problem, you offer an action on how to correct it. I know there is so much scholarship and wisdom being shared. THANK YOU SO MUCH! (Also, thank you for the information on the reliability of family history websites as it hits close to home.)

  3. Dear Jack,

    As an early “wannabe” journalist, your commentary today really hit me with the question Pilate asked: “What is truth?” The days are long gone when a studied, patient analysis of the facts precedes a headline. Now, everyone of the twenty-four hour news cycle editions begin with “breaking news,” not all of which could have been analyzed and verified. In the old days, when Walter Cronkite pronounced, “That’s the way it is,” you could put it in the bank. Now, being first to spout the fantastic event is more important than veracity. You completely identified the problem: both the senders and receivers of the message don’t take the time to question, think, and judge validity or rationality. Sadly, the soundbite has replaced the thoughtful examination. Judging by the adoration certain outrageous politicians have commanded, one can only guess that many people don’t want to take the time to use thoughtful, deep study to find truth. As the old saying goes, “Don’t confuse me with the facts…my mind’s made up!”

    (I think you have just shared the outline for a fantastic online course!!)


  4. Thank you for your bit about “rhetoric,” authoritarian or otherwise. I usually regard rhetoric as a tidy compilation [of little coated lies] that tastes familiar and feels good, agreeable enough on the surface, persuasive logically, easy to applaud, but often not bear up under too much scrutiny.

    About the finely milled grinding of the gods, divinity is in the details, the trickster devil prefers the chunks (sorry to masticate Plutarch’s metaphor). At the “true” atomic level, scientifically, matter is eternal, now that it is on the scene, like the infinity of space = they both had an origin at a bang “point” in Time, so technically they are not eternal. Only Time is eternal, but to our minds, so far, that is “immaterial” to God, who is no Being, prior to all that was, is, or will be, and certainly not linear nor limited to perspectives that have vanishing points.

    Perhaps truth flows from a different stage of thinking, “moving on” as MaryKay put it, which is why I think Pilate’s question, to which Frank Skeltis alluded, was cast by the evangelist as a rhetorical question, useful because it has no definition, no limits, squishy, relative. Not to make excuses for Pilate, but clemency at the level of state institutions and of the divine emperor was in the wind: Seneca, the Roman Spaniard and virtue ethicist contemporary with St. Paul, espoused a divine “apatheia,” mercy without anger or distinction, toward humanity (resonant with the “tender indifference” that Albert Camus ascribes to Mother Nature. In his “De ira,” he Seneca excludes wrath from good government, as evidence of tyrannical passion overtaking clemency. I think Pilate was angry and exasperated at the quandary he could not manipulate that revolved around the truth of the “matter” about Jesus of Nazareth who was a “spiritual” leader, at least, but not an imperial threat really. Heading into Lent again, I keep this in mind.

    The historical “Jehoshoah ben Maryam” does not directly answer Pilate’s question, because I suspect Pilate had no pragmatic interest in Truth as such, preferring political tactics and “optics” that furthered strategic victories to curry imperial favor. I doubt that Jesus of Nazareth limited truth to only his own insights. Rather, his approach to us, from truth, resounds in his question, “Who do YOU say I am?” He himself questioned who he is, because his true humanity is always before him, as it is for us, but he still relies on us to remember how he struggled with it.

    Tim Snyder’s caution about losing institutions that produce facts that are pertinent reminds me of his association with the late historian Tony Judt, who asks baldy but not rhetorically, Did it have to happen that way? Dr. Jack, that is part of your question, too: “Does the evidence prove that something definitely happened?”

    Pertinent here is the truth that a just and equitable world is a peaceful world, peaceful not from the mere prevention of wars by institutions using other violent means. Peace that is beyond understanding comes around to us from a different stage of thinking, especially about history. What happened horribly wasn’t inevitable, merely justice and equity and compassion ignored by the institutions then present. Social cohesion flows from personal wholeness= the integrity, the authenticity of confronting what is truly most human, individually.

  5. Jack
    47% of the bishops go to Fox News when they want the truth! I was reminded of Bernard Lonergan’s constant complaint. “Empty barrels make the most noise.” I was inspired by Mary Kay at 94. We have to keep going. Thank her.

Leave a Reply