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.”