Truth is Hard for Humans

If you’ve heard anything about “fake news” lately, you’ll know that in many ways truth has taken a backseat to other forces. Oxford Dictionaries declared post-truth–“relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”their word of the year. And with good reason. The maelstrom of partisan politics, clickbait, underfunded investigative journalism, misinformation, outright propaganda, and other obstructions has left many of us wondering where we can find something approximating what’s real and how we’ll know that it does.

It doesn’t matter what politicians and political ideology you affiliate with, your favorite sites and social media personalities, or what you wish was true. We should all see actual truth as a worthy pursuit. Even–and perhaps especially–if it challenges your beliefs and feelings. Living out of ignorance, incomplete or incorrect information, or deception doesn’t do any of us any good. What’s real is real whether we accept it or not. And often it’s extremely important that we understand what’s real as best as possible. Manmade climate change, for example, may lead to an inhospitable planet whether we know about it and acknowledge it or don’t.

The problem, though, is that every person, community, and organization is going to get at least some things wrong some of the time. Even in the most humble, unadulterated pursuit of the truth, no one has a God’s-eye view. No one sees the world with perfect clarity and absolute comprehensiveness. Your favorite, powerhouse news source is going to get it wrong at times. Your go-to social media know-it-all is going to post some significantly misinformed things. A bunch of likes, retweets, and shares doesn’t make it more plausible.

Any attempts at understanding what’s real, no matter how pure, are done so as human beings. As fallible, finite creatures. Sometimes our eyes, ears, and other senses let us down. Did I really see what I think I did? And even when they don’t, there’s only so far they can reach and so much they can process. I can only give a firsthand account of a space of maybe a block or two from wherever I am right now. Same for you. Same for every other person on the planet. If I’m here and I want to know what’s going on over there, I’m dependent on some kind of eyewitness–recollection, photo, video–because I’m not there experiencing it for myself and reflecting on my own perceptions of it. Each of us is fixed in a certain place and time. We each have a particular point of view.

This means that most things in the world are mediated and interpreted. Mediated because you experience the real world through either your own limited human faculties of sense and reason or the articulation of someone else’s (via a Facebook post, a cable news report, or a conversation, for example). We don’t have a direct connection to reality. Interpreted because mediation always has a point of view. A live news camera is pointed at some action and not another. The president at the podium giving a speech, not the random guy on the phone in the corner. And why did they choose to send someone out to the speech and not some other event?

Each of us is constantly sifting through an inordinate and overwhelming amount of information to try to fully perceive the world before us. When, though, someone has sifted in a Facebook post or a news report or a friendly conversation, they’ve chosen what’s included and what’s left out. They’re interpreting what details before them seem factual, important, and connected. What things together constitute an accurate account–the truth–of an event, research study, institution, etc. What’s included and why, or what’s left out and why have to be carefully scrutinized.

Truth, as it turns out, is fundamentally a matter of story and storytelling. Truth is a weaving together of perceptions, observations, and supposed insights into a bigger sort of framework or pattern. Into a story. “A set of facts in context,” as some have said. Stories are how we make sense of things. They are the means and the form we use for talking about what goes on in the world. Journalists, historians, scientists, and others tell stories in various kinds of media to try to inform the public. Friends, relatives, and strangers pass them around and comment.

The thing is, just like some fictional stories are better than others, some stories meant to encompass the world as it is are much better than others. Some are closer to reality. Some–deliberately or accidentally–are far from it. We get truth by comparing stories against each other and seeing which one seems to best fit the real world. In our limited humanness, that’s as close as we’re going to get to something objective.

So how can we tell one story is better than another, or that a certain story has the best fit? We’ll have to save that for next time. The truth is hard for humans. It’s going to take more than one post to figure this out.

 

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