How Truth Became Optional?

Yesterday was the 23rd of October.  The 23rd of October, 4004 B.C., is the date that James Ussher, once Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, mistakenly determined to be the very first day of creation, as reckoned according to the Bible and the Julian Calendar.  That makes the world 6,013 years old as of yesterday, in Ussher’s false chronology.

I don’t know how many people nowadays believe the earth is merely 6,000 years old, but a series of Gallup polls spanning 24 years from 1982 to 2006 found consistent support among American adults for the notion that “humanity was created within the last 10,000 years or so”.  Over time, the percentage of people who believe in the creationist view that humanity was created relatively recently has ranged from 44 to 47 percent of those polled.

It doesn’t get better when it comes to evolution.  According to a 2009 Gallup poll, only 39% of Americans accept the Theory of Evolution.  Sixty-one percent either don’t believe in the Theory (25%) or don’t have an opinion either way (36%).

When Gallup asked in yet another poll, “As far as you know, does the earth revolve around the sun or does the sun revolve around the earth?”,  it discovered that 18% of Americans incorrectly believe the sun revolves around the earth.

The answers Americans give to political questions are just as strange as the answers they give to science questions.  For instance: Fifty-eight percent of Republicans either think Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US (28%) or aren’t sure (30%).

Moreover, in February 2003 (.pdf),  57% of Americans believed either that Iraq was directly involved in the Sept. 11 attacks or that Iraq gave “substantial support” to Al-Qaeda.  At the same time, 22% believed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) had been found in Iraq, and 56% believed world opinion favored the Iraq war or was evenly divided.

It would be supremely easy to go on like this for hours.  On issue after issue, large numbers of Americans hold opinions that are as worthless as a counterfeit coin.  But why is that?  Don’t people care about the truth?

The most often offered explanation for the phenomenon is that the quality of American education either has declined or has never been high enough in the first place.  Although it is not impossible to be both a well educated American and an American who rejects the Theory of Evolution, the more educated one is, the more likely one is to accept the Theory.  Consequently, there seems to be some merit to the notion that the phenomenon is a sign of the failure of American education.

Yet, please allow me to suggest that another factor might be at work here, too.   For it seems to me there has been a shift in the psychology of the average American.  In the past, as I understand it, Americans thought of themselves as citizens and they were concerned with and cultivated the values that would make them good citizens.    At least, that was the ideal: A good American was a good citizen.

I think all that began to change around 1920 or so.  From circa 1920 to the present, the American psyche, it seems, underwent a change from good citizen to good consumer. But citizens and consumers are in so many ways very different creatures.

Take their respective attitudes towards truth, for instance.  While a good citizen might think of himself as having a duty to his fellow citizens to be honest and truthful in his dealings with them, no such sense of duty seems to exist in the mind of the good consumer.

Instead, the good consumer thinks of truth as a product or commodity to be bargained for and purchased according to which version of it represents the best value for him.  If you were to suggest to him that he has an obligation to his fellow citizens to be truthful in his dealings with them, he might think you’re nuts, for suggesting that, to a consumer, is very much like suggesting that he has a moral obligation to his fellow citizens to buy a particular brand of soap.  “How can he possibly be morally obligated to society to buy that particular brand of truth”, he thinks, “for isn’t truth a personal choice? Just like every other consumer good?”

That is where we are today.  Over the past 90 or so years, we have progressed from the old notion that we as citizens owe it to others to be truthful, to the new notion that we as consumers owe it to ourselves to get the best possible deal on truth.  But please be careful here!  I am not saying that any of us are necessarily conscious of our attitudes.  I am not saying that, a hundred years ago, any of us ever sat down and declared, “I owe it to my fellow citizens to be truthful.”  (Maybe a few people said something along those lines, but I would think not many.)  Instead, I am saying that people behaved as if that was what they thought.   In the same way, I am not saying that the average American today has ever sat down and declared, “I will treat truth as a mere commodity and shop around for the truths I want to believe.”   Instead, I mean that is exactly how people today behave: Increasingly, they treat truth as if they think it is a consumer good just like cars, soaps or T-shirts.

In January of this year, the Public Policy Polling organization ran a nationwide survey of registered voters  to discover which news media outlets they most and least trusted.  In analyzing the findings of the survey, PPP President Dean Debnam said, “A generation ago you would have expected Americans to place their trust in the most neutral and unbiased conveyors of news. But the media landscape has really changed, and now they’re turning more toward the outlets that tell them what they want to hear.”  Indeed.  Americans are becoming good consumers of that strangest of all consumer good, the truth.  For like good consumers, they have learned to shop around for what satisfies — not the criteria of some cold and abstract methodology for determining what is or is not truth — but rather their personal desires.

“The world is 6,013 years old today because that is what I want it to be.”  “Humanity was created within the last 10,000 or so years because that’s what I want to think.”   “Saddam Hussein was one of the masterminds behind the September 11 attacks because I feel he must have been.”  “In 2003, he had weapons of mass destruction because it makes personal sense to me that he did.”   In today’s America, we need not be alone in our beliefs.  No matter how seemingly outrageous our beliefs are, we can find one channel or another in this media rich world that will assert what we choose to believe.   The channels that back us up in our beliefs might be, on the one hand, as rich and renown as the Fox News Network, or they might be, on the other extreme, no more than a collection of minor internet websites championing some exotic belief seemingly held by no more than a dozen people.  But this is a case where size might not really matter.  What might matter more than size is that our nonsense is supported by others.

The support is two-fold: The media channel that shares our views not only supports us by asserting much the same things as we believe or want to believe, but the channel also guards us against conflicting and critical views either by isolating us from them or by downplaying such views.  It is both a cheerleader and a security guard.

To put the situation a little bit differently, what makes 44% to 47% of those polled believe that “humanity was created within the last 10,000 years or so”?  I posit it is not merely that they heard it said by their pastor,  or read it on some website, or listened to it on some talk radio show, but it is as if their criteria for deciding whether it is true or not has shifted from that of the citizen who feels an obligation to his or her fellow citizens to decide the issue by some objective standards of reason and evidence — some standards accessible to all — has shifted from that criteria to the criteria of the consumer who feels no such obligation to others and instead feels within his or her rights to shop around for whatever truth or reality personally suites them.  I think without positing this largely unconscious shift in standards, it is difficult to see how our present situation came about.

Of course, I do some speculating here about how truth became optional.  I do not think my speculations are especially wild, but neither do I expect them to be accepted by everyone.   They are meant more to provoke thought than to prompt consensus.  So, what do you think?  Is there any merit to the ideas I’ve presented here? Or should I put another pot of coffee on and think about these things some more?

NOTE:

For an excellent and more comprehensive discussion of how accurate and truthful Fox News is, see Frey v. Frey.

5 thoughts on “How Truth Became Optional?

  1. Truth becomes optional when one stops growing, when one denies the human destiny to ask the eternal questions: Why? How? What? When? Who?

    Endless curiosity. The human condition.

    Many children may be fearful out of their parents’ arms and may start at a shadow, which is instantly a monster to them. When they have gained the maturity to more objectively assess their surroundings they no longer fear but ask, What caused the shadow? Why did I think it looked like a monster?

    If they grow, if they mature, that is.

    There is no absolute truth. There is only a ball park relativity — and the ball park is enormous. But one is compelled to seek out the truth anyway, to see how close one may come to the truth, or to open the paradoxical door to more mysteries.

    As as result of your question, I, alas, have been forced to conclude that the people you obliquely describe are cowards and retarded children who have not been allowed to grow. My conclusion may lie somewhat within the realm of truth.

    Like

  2. I’m rather reluctant to use words like “truth” or “proven” and such when dealing with a consensus of scientific conclusions pointing to the same direction (examples: evolution, the standard model, germ theory of disease, cell theory…) While some of these may have areas of debate (germ theory ignores prions, cell theory excludes viruses) they are still overwhelmingly supported for a great deal of observations. Moreover, these exceptions do not diminish the basic ideas of the theories. What modes of evolution are the most prevalent for species, what defines a “species?” These areas of ongoing discussion do not have an impact on the significance nor the support for the theories. The “debates” about these theories are often misunderstood, particularly by media outlets and then the public, as “problems” or “arguments against theory x.” In reality, these are mostly arguments WITHIN the theories. This is a very important distinction which is often missed by most news sources.

    I have much more to say on this, but I’m just taking a short brake from dropping a transmission…back to work.

    Like

  3. Incredibly interesting and I suspect correct observation about the shift from citizen to consumer Paul. I’m not sure if I’m a good citizen in that respect but I’m sure I am a good humanist, which in some ways works better in our global environment. I try to ask myself all the time, “How will this help others or someone else.”

    Like

I'd love to hear from you. Comments make my day. Please feel free to share your thoughts and feelings!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s