Originally Published in the San Diego Free Press on 11/24/16
by Mark Hughes
One of humorist Will Rogers’ signature lines was: “Well, all I know is what I read in the papers.” In subtext, he’s saying he trusted what he read, so it seems reasonable to believe that in those days newspapers lived and died by getting the story right. What a simpler time; if Will was reading papers and the Internet and watching TV today, depending on the sources he chose, some to much of what he learned would be either misleading or just plain false. The information portal guardians have been overrun by hordes bearing rocket-propelled innuendo, guided missile conspiracy theories, and bandoleers bristling with self-serving lies. But that was only the first wall to fall. In this country, those hordes are no longer raging outside governmental gates; soon they will be the government itself.
Welcome to the newest incarnation of the world. The rules, as they always do, have once again changed, and the eternal response is demanded: what do we do about it? How do we live now?
Let’s start with a review of the situation. Truth, in both the social setting and as science’s burnished product, took a hard beating in this election cycle. But perhaps that was an almost foregone conclusion, obvious once recent history is examined from a certain angle.
How did science’s findings become a buffet from which you could pick and choose at will? How did truth become such devalued currency? While there has long been business’s selfish interest in warping public perception, we could at least expect truth from the mainstream media, as Rogers did. I think many of these institutions today (NYT, LA Times, Washington Post, NPR, etc.) still live and die by reporting the facts as best they can determine them, but others have a different standard.
If only we weren’t drawn to car wrecks. Generoso Pope Jr., one-time owner of the National Enquirer, mulled this observation over in the late 1950’s. He switched the paper’s focus from national sex scandals to gore, with stories headlined “Mom Boiled Her Baby and Ate Her” (1962) and “I Cut Out Her Heart and Stomped on It” (Sept. 8, 1963). Then, in 1967, he came up with the idea of selling the papers nationwide in grocery store checkout lines. This required another change in emphasis, to celebrities, the occult, and UFO’s. By this point, the paper’s relationship with truth was about like the one humans share with the snail: part of the DNA is identical, but otherwise unrecognizable as cousins, kissing or otherwise.
Then, and although he wasn’t the first, Truman Capote recognized that the nonfiction novel could provide the reader the kind of enjoyment fictional techniques offer while telling a factual story. In Cold Blood remains the second most popular true crime book published (Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, about the Manson murders, is #1). There was one niggling issue however; Capote overplayed his fictional hand. True crime writer Jack Olsen had this to say:
”I recognized it as a work of art, but I know fakery when I see it, […] Capote completely fabricated quotes and whole scenes… The book made something like $6 million in 1960s money, and nobody wanted to discuss anything wrong with a moneymaker like that in the publishing business.”
With this progression of events, all the pieces needed to bring us to where we are today were in plain view. The Enquirer’s and Capote’s successes amply demonstrated that many of us are selective in our concern for accuracy or truth. If all this had remained just about senseless murders, celebrities, the occult, and UFOs, life would have been fine (well, Carol Burnett might beg to differ). But more fertile ground awaited and some recognized a big opportunity: there existed an audience that preferred their worldview over the truth, no matter how unscientific, prejudiced, or illiterate those views might be. Thus was conservative talk radio and the Fox News model born.
So here we’d arrived, playing fast and loose with the truth. But at this juncture, let’s be honest with ourselves—who wants to believe these words from their doctor: “I’m afraid it’s cancer.” Or: let’s say it’s the late 1970’s, you’re an Exxon executive, and your scientists present you with a report on CO2 and greenhouse gases. Not feeling that one? How about this then: President-elect Trump. We want the world to be the way we want it to be, starting with that little immortality deal in the back of our mind.
Wacky non sequitur: bumper cars. If you haven’t experienced the arcade diversion, gotten behind the wheel and driven as crazily as you wanted, harmlessly smashing into others, you don’t know what an exhilarating thrill it is. Similarly, there is the two-year-old, stripped down for a bath, who escapes mother’s clutches and runs through the house shrieking with joy. The release of boundaries, of constriction, is a breathtaking experience.
The problem with climate change is that some see it as a restriction. But science tells us that Man’s carefree bumper car days are drawing to a close, if they haven’t already. If we want to leave behind a world that’s better than the one we inherited, we can no longer breed like rabbits, mistreat arable land, enjoy a meat-centric diet, and burn fossil fuels. We also can’t put our trust in falsehoods that tend to our wishes over truths that don’t. The laws of physics and chemistry don’t care what we want.
To return to the earlier question then: what do we do about this mass retreat from the truth, how do we respond? I suggest we start by considering that those opposed to climate science, for example, may be vacillating between the first two stages of grief—denial and anger. We must move them into bargaining, through depression, and into acceptance. In this endeavor, a powerful tool is impeccable adherence to the truth. Begin then by rigorously examining the efficacy of your own knowledge. Recognize that most of what you “know” is actually taking someone else’s word. Because this is the case, your choice of sources is crucial and in some spheres this is tricky ground—whose analysis do you trust regarding the reasons behind this recent election’s outcome?
Fortunately, in scientific matters we are on much firmer ground, especially when the science in question has been thoroughly peer reviewed and consensus has emerged. To wit, 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. To put that level of consensus in perspective, see this. But just because tests have conclusively shown that the patient’s health is at grave risk doesn’t mean the task is over. We must be a doctor, be a nurse, to those who can’t accept the diagnosis. Do the work of digging into the truth so you have the key facts at hand as well as hope for a cure, but also recognize that the patient is trusting some other source, holding onto it for dear life. In the end, truth and compassion can prevail, as they’ve done time and time again in the past.
Will Rogers also said, “An ignorant person is one who doesn’t know what you have just found out.” In this truth-dodging time, let’s buck the tide. For the cause(s) we hold most dear, let’s be impeccable with our facts.