Truth is not a feeling

Image: Rush Limbaugh via Vox

“That’s fake news!” “No, you’re fake news.” With all the accusations of what’s fake flying about, is there any meaning to the idea of truth?

It’s a remarkably subtle concept. But, contrary to what President Trump told TIME Magazine, truth is not a feeling.

The topic of the TIME interview was truth and falsehood. Trump said a lot of things in that interview and rambled all over the place; it’s difficult to follow in print. But here’s one thing he said:

Interviewer: “Is there anything different about making these kinds of predictions [such as that 3 million illegal immigrants voted] without having the factual evidence as President?”

Trump: “I’m a very instinctual person, but my instinct turns out to be right. When everyone said I wasn’t going to win the election, I said well I think I would.”

This is a statement about predictions, rather than facts. But if you read the interview, Trump uses it to justify statements he made about wiretapping, attacks in Sweden, or the size of crowds at the inauguration. In Trump’s mind, heartfelt beliefs create facts.

This interview reveals the Trump thought process that leads to tweets like the wiretapping tweet. Here’s the process:

  1. Because Trump has an emotional connection with his electorate, he has an instinct for the truth.
  2. Trump sees something in print or on television or in person. This interview cited several instances of Trump statements with their genesis in reporting.
  3. Trump makes a statement which is based on his instincts and these reports, but changes some of the facts. For example:
    • Unrest on a file tape in Sweden becomes an incident that happened the previous night.
    • Wiretapping of associates becomes an order by Barack Obama
    • A significant and unexpected electoral victory becomes the biggest one since Reagan
  4. Fact checkers debunk the claims and Press Secretary Sean Spicer tap dances around them. There are denials (like James Comey’s denial that the FBI wiretapped Trump Tower, and the park service photos of the inauguration crowds).
  5. Trump waits for anything that confirms what he said — and asks for an investigation if no evidence arrives.
    • A riot in Sweden days later becomes proof that Trump was onto something.
    • Statements that the FBI surveillance of Russian officials may have recorded Trump associates becomes evidence for the claim that Obama wiretapped Trump.

At this point you’re smacking your forehead and saying “That’s not how truth works.” And it doesn’t. Anyone seeking actual truth gathers evidence, evaluates it, and then makes a statement based on the evidence. It’s fundamentally backwards to start with your instincts, cherry-pick evidence, make a statement, and then seize on any shred of confirmation, even if it doesn’t match up with the original statement.

This sort of cherry-picking of evidence based on instinct is dangerous. It erodes the very idea of truth. And if you’re president, it has consequences. If you seek only evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did, you might find what you’re looking for, ignore the preponderance of evidence to the contrary, and go to war. (It’s ironic that Trump frequently cites this an example of an intelligence failure, when his own lack of analytical thinking is such a clear pattern.)

But as analytical thinkers we need to look at our analysis of facts. If Trump’s way of determining truth is wrong, what is the right way?

What is truth?

Start with this: you cannot verify every fact with your own eyes. Even the number of electoral votes that Trump got, you know only because you read the reporting on it.

So what makes something true?

  • You witness it personally. There was a big snowstorm in Boston last week. I saw it snow. I shoveled it. I know that 10 inches of snow fell.
  • You see photos or videos in media. I saw photos and videos of the crowds at the Women’s March. Therefore I believe they happened, and that millions of people participated.
  • You read it in a reputable source. If the Boston Globe quotes Red Sox manager John Farrell on who will be pitching on opening day, I believe that he actually said what he’s quoted as saying.
  • It’s based on research. For example, Gallup reports that Donald Trump’s presidential approval rating is now 37%, the lowest for any president at this point in a new presidency.

But are these facts actually, incontrovertibly true?

Yes, I saw it snow. But how do I know that it snowed in Boston? I don’t actually live in Boston, I live in a suburb. How do I know that 10 inches of snow in my yard means a snowstorm in Boston?

It’s possible to fake photos and videos.

The Boston Globe, and all news gathering organizations, get things wrong. They also choose what to publish and what not to publish. So I am counting on their judgment, which can be flawed.

Research has uncertainties. Gallup can only poll people who answer the question. Maybe Trump backers don’t want to talk to the pollsters. Even if the poll reached a representative sample, all polls have a margin of error.

As you take a step back, you realize that we all live in a matrix of truth. We evaluate what we see from our senses, what we read and view from the sources we trust. Like Trump, we have instincts about what is true. Like Trump, we are more likely to credit a fact if it aligns with a view that we have. A preponderance of evidence tells me that the earth is becoming warmer — I trust the scientists that collect the data, and the reporters who report it. But for that belief to be “truth,” you have to accept that the researchers and reporters are accurately reporting something real.

How can people possibly believe those things aren’t true?

Does Trump really believe his biases are truths? Do his followers?

Jay Rosen pointed me to a terrific article by Vox writer David Roberts about these exact issues. As Roberts describes, the conservative and Trump-loyal set of voters have ceased to believe in the matrix of truth presented by academics, scientists, government, and media. (That’s the point of the Rush Limbaugh graphic at the top of this article.)

Here’s his analysis, starting with quote from Rush Limbaugh:

He and his listeners, [Limbaugh] said, live in a world apart:

We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap.

This is not just run-of-the-mill ranting. It expresses something profound about the worldview of conservative media and its audience, something the mainstream media has ignored, denied, or waved away for many years.

In Limbaugh’s view, the core institutions and norms of American democracy have been irredeemably corrupted by an alien enemy. Their claims to transpartisan authority — authority that applies equally to all political factions and parties — are fraudulent. There are no transpartisan authorities; there is only zero-sum competition between tribes, the left and right. Two universes.

One obvious implication of this view is that only one’s own tribe can be trusted. (Who wants to trust a “universe of lies”?)

Over time, this leads to what you might call tribal epistemology: Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one.

Now tribal epistemology has found its way to the White House.

Now that there is no transpartisan authority — no way to evaluate actual truth based on evidence and reporting — we all get to create our own realities. The chasm in American politics is not between Democratic and Republican views of policy (say, how to boost the economy), or ideologies. It is between completely different realities. Everybody gets to choose their own reality and live in it — and Facebook’s algorithms ensure that we hear mostly from people who agree with us. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Apparently, in America, we now get to choose our own facts.

You can whine and scream and moan about this, but once you and your political opponents fail to agree on what facts are true, there is no possibility of agreement on anything else. (We cannot even agree on whether the Moynihan quote comes from Moynihan, or somebody else.)

I avidly scrolled to the end of Roberts’ long article seeking the solution to this polarization of reality. There are some ideas there. But there is no solution. Every conversation is corrupted by our own worldviews, we talk only to those we agree with, we sort ourselves geographically to surround ourselves with people of like mind, and we, increasingly, demonize the other side.

In my dreams, there is a unifying figure that arises in American politics, appealing to all of us and restoring our shared reality so we can be one country again.

Then, sadly, I must wake up to the one reality we all agree on  . . . that our worldviews are hopelessly divided.

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  1. While we speak English in the USA, we have so many divisions of thought to the point that any thing we speak can be thought to be a lie by someone. So, with the media, they and we all have our biases – Liberal vs Conservative, Democrat vs Republican, Christian vs Islam, to the point that we do not accept anyone’s word as truth. While this may not be accurate, it is the perception that TRUTH no longer exists, leaving only opinion about an event.