Truth, Post-Truth, No Truth?

“Getting back to what you said just a moment ago that ‘X percent’—I think you said 37 percent—of doctors feel that it’s beneficial. We don’t operate on how you feel. We operate on what evidence is, and data is.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Fox News, April 3, 2020 (listen)

What does it mean to speak of a post-Truth era? Does it even exist? Even if this concept doesn’t quite work, what has happened in modern democracies–and in the US, in particular–that has made Truth-telling a problematic and controversial endeavor?  Manifestations of this crisis are everywhere, from our catastrophically poor response to the Conoravirus pandemic to the denial of basic facts about global climate change, racial inequality, and elementary scientific principles.

In this section of our seminar, we will consider contending explanations of our contemporary crisis of Truth.  It is not surprising that truth has many parents.  In some cases, one may have the rare opportunity to “choose one’s family,” but in others we are stuck with the people that gave us life.

In preparation for a class visitor in early October, please begin watching the 7-part Showtime miniseries, “The Loudest Voice” (available on our Course Reserve page HERE).  Pay close attention to the characters in episodes 4 and 5.

11. Monday, September 14:  Comparing the Big Thinkers

The People have spoken!

At your firm request, we meet today to engage in a comparative discussion of all of the thinkers we have encountered:  Machiavelli, Kant, Mill, Orwell, Madison and Hamilton, and Dewey

Our goal is to compare and contrast these thinkers’ views on:

      • The nature of truth
      • How one pursues the truth
      • Human nature and truth
      • The good society
      • The relationship between the truth and the good society

12.  Wednesday, September 16:  Class Visit

A conversation with Washington Post journalist and host of Washington Week, Robert Costa, ND ’08.  See HERE and HERE

13. Monday, September 21:  What is post-Truth?

Lee McIntyre begins the discussion of post-Truth with the following types of questions: Is post-Truth wishful thinking, political spin, mass delusion, bold-faced lying?  Is it now possible to believe in absolutely anything?

Lee MacIntyre, Post-Truth  Read:  Chapters 1 and 2

Jonathan Haidt, “Why it feels like everything is going haywire,” The Atlantic, November 12, 2019:  PRINT AND READ

Andrew Marantz, “Trolls for Trump,” New Yorker, October 24, 2016. PRINT AND READ

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451  (You Pick the Sections)

14. Wednesday, September 23:   It’s human beings, stupid!

Let’s avoid the sin of presentism. As easy as it might seem to explain everything in terms of our current political climate, human beings have always had a tenuous relationship with the Truth.  Regardless of the time period, why do some people persist in their denial of simple facts or refuse to recognize clear contradictions in their own experiences.  One possibility is that we are wired this way.  Today, we will consider scientific theories about the psychological roots of denial.

Lee McIntyre, Post-Truth  READ:  Chapter 3

Albert Camus, “The Plague” (two paragraphs) READ AND PRINT

Sara Garofalo, “The Psychology Behind Irrational Decisions”  PRINT AND READ

Daniel Dale, “We Like the President’s Lies,” The Star, March 26, 2017  PRINT AND READ  (Think about this:  How can you trust someone if you know they lie to you?  This behavior is provocatively counterintuitive.  Are we all guilty of this behavior?).

Ellen Cushing, “I was a teenage conspiracy theorist,” The Atlantic, May 13, 2020 PRINT AND READ

15.  Monday, September 28:  Our Polarizing Presidency

I approach the case of Donald Trump with some hesitancy in an election leader. I have no intention of dictating my political preferences. One way or another, psychological studies have demonstrated that students in your age group will have already formed their political preferences well before entering college. However, it would be strange if one excluded questions about this President’s public statements from a course on Truth and Politics.  So, I must venture into a political minefield.

In this class, we will examine sections of the Washington Post‘s recently published compilation of 16,000+ of the President’s “falsehoods, misleading claims, and flat-out lies.”  Our goal is not to attack the President. Rather I want to focus on the Post‘s methodology by asking three questions:

1. What criteria has the Post used to decide which statements are included in its compilation?

2. Has the Post consistently applied these standards?

3. Are the Post‘s claims accurate?

I am particularly interested in the last question.  Assuming all of the Post‘s claims are expressed in a falsifiable form, we should be to verify their accuracy.  To this end, I will challenge you to identify mistakes, examples of poor reporting, and political bias in the Post‘s list. To put my questions another way: Is the Post‘s coverage of the President “fair and balanced”?

The Washington Post Fact Checker Staff, Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth : The President’s Falsehoods, Misleading Claims and Flat-Out Lies  HERE

I will provide further details about how we will undertake this exercise and what sections of the book we will cover.  Because the library cannot provide access to more than three of you at a time, we will need to make sure that everyone has access to the book.

Don’t take the Post, or any other news source, at its word.  For a good reason why, consider this controversy at the Post READ

For a news source to win and retain our trust, what concrete expectations should we have it?

What about Chris Wallace’s July 2020 interview with Donald Trump?: HERE 

As always, you should continue to meditate on whether it actually matters if a politician lies.

16. Wednesday, September 30:  America’s problem with scientists and science. 

Another source of our problem may be quintessentially American.  For reasons related to the social, cultural, and religious conditions of our nation’s founding, we may be culturally wired to resist all forms of scientific and intellectual authority.

Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life

Selections available on Course Reserves in Hesburgh Library PRINT AND READ

Does the earth revolve around the earth? It depends on whom you ask: READ

17. Monday, October 5. Merchants of Doubt: Corporate America

Today, Truth-denial takes many forms, including dismissing the dangers of both global climate change and the Coronavirus.  When I was growing up, Truth-denial took the form of denying the link between smoking and cancer.  The tobacco industry played the central role in propagating the myth that the “verdict was still out” on the connection—even though, its own scientists knew that the verdict was already in.  Untold numbers of people died as result of a cause of cancer that we now recognize as self-evident.

Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway, and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt : How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, pp. 1-34, 136-148   PRINT AND READ

Note:  Because the Library has only “one” online copy of this book, each of you will need to visit this site at different times so that you can each download and print the material.  Don’t wait until the last minute to do so, lest you run into someone who has done the same thing.

18. Wednesday, October 7.  Merchants of Doubt II:  Media Moguls

Fox News is, by far, the most-watched Cable news network in American.  I have deliberately chosen to make it the subject of this class section because it is so controversial. Is Fox’s depiction of the Truth “fair and balanced”? Feel free to disagree with the following accounts. Indeed, I encourage you to do so!  At our next class meeting, we will have a unique opportunity to continue our discussion about Fox.

By this class, you will need to have finished the Showtime TV series, “The Loudest Voice” (Course Reserves HERE)

Jane Mayer, “The Making of the Fox News White House,” New Yorker, May ll, 2019  PRINT AND READ

C. Thi Nguyen, “Echo chambers and epistemic bubbles,” Episteme, vol. 17, Issue 2, June 2020, pp. 141-161.  PRINT AND READ

Sonam Sheth, “Fox News won a court case by ‘persuasively’ arguing that no ‘reasonable viewer’ takes Tucker Carlson seriously,” Business Insider READ

19. Monday, October 12: Class Visit

A conversation with Joe Lindsley, ND alum and co-founder of the Irish Rover