When an administration official says with a straight face that she’s not lying — she’s offering “alternative facts” — it beggars belief. It may feel as if the administration is seeking to challenge basic western epistemology; after all, if an alternative fact is as good as a fact, how do we acquire real knowledge? And how does one combat the lies?
It was Jonathan Swift who acknowledged that, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it,” although the modern equivalent may be that “Donald Trump tweets it and the truth never gets reported by FOX News.”
But for all the cynicism, there is good news. A recent study cited by the Guardian shows that people can be “inoculated” against misinformation “through an explanation of the logical fallacy underpinning the myth.” In other words, showing believers how their belief in false facts is built on illogical fallacies can actually prevent them from buying into future alternative facts.
To further understand truth and lies, facts and alternative facts, below is a list of helpful books. At the beginning are some of the philosophical ur-texts that helped to establish western epistemology, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy can provide one with a primer on how we came to understand what “truth” is. It took the ancient Greeks time before they associated truth with facts, and it took until the Enlightenment until that connection started to break down.
The debate rages on about what role the internet plays in the public understanding of facts and the truth. On one hand, the internet provides us with a nearly infinite set of sources to gather facts from; on the other, people increasingly segregate themselves into information groups where they get all of their information from a few sources from the same ideological viewpoints, so that beliefs are never challenged. As a consequence, we live in a country with communities of climate-change deniers, Holocaust deniers, and those who believe that the theory of evolution is a myth.
Telling the truth in a time of alternative facts is an act of resistance. Be a rebel.
Epicurius had introduced the idea that there was a criterion for determining the truth. The “correspondence theory” of truth — that truth corresponds to a fact originates in Aristotle. As Aristotle wrote: “To say of what is that it is, or of what is not that it is not, is true.”
Aquinas, the Scholastic Philosopher at the University of Paris, was among the early generation of Christian theologians influenced by the recovered Aristotle. Aquinas agreed with Aristotle that truth was dependent on objects (facts) the senses could perceive. Or, as he wrote in Veritate: “Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus” (“Truth is the equation of thing and intellect”).
David Hume was a Scottish philosopher who mucked up the works by complicating the relationship between facts and human experience. One of his famous examples is the one that many people use to prove incontrovertibly that something is a fact: the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow. For Hume, who lived in the eighteenth century, did not benefit from our having seen the rotation of the earth from space. He argued that our belief that the sun would come up tomorrow was based on our experience that it had come up yesterday, but not because we had rational evidence that it would. Hume’s philosophy challenged science and epistemologists going forward to investigate the relationship between facts, truth, and experience.
Russell was one of the great polymaths — and gadflies — of the 20th century. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in addition to being a mathematician and philosopher. His basic question as an empiricist was this: “Is there any knowledge in the world that is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?”
Harry G. Frankfurt
In this slim book, philosopher Frankfurt investigates the gray area between truth and lying, “bullshit,” or the embellishments, fibs, elisions, and changes that people make in their speeches when trying to convince others of their arguments. Frankfurt offers techniques for recognizing those moments. He also argues that tolerance of bullshit creates the “slippery slope” that leads to a world of alternative facts.
Peters, the author of a blog on lies told in politics has produced a humorous dictionary for those of us who are running out of synonyms for alternative facts, lies, bullshit, and fibs. If you need to expand your vocabulary of “porky pigs,” Peters will keep you well-supplied.
Yale Professor Stanley offers readers a way of combating the alternative language offered by politicians to obfuscate the truth. He starts by giving a definition of propaganda that takes it beyond the activities of the Soviet or Nazi governments. It can happen here. “Propaganda is characteristically part of the mechanism,” he writes, “by which people become deceived about how best to realize their goals, and hence deceived from seeing what is in their own best interests.” Information that is designed to provoke the emotions so that rational thought is short-circuited is a hallmark of propaganda.
The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory
Deborah E. Lipstadt
In 1993, Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory University professor, published this book detailing the growing number of “Holocaust deniers,” who, using a variety of arguments, disregarded all of the evidence to argue that either the Holocaust never happened, or that the millions killed in the camps were impossible numbers based on faulty engineering calculations about how the Nazis carried out its exterminations. In England, where libel laws are more strict, making it easier for those written about in Lipstadt’s work to take her to court, Lipstadt was charged with damaging the reputation of one of these deniers. The trial put the Holocaust on trial, and Lipstadt’s account of the harrowing trial became the subject of a second book, and is now the subject of a motion picture starring Rachel Weisz in which Lipstadt had to prove that the Holocaust had happened.
When I was a teenager in Seattle, Bill Nye had a skit that he performed on a local television comedy program. The skit was called “Bill Nye, the Science Guy,” and each week Nye explained, using humor and evidence, facts about science. Decades later, Nye has emerged as one of our greatest public intellectuals who takes on those who claim that Biblical evidence proves that the earth is 7,000 years old and that the dinosaurs and humans roamed the earth together. Using his trademark humor and no-nonsense explanations, Nye provides readers with the information they need to understand the complexities of the theory of evolution and how creationists manipulate bad data.
While McKibben is known as one of America’s premier climate scientists, this book, written in 1992, is prescient in its examination of the skewed world view that most Americans get from watching television. Television, rather than broadening our world view, deprives us of experiences. Given the beliefs from previous philosophers that increased experiences increases our understandings of what is true, a television-saturated populace may not have the outside experiences to determine truth from falsehood told to them by the people on the talking box.
Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway
There are a number of excellent books that discuss global climate change out there: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. But Oreskes and Conway look specifically at how scientists in the pay of interest groups, ran disinformation campaigns to spread false facts that disrupted the warnings that climate change was real and required immediate action. Seventeen years after Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the U.S. seems no closer to accepting the reality that the planet is getting warmer due to human activity.
While creationists often object to the notion that human beings evolved over the course of millions of years rather than woke up fully formed in the Garden of Eden, their second objection is that the earth itself is only thousands of years old, not the 4.5 billion years scientists have estimated. In Nature’s Clocks, a professor emeritus from the University of San Diego writes the history of how scientists perfected techniques for determining the age of earth’s objects. For a more literary — and gorgeous — discussion of the same topic, John McPhee’s “Annals of the Former World” began as a multi-part article for The New Yorker before becoming his masterful book about the geological history of the American continent.
Walk through any graveyard in the United States that holds graves from the nineteenth century and count the number of dead children. Diseases such as pertussis, diphtheria, measles, and rubella carried off children every year, and epidemics of polio crippled others in the days before the development of life-saving vaccines. Despite the debunking of the fake studies that popularized the idea that vaccines caused autism and other catastrophic side-effects, many parents in America have chosen not to vaccinate their kids. The result? The return of whooping cough outbreaks in Brooklyn or measles outbreaks in Kansas, Montana, and the Pacific Northwest. In February, 2017, health officials in Venezuela reported that diphtheria had killed at least one child because the country’s economic issues has made it difficult for it to continue its vaccination programs.