Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Two Crummy Days, and More About Selective Truth

After having such a grand time over the weekend, between schmoozing with our granddaughter and enjoying the barrel tasting event at Linden Vineyards, I woke up yesterday morning feeling pretty yucky...sneezing, sore throat, runny nose, and a little guy in my head trying to smash his way out of my eyeballs with a nine-pound hammer. I went to work, but by 10:00 I decided I could suffer better at home, so I spent most of the rest of the day in bed. Just as well - the weather was hideous, with pouring rain all day long.

This morning I still feel like I've been beaten with a two-by-four, so I'm going to stay home another day rather than share my misery with the other folks in the office.

But while I feel lousy, there's nothing wrong with my brain (no comments, please, Mike), and so let me pontificate for a few minutes on the subject of truth...or whatever passes for it these days.

On the way home from work yesterday I finished the book that I wrote about in this space a few days ago: True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, by Farhad Manjoo. This is a short, but well-written, thoroughly documented, and thought-provoking book that lays out the many ways in which truth has lost its meaning in a time of aggressive marketing, news as big business, and single-issue politics.

Mr Manjoo analyzes some of the psychological gymnastics we go through in order to make facts fit our preconceived notions, and also demonstrates how we have allowed "experts" who may not, in fact, have any particular expertise in the topic, to sway our opinions. I've often thought about this as I listen to programs on the radio and (less often) on television - who are these "experts" and what credentials do they bring to the discussion? Talking heads are often introduced simply as being "from (name of organization)," without any specific explanation of why they are more qualified than anyone else to discuss the topic at hand, or what their organization's vested interest in the issue might be. In True Enough, Mr Manjoo carefully analyzes the way in which clever marketing and public relations specialists can manipulate the discussion of important topics to obscure the vested interests of their clients - a classic example he documents is the clever plan by the RJ Reynolds tobacco firm to divert anti-smoking sentiments into a generalized campaign to "get government off our backs." They morphed legitimate discussion of a serious health issue into a blustery campaign of righteous indignation at government intrusion into our private lives.

The most disturbing part of the book, though, is Mr Manjoo's eloquent discussion of the death of trust - in a world where people rely on carefully selected facts and ignore those which might contradict their positions, where "experts" speak on topics of which they have no knowledge, we develop a sense of cynicism - a belief that no one can be trusted. How can you know whose opinions are worth listening to? When can you tell that you are being cleverly manipulated by people with a hidden agenda?

An underlying theme of this blog is don't let anyone else do your thinking for you. In a world of loose facts, too much information, and carefully obscured agendas, it's getting more difficult by the day to know what to believe and who to trust.

And that doesn't bode well for a future full of serious problems on which we will have to unite to take effective action.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Amanda said...

You must have had too much of a good time over the weekend ;). Hope you get well soon.

In recent years, I've developed this bad habit of always doubting what people say and then trying my best to check up on whether what they've said is true. Luckily, most of the time it is....and it makes me feel better. The more 'qualified' the person seems to be, the more I check up on them. Not to try to be smarter or anything but just to make sure they are not trying to fool me by their big talk.

Mike said...

"in a world where people rely on carefully selected facts and ignore those which might contradict their positions"

Reminds me of the old saying, "Don't confuse me with the facts, I've already made up my mind."