Non-facts are stubborn things

Photograph of The American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.) by Todd Leopold.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow, in the midst of wringing his hands over the inability of calling out Donald Trump (and his supporters) on his, er, flexibility with facts, quotes an article about a study that essentially supports Stephen Colbert’s old definition of “truthiness”:

They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

This brings two quotations to mind: Joan Didion’s observation that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,”  and Upton Sinclair’s dictum that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Then you’ve got another issue: some popular stories are simply too good to check. They’re drumming up too much traffic (and, probably, making money for too many people) to quash.

Consider some of the most popular web stories of the last several years: the producer who live-tweeted an argument with a woman on a plane; the man named “Phuc Dat Bich” who kept getting his Facebook account deactivated; and the sad tale of “Lonelygirl15.”

All wonderful – or at least attention-grabbing – stories. All hoaxes.

Did it matter? Indeed, have facts ceased to matter?

A few years ago, tech columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote a book, “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society,” which looked at how hardened beliefs and punditry have often overtaken facts. (Manjoo, who used to write for Salon and Slate, now works for the Times himself; perhaps Blow should talk to him.) What’s even more concerning these days is how little the facts matter. If you believe vaccinations are the devil’s pinpricks, nothing will sway you; if you love your political candidate, no number of Pinocchios will dampen your enthusiasm. (And sometimes those political fact-checks split hairs so carefully they probably muddle things even more.)

All this is to say I don’t have much hope for rational conversation suddenly overtaking this election season. We have too much invested in entertainment.

Or, to borrow another quotation — this one made most famous by hardcore Nixon supporter Earl Landgrebe during the Watergate scandal — “Don’t confuse me with facts: I’ve got a closed mind.”

Landgrebe, incidentally, lost his bid for re-election. These days, he’d probably be returned to office in a landslide.


2 thoughts on “Non-facts are stubborn things

  1. I observed long ago that most of the time people don’t want the truth. They just want a reasonable explanation. The truth is often complicated and ugly. Reasonable explanations are much more comfortable.


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