A Four Part Series by C. David Pruett
PART III: Discerning Fact from Fiction
My reasons for writing this series of articles are personal. For the better part of a decade I’ve struggled to understand the growing political divide in this country. How can some see black where others see white? How can some see Trump as a savior when others see him as a con-man devoid of scruples? Why are the dominant political parties so polarized?
I’ve come up largely empty-handed—and frustrated. In the absence of real understanding, the easy fallback position is to vilify those on the other side as moral reprobates, and I confess that I am often thusly tempted. But it takes knowing only one or two good folks on that other side to pull oneself back from the brink. Truth be told, I have loved ones who’ve fallen down conspiratorial rabbit holes. It’s painful when a country—or a family—becomes so divided, especially over differing versions of “truth.”
That’s why the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma spoke so powerfully to me. (Refer to Part II.) For the first time, I glimpsed the beast that’s stalking us. We are not individually to blame for our delusions. Each of us is daily bombarded—on our laptops, pads, and smart phones—by subtle but relentless psychological manipulation that has been perfected by some of the world’s smartest people for the purposes of making money for the tech and media giants. Each of us is a David against an unseen Goliath. The Social Dilemma makes Goliath visible, and thus vulnerable.
Lord knows, the tech industry needs regulation, but we’re in uncharted waters. “Big data” technology is so far ahead of our understanding of its deleterious effects that it will be a decade or more before we can develop and implement antidotes to protect ourselves and our society. Until then, each of us remains arbiter of our own truth, a task for which we are ill-prepared and ill-equipped.
In a strange way, the Internet and the Bible are similar. You can find in each the justification for nearly any belief you wish to hold. Armed with the Bible, you can justify slavery (Genesis 9:26-27), the mass killing of one’s enemies (1 Samuel 18:7), or putting adulterers to death (Leviticus 20:10). But you can also find “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39), “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9), and “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).
Enlightened human beings seek not to mollify their consciences but to unearth the deepest truths, even when those truths are painful. It’s human nature to prefer the easy road, settling for what we want to hear rather than struggling for what we need to hear. But we owe it to ourselves, our families, and our nation to be better than that.
A Progressive Party article of January 24, 2021, cautions:
Truth has never mattered more . . . to the functioning of American democracy. The past year has provided a sobering lesson on the dangers of misinformation. From Covid denialism to the attack on the US Capitol, we have seen how lies can destroy public discourse, our public health and our body politic. Misinformation imperils the very foundation of the nation.
Here then are a few simple practices to improve the odds of our individual discernment of truth and our collective establishment of the common reality that is so vital for a functional democracy:
- Never rely solely on social platforms for “news.” These platforms are optimized to exploit your informational vulnerabilities and biases. Especially avoid sites with dark ads (those whose sponsors remain anonymous).
- Read, listen, and search widely. Seek information from a variety of sources: newspapers, TV, magazines, books, podcasts, radio shows, documentaries, opinion articles, and reliable Internet sources. To assess reliability, ask the following questions of each potential source:
- Does the “news” item pass the common-sense test? If it is seems too outrageous to be true, it’s probably false.
- Does the source or news outlet clearly distinguish factual news from opinion? If not, consider it suspect.
- Does the news source utilize professional journalists and trusted authorities, people with track records of sound investigation, fairness, and integrity? If not, consider it suspect.
- Are the human commentators of the news source perpetually aggrieved and/or indignant; do they exploit incendiary rhetoric? If so, they’re selling outrage, and outrage is addictive.
- Has the news outlet ever corrected a factual error and/or apologized for a faulty report? If not, consider the source extremely suspect. Legitimate news outlets occasionally make errors, for to err is human. But a reliable media outlet will always voluntarily correct its errors and apologize when appropriate.
- Read thoughtful opinion across the political spectrum. If at all possible, discuss your opinions with others who hold differing views. Seek common ground and shared values with those on the other side, and write them down on stone tablets, so to speak, like the Ten Commandments, as guidelines for further discussion. For example, here’s a statement that’s probably acceptable to most Americans: The checks and balances written by the Founding Fathers into the U. S. Constitution were well-conceived and should be protected. Here’s another: Elections should be free, fair, and transparent.
- Finally, hold close to heart the wisdom of James Madison: “. . . a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” But above all, that knowledge needs to be rooted in the truth.
The fourth and final essay in this series is titled “Truth and Reconciliation.”
Dave Pruett is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at James Madison University (JMU). In addition to three decades of mathematics teaching at various levels, he has worked for a decade in NASA-related aerospace research. Dave is also the author of Reason and Wonder (Praeger, 2012), the outgrowth of an award-winning JMU Honors seminar that explores the nexus of science and spirituality and was the subject of a JMU TEDx talk in 2018.
An earlier version of this article ran in Like the Dew (https://likethedew.com).