UK election confirms many beliefs are held in the absence of facts (truthiness)

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A decade ago, Stephen Colbert, the American political commentator and satirist, who will soon become the new host of CBS’s Late Show, coined the term “truthiness”.

We are all subject to confirmation bias — a tendency to find, or interpret, facts to support opinions we already hold. But truthiness takes us further. Mr Colbert has described it as truth that “comes from the gut”. There is a profound egoism about truthiness: these are beliefs we hold not because they look true to me, but because they look true to me. A statement is truthy if it is held valid independently of any evidence. Truthiness is the belief that comes when conviction is prized over information.

The concept of truthiness evolved in the era of George W Bush. Even before Mr Colbert, the journalist Ron Suskind reproduced an account (that was widely attributed to Karl Rove, the president’s strategist) of the distinction between “the reality based community”, which believes that “solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality”, and the political world Mr Rove sought to create in which “when we act, we create our own reality”.

In his fine book Enlightenment 2.0, philosopher Joseph Heath notes an effusion from former (and prospective) presidential candidate Rick Santorum. The Republican described how in the Netherlands elderly patients are “euthanised involuntarily” and its fearful residents seek medical treatment abroad. Mr Heath observes that Mr Santorum “seemed not to realise that the Netherlands was a real place, where people might hear what he said, and hope to set the record straight”. But Mr Santorum was unmoved; a spokesperson explained to a Dutch reporter, without retraction or apology, that the former senator “says what’s in his heart”.

Truthiness is not confined to the right of the political spectrum. An article in the magazine Rolling Stone provided a graphic description of a horrific gang-rape of “Jackie”, a student at the University of Virginia. Jackie allowed two years to elapse before telling the story to a visiting reporter. After the account was published, the Washington Post sent its own reporter, who established, as did the police, that few of the reported “facts” of the incident checked out. Rolling Stone later withdrew the piece.

But for Jessica Valenti, a columnist at the Guardian, “it doesn’t matter. Jackie is now another woman who is not believed.” Ms Valenti is rightly indignant that so many women in America suffer assaults like the one Jackie alleged, and that true stories of such attacks are often disbelieved. And one can see how that indignation expresses itself in her vow of truthiness: “I choose to believe Jackie. I lose nothing by doing so, even if I’m later proven wrong.”

Yet Ms Valenti does have something to lose, just as former senator Mr Santorum does: her credibility, and the respect of those who still think that opinions should be based on facts and that the sincerity of a false belief does not justify unfounded allegations against others.

There was a time in Britain when statements and information provided by government, if not necessarily correct, would be the product of honest endeavour to get it right. When I began research at the Institute for Fiscal Studies in 1979, it was hard to persuade people that our figures were as reliable as official ones; today they would laugh at the idea that government figures might be more credible than those of the IFS.

Another political satirist, PJ O’Rourke, recognised the central role of truthiness to a political campaign in a tongue-in-cheek brief written for the Supreme Court. “In modern times, ‘truthiness’ — a truth asserted ‘from the gut’ or because ‘it feels right’ without regard to evidence or logic — is also a key part of political discourse”. He went on to say that “it is difficult to imagine life without it”. Sadly, as the current UK election campaign shows, he is right.

 

This article was first published in the Financial Times on April 22nd, 2015.

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