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Do we want 'truth' or 'truthiness'?

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 6 February 2015


I've written about Howard Gardner before, and I regard his Frames of Mind. The Theory of Multiple Intelligences as the most important book I ever read. He has written many other important books, too, and his recent focus is on 'truth, beauty and goodness', which he fears are largely absent from our curriculum. A colleague passed on a reference to a speech Gardner gave recently at Harvard, where he works, and that set me on the track of a word I have seen once or twice, but without knowing quite what it meant - 'truthiness'.

Gardner argues that it is hard to know any more whether or not what we are hearing or even seeing is accurate, or truthful, given the rapid progress of information technology. Not only that, there is a postmodern axiom that truth is relative - it all depends on who you are and where you are situated. He says we should go beyond the notion that there's a fixed body of truths located in books or in Wikipedia entries anywhere, and focus instead on when somebody makes a statement, on what basis did they make that statement; what was the evidence?

This is not at all easy in the worlds of politics, economics and climate change, to pick three which appear on this website a lot, and Gardner asks us to persevere: it's much better to continue to strive to figure out what's going on, knowing that you may not be completely successful, than to give up and say 'It's all noise, it's all power, it's not even worth the effort to find out'.

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Gardner used 'truthiness' in the title of his most recent book, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Age of Truthiness and Twitter, which I have not read. But I felt I ought to find out about the word.

It's not a coinage (it's an archaic form of 'truthfulness'), but it was given a new twist ten years ago by an American TV comedian, Stephen Colbert. He defined it to mean 'the truth we want to exist'. He elaborated: I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?…Truthiness is 'What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.' It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality.

Colbert had particularly in mind the then President, George W. Bush, but it seems to me to apply quite as well to President Obama - indeed it applies generally to political leaders, whose task is to simplify issues so that they resonate with us, but in doing so they unavoidably (and often consciously, I am sure) engage in truthiness. The Wikipedia article on the word that I used for this essay provides an excellent political example.

[They] keep repeating the same lies over and over not just to smear their opponents and not just to mask their own record. Their larger aim is to construct a bogus alternative reality so relentless it can overwhelm any haphazard journalistic stabs at puncturing it.

No, it's not from Australian politics, though it would apply equally to both sides of Australian politics in the last federal election campaign. It's about what happened in the Republican primaries in 2007. It is also, of course, what Winston Smith describes as the work of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's 1984.

Here's another definition, from an MP in Canada's House of Commons: something that is spoken as if true that one wants others to believe is true, that said often enough with enough voices orchestrated in behind it, might even sound true, but is not true.

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'Truthiness' got to be the Word of the Year in 2006 from two American sources, and I think it's on its way back. The announcement that 2014 was the hottest year ever is a good illustration, and it accords well with the examples above: it was said to be so again and again, and those who said it plainly wanted it to be true, but it wasn't - or, perhaps more accurately, the data do not support such a confident assertion.

In fact, it seems to me that the whole global warming/'climate change' issue, as I've seen it over the last ten years, is becoming a great example of a bogus alternative reality so relentless it can overwhelm any haphazard journalistic stabs at puncturing it. Alas, there have been pitifully few such journalistic stabs until very recently.

I read a piece in The Conversation a morning or two ago about sceptics and 'climate change'. The Editor's note at the beginning ran like this: It often seems that arguing with climate sceptics is utterly fruitless. This is because their beliefs are influenced by more than just facts. Rather, their beliefs form the basis of their social identity. That's why they defend their views so vigorously, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. The thing is, even those who believe in anthropogenic climate change tend to do the same thing, thus creating an "us" and "them" mentality that only polarises debate.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, published in 2015, is Turning Point, the second novel in The Hogarth Trilogy.

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