Critical Thinking, Dialogue, Higher Education

The Trouble with Truthiness

When Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” in 2005, I had a good laugh. Indeed, it was at the high point of my laughing at the nightly parodies of the ridiculousness of the political world, seen on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were adept at selecting clips from news briefings and news coverage to tell stories of hypocrisy, absurdity, and outright lies put forth by, well it seems like everyone, but particularly conservatives at the time.

Those evening news parodies were an interesting development. Comedy Central was taking on the mainstream and less mainstream media, when those traditional outlets seemed to have abdicated their responsibility to get at, well, the truth. Mainstream media had become all that Neil Postman described in his classic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Spurred on by the 24-hour news cycle and the profit-making imperative supported by the erosion of the Fairness Doctrine, regular news had devolved into soundbites with no analysis and lots of snappy hairdos. Stewart and Colbert filled a cultural void, calling out the media as much as the politicians they were skewering.

It was a deliciously sarcastic position and I laughed. But eventually, I stopped watching. As great as some of the follow-up programs have been with Trevor Noah, John Oliver, and even Colbert, slowly but surely my ability to laugh faded away. It just wasn’t funny anymore. My sense of humor seemed to be signaling to me the world that was to come–one devoid of any commitment to reason and facts at all. In other words, I left that wonderful world of parody before 2016. Apparently, I could see what was coming.

Now here we are at a shocking moment in US history and all I can think about is the notion of truthiness.

Truthiness is defined by Wikipedia as follows:

Truthiness is the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidencelogicintellectual examination, or facts.[1][2] Truthiness can range from ignorant assertions of falsehoods to deliberate duplicity or propaganda intended to sway opinions.”

Yes, I chose Wikipedia over Webster’s in deference to the original presentation on The Colbert Report, in which books were called elitist (I can still laugh at some things).

Now the joke was meant to name a practice that was (is) widespread, calling it out so we might guard against it, or at least notice it. (I take the liberty of claiming that intention, but I think I have read the strategies of irony correctly.) Unfortunately, what seems to have happened is a complete embrace of the “gut feelings” that Colbert cited in his announcement of this word in 2005, without any desire to consider the (f)actual arguments that might undermine those feelings.

The trouble is the joke only works if there is a commitment to the habits of logical reasoning. As any media ecologist can recite, while the roots of good argument are debated in Ancient Greece, the habits of logical reasoning for the masses emerged with mass literacy and mass education. Moving away from mass literacy and toward television and social media has undermined the very idea of logical arguments and makes seeking truth look silly. Indeed, truth is almost impossible to pursue in a world where there is no time allotted to evaluation. Instead, we focus on the new, the next, the statement devoid of context. As we replaced sustained arguments with decontextualized “conversations” that take place in brief videos, inflammatory Facebook posts, and impulsive tweets, we made truthiness the standard, not the joke.

We are in a pickle folks because truthiness is no way to run a democracy, fight a pandemic, or resolve injustice. Something’s got to give.

Now don’t get me wrong, we have always operated on the gut feelings that trigger truthiness. It is the starting place for most (all) opinions. We all live in a worldview that shapes those gut feelings, and they are not without biases. These worldviews shape everything from food preferences to ideas about international political structures and there is no sense in fighting those initial feelings. They are, indeed, our reality. No, I am not trying to suggest that our connection to our gut feelings is new, nor are they without value. However, I am suggesting that what happens next is what matters.

What happens next must be a commitment to the thorough investigation of those feelings. Those investigations must include a well-developed understanding of logic and contradictions. They must include at basic understanding of statistics and probabilities. It must have a foundation in how science works. It must engage the moral frameworks that are shaping how we see the world. And yes, it must include some clarity on how political systems work.

It should not surprise anyone that what I am calling for is a commitment to education that truly weaves together the arts and sciences that make up our understandings of the world. In the last week, there have been many voices in higher education who are reminding us of the value of the liberal arts, and the humanities in particular. I don’t disagree, but I want to be just a little more specific. We need to commit to direct instruction in logical reasoning.

In a world that is no longer situated in the assumptions of a literate culture and its habitual search for coherence, higher education must teach these skills directly. We cannot assume that our students are getting the structure of arguments through our investigations of texts or through their exposure to laboratory procedures. No, we need to lay the foundations of logical reasoning as deliberately as we once taught sentence diagramming.

Education must commit to exposing and wrestling with contradictions in every class. We need to dig into the limits and the strengths of making decisions on probabilities wherever those decisions are present. We must not shy away from engaging disagreements in moral codes, but rather hold them up as questions to be wrestled with. We need to fully commit, not just to offering a liberal arts education, but to seeing that our students are developing the habits of mind that such an education should foster.

There is nothing new here. It is a classical liberal arts education that I am describing. But the context has changed, and the urgency of the understandings we hope to foster is clear. So, I’m giving up truthiness as a joke. It isn’t funny anymore. It represents an abdication of responsibility for seeking actual truth. But it is a useful idea and it neatly describes all that has occurred in the last week.

So let’s not laugh about truthiness anymore. Instead, I am asking all of us to commit to using the idea of truthiness to start the important conversations about logic and belief that must be the point of education. I am also asking us to be accountable for the changes we must make to our curriculum to make it happen. We can do this, and we must. The future of our country is at stake.

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