Facts, Truth, Et Cetera

A Short Essay

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I think about Verrit a lot. For those of you who don’t think - possibly at all - about Verrit, it was a website set up in the wake of the 2016 US election by Peter Daou, former Hillary Clinton strategist and Strange Man. The motto for the website was “media for the 65.8 million”, referring here to the number of people who voted for Clinton in the general and who, the theory went, were hungry for a source of news without the sort of bias or lies that seemed to have put the country in its current predicament. Debate, especially online, was flooded with so much misinformation that it was impossible for an honest American to state a fact without it being howled down by the peanut gallery. Verrit would fix that. 

The website generated “Verrit Cards” containing quotes, facts, figures  - things that were true - which could be deployed during online debates and discussion. Each card had a unique “Verrit Code” that could be checked at Verrit to make sure it was a real card and not a photoshop by some sneaky wag. Rather than just blithely asserting something, users could deploy one of these bona fide cards, with its clear sourcing and citations, and this would bolster their argument beyond the endless churn of opinion and hearsay. In doing so, perhaps these Verrit users could win people over to the cause and the 65.8 million would swell.

I’ve tried to explain it here in the most generous terms possible, but it still sounds dumb as absolute dogshit because it was. Despite, or perhaps because of, an endorsement by Clinton herself, Verrit was ridiculed out of existence in February of 2018 - around five months after it launched - the once mighty arbiter of truth reduced to a splash page that contained only one assertion: “Rebooting Summer 2018”. This turned out to be, regrettably, a lie.

I think about Verrit a lot not just because it is a perfect cultural artefact of that particular time, not just because it adds “building a deranged website” to the official stages of grief, but because there’s a flawed premise at the heart of the Verrit project that keeps being peddled by people who don’t even have the excuse of being Peter Daou. Namely, the idea that neatly packaged factoids, delivered soberly and with proper citation, are the way to change people’s minds on big issues. In short, that truth will win.

There’s a great book called Stop Being Reasonable by philosopher and friend of The Idiot Report Eleanor Gordon-Smith that deals with just this, and I was thinking about that book last week when Alan Sunderland, former head of editorial policies at the ABC, concluded an article in Meanjin with this rallying cry for journalists everywhere. 

Perhaps it is time to find new ways of describing proper, traditional journalism. Here goes:

I am a journalist. I am partial only to the truth.

This maxim became the headline of the piece and was retweeted by several high profile media personalities, including Leigh Sales. 

“I am partial only to the truth” has the advantage of having a weighty cadence while being more or less unburdened by any kind of concrete meaning. After all, we all like things to be true, and what’s more, we all think that what we believe is based on the truth. Where we differ is on what is true and what is not. And that, of course, is where things get complicated.

Things get so complicated, in fact, that as Gordon-Smith points out, throughout the course of human history, very intelligent people have sent themselves mad trying to figure out when it’s rational to even believe that something is true in the first place. Verrit codes did not, unfortunately, solve this problem. But nor do the sort of things that people tend to point at when these discussions come up. Research is a good example. A truth to which Sunderland and others may find themselves partial is that global temperatures have been rising steadily since the industrial revolution, and this is being caused by human activity. This is backed up by data from any number of august and respected institutions, including the folks over at NASA. 

None of this, however, makes it true to the millions upon millions of people in Australia alone who don’t accept it. If you asked the four odd million Australians (at last count) who don’t believe in man-made climate change why they hold that position, none of them would say “because I am not partial to facts”. They would point to their own set of facts and truths that back up their view. That these facts and truths would be called bullshit by NASA et al is not the point. In fact, it’s very likely that these people think that NASA and the Bureau of Meteorology and the UN are in the business of peddling lies and should be ignored at all costs. 

In fact, you’ll find the same lionisation of facts and truth from some of the most mendacious and deceptive people in the media landscape. Bill O’Reilly had The No Spin Zone; Andrew Bolt opens every broadcast with No Fear, No Favour; one of the most malignant forces in US political discourse, Ben Shapiro, popularised the phrase Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings, a slogan you can reliably find in the merch section of any far-right conspiracy website of your choosing.

This isn’t to say that such a thing as truth doesn’t exist - although does it? Does it really? - but rather that in the context of public debate, saying you are a seeker of the truth as some kind of QED is largely meaningless, because it’s a mantle to which everyone, from Alan Sunderland to Alex Jones to Peter Daou, is trying to lay claim, and who we decide gets that mantle generally has very little to do with the rigour of their method and more to do with the bundle of assumptions that we all carry around with us without ever quite knowing where we got them. And yet our faith in facts and truth, regardless of how ephemeral we ultimately discover these concepts to be, remains unshaken.

And so it’s still more or less accepted wisdom that the best way to deal with a lie is to confront it with the truth. In other words, debate people for long enough and the truth is going to win out. To return to climate change, this tweet by The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy is fairly indicative of the outlook.

Argue and listen. Put forward your case, step by step. Use logic. Use facts. Don’t get emotional. Make a connection. All that sounds great, but here’s a question for you - in your lived experience has it ever worked? Have you ever had your mind changed on something huge by a conversation like that? 

Gordon-Smith asks this:

...when you have changed your mind about something close to you, was it because of a rational argument, or was the process something stranger and more difficult to map – like a subterranean rumble you weren’t aware of until it was over, or a single moment in which the old facts cast a shadow? Most of us learned long ago that changing our minds about something that matters….is far messier than any topiaried argument will allow. 

So why are we told, over and over and over again, that these methods are effective - whether fighting with Uncle Geoff or winning hearts and minds in the public arena?

Well for one thing, the people telling us all this have a dog in this fight. 

There’s an old Emo Phillips gag that goes “I used to think the brain was the most wonderful and important organ in the body. Then I remembered who was telling me that”. Very few professions get to write their own legends. Journalists, and writers generally, are some of them. The self-mythologising from these corners is partly to blame for the fetishisation of debate, the idea that words can change the world, that evil recoils from the blinding sword of truth. 

To put it another way - if people’s minds aren’t changed by rational argument, where does that leave people who’ve dedicated their lives to changing people’s minds with rational argument? 

This isn’t to say that the kind of journalism Sunderland defends in his article is entirely ineffective, but the self-portrait of the journalist as great check and balance against tyranny is, in present circumstances, laughable. Even brilliant, thorough work doesn’t make a dent the way that we’re told it must. Mountains of evidence and meticulous work on any number of Donald Trump’s misdoings has so far proven powerless against the President’s tactic of tweeting out from the toilet that the journalist in question is a “huge loser” and then getting on with his day. 

So why does the myth linger?

Well, another reason we’re convinced of the power of argument is that it is everywhere. I’ve touched on this before. After all, why would so much of what we watch and listen to and read be people arguing about things if there wasn’t some sort of utility in it? We wouldn’t be asked, ad nauseam, to join the conversation, unless there was some kind of point in doing so. The nation’s highest-profile show along these lines, Q&A, has the mission ‘to directly question and hold to account politicians”. This is a show perfectly positioned to change minds through facts and reason and logic, and yet in the decade that it’s been on air, when has that happened, exactly? Gordon-Smith again:

How many times have you seen a TV discussion in which the defender of one view turned to their opponent and said ‘You know, actually, that’s a pretty good point’? Ever?

Now that might not seem fair, but last year when the show’s host himself looked back on ten years of the program - none of his favourite moments were those where facts won the day, where the truth was victorious, even where a politician was held to account. In fact here’s how he responded when asked if Malcolm Turnbull used his show “as a marketing tool”.

You could say he used it, or I'd prefer to say he used it as a way to raise his public profile and to show his depth across a whole range of subjects and he did that very well.

Sweet!

The actual reason this medium is so ubiquitous is completely divorced from any kind of outcome it is capable of delivering. It is entertaining and it is cheap, and that is more than enough.

All of this matters because it informs not just how we talk to Uncle Geoff at Christmas, but also how we approach some of the biggest challenges we face as a species. It determines where we put our very, very finite energies and resources. It dictates which battles we pick and how we choose to fight them. And presently we’re labouring under the assumption that we can’t be beaten with the truth on our side - that we’re holding all the aces when what we’ve actually got is a fist full of Verrit cards. 

There’s another explanation why these ideas endure - that the alternative is simply too depressing to accept. If our cherished logic and facts turn out to be both ephemeral and unpersuasive, the implications are fairly dire. And so despite all evidence to the contrary, we hold onto the irrational belief that people are, at their heart, rational. Because what the hell can be done if they’re not?

The irony of this probably doesn’t bear thinking about.