A reader chastised me recently for failing to publish “the truth.” He was upset by a claim from one of our provincial candidates that a past governing party left a bigger deficit than he says it did.
“Isn’t ignorant bullshit like this supposed to be caught at the editor’s desk before it’s spewed?” his email asked.
A fair question but one without an easy answer because when it comes to deciding what’s “true” there’s so often no such thing as hard fact. With many issues, what’s true is as much based in perception as real data or evidence.
Perception becomes our reality; it has always been so. The “truth” is a subjective notion based on personal understanding and acceptance of a situation more than “facts.” It means nothing what actually happens. What matters is how facts are perceived, especially over time. The “truth” is fluid and changes with time. It is subject to revision until it settles into our collective memory. Some histories never settle.
MIT professor Clay Shirky, who often researches and writes about these kinds of issues, says society defines truth by seeking out “consensus among relevant actors.”
What he means is that we watch as experts or others with significant interest come to agreement on data.
Since we typically do not have expertise on complex issues, we rely on them to form our collective understanding about what it means, and we accept the truth.
Truths are rarely universally accepted. Many still do not believe humans are responsible for changing climate, for example, or that the Earth is round or billions of years old.
Every “truth,” it seems, has an element of subjectivity attached to it that makes it unique to every one of us, no matter the facts.
Before the Internet, the mainstream media occupied a more dominant role in deciding what a community’s truths might be because there were few means for people to have their voices heard. Scarcity of channel — the limited size of the public soapbox meant few got to stand on it — helped create the means by which society reached common “truths,” be they right or wrong.
The Internet has largely taken that intermediary function from mainstream media. For those who would cheer that, keep in mind that without a gatekeeper — with the gates wide open and free access for all — the public sphere is now infinitely large, bigger than any individual can manage.
We are awash in information, with no means to assess credibility, accuracy or motivation. We are each left to form our own truths and as a result, reaching common truths becomes more difficult. So be it. This is our era.
Back to the original question. Is it my job to “catch” the BS? I wish I could. I tried to find an answer to the reader’s budget-deficit question but search tools produced several variant answers, leaving me with a dilemma.
Which are really true?
It made me realize, my job is not to write our history by deciding what are “the facts.” I’m more worried about credibility and motivation and watching for those who would maliciously mislead.
My task, instead, is to help sort out who are the relevant actors.
Society must decide its own history based on discussion of “the facts” by those with an interest. It’s that process that will lead us to “the truth,” whatever it is we think it might be.