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“Things We Know To Be True”: The Death Of Facts In An Age Of “Truthiness”

According to columnist Rex Huppke, there was a recent death that you might have missed. It wasn’t an actor, musician or famous politician, but facts.

In a piece for the Chicago Tribune, Huppke says facts – things we know to be true – are now dead.

Huppke says the final blow came on Wednesday, April 18, when Republican Rep. Allen West of Florida declared that about 80 members of the Democratic Party in Congress are members of the Communist Party.

“That was the death-blow for facts,” Huppke tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

One call to the Communist Party USA confirmed that this was, in fact, not true. According to them, no one in the U.S. House of Representatives is a member of the Communist Party. Days later, Allen West stood by his comments.

So that led Huppke to the idea that if someone of any political party can say something so patently untrue and stand by it — which seems to happen more and more often, he says — then facts must be meaningless and dead.

“[Facts are] survived by rumor and innuendo, two brothers, and then a sister, emphatic assertion,” he says. “They’re all grieving right now, but we wish the best for them.”

There’s another sibling that may be too busy thriving to grieve. Comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” as the notion that truth doesn’t lie in books and facts but rather, in your gut. If Huppke is right and facts are indeed dead, perhaps Colbert’s satire is our reality. Where does that leave those of us seeking the truth?

If Facts Are Dead, How About Fact-Checking?

Bill Adair is the editor of PolitiFact, a website run by a team of seasoned journalists that checks facts made by members of Congress, the White House and interest groups. Despite Huppke’s obituary, he tells NPR’s Raz that the market for fact-checking remains strong.

“Whether the fact has actually died or is just on its death bed, I think it means it’s a great time to be in the fact-checking business,” Adair says, “because there are just so many questions about what’s accurate and what’s not.”

PolitiFact’s fact-checking process is long and arduous. The team spends a lot of time researching whether a fact is true, half-true or not at all true, then posts their findings to the site. When it’s over, however, the team at PolitiFact — and even some Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists — can’t always convince people what is true.

Adair often gets emails accusing them of being biased, but he says he’s not sure who they’re supposed to be biased in favor of because they get criticized a lot by both sides.

“I think that’s just the nature of a very rough-and-tumble political discourse,” he says. “We are in a time when there’s more political discourse than ever … and when you hear somebody say your team is wrong, almost like a referee, you’re going to argue with the ref. You’re going to say the ref is biased.”

The ‘Backfire Effect’

Increasingly, people don’t just say the referee is biased, they say the referee is outright lying.

Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan, and a colleague of his, Jason Reifler, conducted an experiment where they had people read a mock new article about President George W. Bush.

The article quoted Bush as saying his tax cuts increased government revenue, which is false. Some of the participants were then given a second article that had a correction: it said the Bush tax cuts actually led to a decline in tax revenue, which is true.

Those who opposed President Bush were more prone to believing the second article, while those who supported Bush, even after reading the second corrected article, were more likely to believe the first.

Nyhan calls this phenomenon the “backfire effect,” and it affects people of all political stripes.

“In journalism, in health [and] in education we tend to take the attitude that more information is better, and so there’s been an assumption that if we put the correct information out there, the facts will prevail,” Nyhan says. “Unfortunately, that’s not always true.”

In some cases, giving people corrective information about a misconception can make the problem worse, Nyhan says. That’s the “backfire effect,” and it can make them believe in the misconception even more strongly.

While there have been times of less polarization among political elites, Nyhan says there has never been a golden age of factual agreement. People have always believed incorrect things, but what has changed is the way our society is structured.

“That trend toward polarization has exacerbated this divergence in factual perceptions, to the point that it seems like we’ve lost something,” he says.

It’s simply too hard to walk back misconceptions once they’re out in the wild, Nyhan says, whether put there by political elites or another source. If there was a greater reputational price to pay for putting falsehoods out there, he says, perhaps there would be fewer of them in the first place.

“That, to me, is a difficult problem, but certainly an easier one than trying to change human nature,” he says, “which is what you’re talking about when you try to talk about convincing people. It’s just too difficult most of the time.”


By: NPR, NPR Staff, April 29, 2012

April 30, 2012 Posted by | Congress | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Norquistism”: Republican Zeal Runs Amok

To watch Republicans in action today, in Washington and in legislatures around the country, is to be reminded of Casey Stengel’s amazed query to the 1962 Mets, whom he had the cosmic misfortune to manage: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

In California, in Minnesota and here on Capitol Hill, Republican legislators in divided governments seem incapable of taking half or even three-fourths of a loaf — of recognizing when they’ve won. By holding out for more when they’ve already attained plenty, they run the risk of coming away with nothing for themselves or inflicting avoidable calamity on everyone else. As Daniel Bell once said of American socialists, they act as if they’re in but not of the world.

In California, for instance, where Republicans hold just over a third of the seats in each legislative house — enough to block any tax increase, which requires two-thirds support — Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown told reporters on June 16 that he was willing to submit to voters proposals to reduce both state pensions and business regulations if Republican lawmakers agreed to let voters also decide whether to extend some tax increases. Brown’s goal was to avoid having to cut more deeply into spending on schools, universities and medical care. California businesses, which have complained of overregulation for decades, were hot for the deal, but the

Republicans refused to budge. In consequence, in the state budget passed last week, without the tax extensions, the state’s public universities will have to raise tuition roughly 10 percent (on top of another 10 percent increase that will take effect in September); and the poor will pay more for medical care. Pensions and regulations will remain unrevised.

What makes the California Republicans’ intransigence so loony — “idiotic” is, I think, not too strong a term — is that they are likely to lose legislative seats as soon as next year as a result of redistricting, and they are sure to lose legislative seats over the next decade because of their ongoing estrangement of the state’s Latino voters. When Republicans drop beneath one-third representation in the statehouse, Democrats will be able to raise taxes without their support. In other words, this may well have been Republicans’ last chance to extract concessions they considered vital. And they blew it off.

What we have here is an extreme world view — let’s call it Norquistism — that ensures impasse, paralysis or perverse outcomes whenever control of government is divided. It’s the doctrine preached by GOP activist and lobbyist Grover Norquist, who trots around the country collecting pledges from GOP candidates and elected officials that commit them to never, ever raise taxes, no matter what they may be offered in return. In Minnesota, a state with a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature, Gov. Mark Dayton sought to raise taxes on only the relative handful of Minnesotans with annual incomes in excess of $1 million. The legislature opposed that, insisting on cuts (including to services for those with disabilities) that Dayton wouldn’t countenance. Absent a budget, most state services in Minnesota closed down on July 1; it’s not clear when, or how, some compromise can be reached to reopen the state.

In the nation’s capital, Republicans also seem to have lost their capacity for compromise — even when that compromise looks to be a GOP victory. Senate Republicans, for instance, have been urging President Obama since before he took office to finalize three trade accords — with South Korea, Colombia and Panama — and bring them before Congress. Obama has now done so, asking in return only that Republicans approve the renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program that aids workers who lose their jobs as a result of these kinds of trade deals. But Republicans are balking — boycotting last week’s meeting of the Senate Finance Committee at which these treaties were to be taken up — because they don’t like TAA. This is hardly a major program, mind you, but the GOP’s loathing of any program that provides government assistance to workers (who really shouldn’t need any assistance, as free trade is good for us all) has eclipsed its long-term commitment to American corporate priorities.

When zeal runs amok, the sense of proportion suffers. Today’s Republicans remind me of some leaders of the American Communist Party whom I got to know decades ago, after they’d left the fold. “We believed in the party line, in its infallibility, so completely,” one ex-commie told me, “that we’d forget the larger strategy for the momentary tactic.” So it was with Communists of yore; so it is with Republicans today.

By: Harold Meyerson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, July 5, 2011

July 8, 2011 Posted by | Businesses, Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Debt Ceiling, Debt Crisis, Economic Recovery, Economy, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Governors, Ideologues, Ideology, Lawmakers, Middle Class, Politics, Republicans, Right Wing, State Legislatures, States, Tax Loopholes, Taxes | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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