By Jennifer K. Bauer
In 2006, comedian Stephen Colbert identified a virus posing a threat to American society which today has reached epidemic levels.
No, it’s not COVID-19, it’s an unwillingness to accept truth.
An episode of the mock news show “The Colbert Report,” featured “truthiness” as the word of the day and defined it as truth that comes from the gut, not the books.
Steven Stehr, a professor of civic education and public civility at Washington State University, thinks that word presaged the present moment, in which conspiracy theories are running rampant and vocal segments of the population choose to follow personal preferences over facts proven by science because those facts don’t fit with their personal worldview.
Stehr will present the talk “Is Truth Really Dead in America?” Tuesday night on Zoom as part of the Wine and Wisdom series of lectures organized by the Asotin County Library, Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau and the Thomas S. Foley Institute at WSU. The talk investigates the roots and consequences of the erosion of truth, with a focus on politics and science (find a link to join at the end of the story).
Philosophically, the definition of “truth” has never been settled in any authoritative way, said Stehr. For his purposes, it is a large degree of consensus among people who study something for a living.
Americans’ shaky relationship with truth goes back to the founding of the country, said Stehr. The U.S. was founded by Puritans who believed they had a direct relationship with God on an individual level. The U.S. Constitution stemmed from French Enlightenment ideals advancing individual liberty and tolerance while relying upon the evidence of the senses as the primary source of knowledge.
“Baked into the American experience is that Americans believe that they have a direct relationship with the natural and spiritual world,” he said.
But the divide between personal realities has widened to a place where many are finding it difficult to bridge the gap.
“In the last couple of years there’s been a number of books and magazine articles pointing out that people are having a harder time figuring out what is a fact statement and an opinion statement; they’re mixing up fact and fiction,” said Stehr.
Part of the problem is that there used to be more of a consensus about which news sources to trust. For decades there were three major TV news networks. The ’80s and ’90s saw the rise of alternative news sources, he said.
Now, because of big tech algorithms that target individuals with viewpoints they are most likely to agree with, “there’s tailor-made news in people’s news feeds,” said Stehr.
Declining trust in societal and political institutions is another part of the problem.
“People just don’t know who to trust anymore,” he said. “Measures of political stress are off the charts.”
One sign of societies in decline is that people are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories or fake news, said Stehr.
In his presentation, he cites a May poll by Yahoo News/YouGov that showed 44 percent of Republicans believed that Bill Gates is plotting to use a mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign as a way to implant microchips in billions of people to track them — a widely debunked conspiracy theory with no basis in fact.
While he found it alarming that such a large percentage of Republicans believed the conspiracy, what shocked Stehr was that only 52 percent of Democrats said it was false; 19 percent of Democrats said it was a true statement, while 29 percent said they did not have enough information to say whether it was true or false.
Stehr advises people to double check sources, to find out if something has been repeated by other reputable news sources, “just don’t get your news from the far right or the far left.”
To learn more about the decline of public trust and the rise of conspiracy theories, here’s some recommended reading from Stehr.
“The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump”
Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michiko Kakutani presents an impassioned critique of America’s retreat from reason in this 2018 New York Times bestseller and Editor’s Choice selection.
“The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters”
Using WebMD and Wikipedia, average citizens now see themselves on equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. Thomas M. Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, shows how this rejection of experts has coincided with the openness of the internet, the emergence of a customer service model in higher education and the transformation of the news industry into a 24-hour entertainment machine.
“The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It”
At the very time we need them most, scientists and the idea of objective knowledge are being bombarded by a vast, well-funded, three-part war on science: the identity politics war on science, an ideological war on science and an industrial war on science. Shawn Lawrence Otto investigates the reasons for why and how evidence-based politics are in decline and authoritarian politics are on the rise, along with some solutions.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Wine and Wisdom featuring Steven Stehr, “Is Truth Really Dead in America?”
WHEN: 6:30-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 25.
WHERE: On Zoom.
The talk is part of the Wine and Wisdom series presented by the Asotin County Library and Basalt Cellars in Clarkston. The winery is offering a 15 percent discount on a bottle of wine to enjoy at home while watching the presentation.
Register to receive a link to the discussion at