Why “Beyond Truthiness”?

Long ago, in the first year of George W. Bush’s second term, Stephen Colbert coined a word that would eventually enter dictionaries. “Truthiness” was the belief that a statement was true because it felt true. Folks prone to truthiness allowed their gut to override the conventional, old-fashioned criteria — factual evidence and logic — for determining whether something was likely or unlikely to be true. I taught the concept in first-year critical thinking courses at The University of Texas at Austin.

Sure, we discussed how the factual evidence we paid closest attention to would most likely obey our gut. I gave probably too much time to the dozens of cognitive biases that blinker us all, and to our squirrelly behavior when we suspect we might be mistaken about something important. My favorite book to assign was Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong. But, hey, facts. This was college in a free country. Facts were our guides and our goals.

These days, those worries about letting our feelings override what used to be called our higher faculties seem quaint. In the United States, we’ve entered a maelstrom where verifiable facts are denied by members of Congress. Worse, those members are the ones most likely to be lauded by a former president who himself trucks in pure-D fictions. And he has convinced most of his own party’s voters that he’s right.

Americans can co-exist with different faiths. We can co-exist with different values. We can co-exist with utterly different political philosophies. We cannot exist together for long, as Americans, with different realities.

This blog will be about our recent loss of faith, as a country, in what Jonathan Rauch calls the constitution of knowledge: how it’s happened, who’s affected, what it’s doing, and how, or whether, we can restore this essential faith. I plan to write once a week.

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