Truth. It’s a loaded word these days. If aliens popped down to our planet — and according to recent congressional testimony they have — they might wonder what all the fuss is about. The truth is the truth, after all, so what’s the issue?
And then there’s the new-agey, Oprah-inspired encouragement to “speak your truth.” Some might find it personally empowering to do so. But if it’s only your truth, by definition it’s not the truth. Truth doesn’t actually belong to anyone. It just is.
There are a couple of dynamics causing the truth fuss in my view. One, people are confusing fact with opinion. Two, people are cherry-picking facts that support their opinions.
It was the late great U.S. Senator and statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan who wrote in 1983, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.”
Have we lost the ability to accept shared common facts, to agree, in other words, on what is the truth? It seems so.
Some of that is purposeful, as it always has been, asserting opinions in the guise of facts to persuade others to your point of view. It’s also easier these days to exist in an echo chamber that reinforces what you already think is true without having to do much thinking. But mostly, many of us just don’t have the time to delve into an issue enough to separate actual truth from the worst word in the English language — truthiness — defined as having the quality of seeming to be true even if it is not necessarily true.
Take the hearing on aliens for example. It was widely spread on that digital conveyor belt of opinion disguised as facts — social media — that a credentialed whistleblower had proven alien life exists. A secret government program confiscated space vehicles and stored non-human life in some government vault. Pictures exist! Little green men aren’t actually green! Or men! A closer read of mainstream news coverage shows no verification was actually offered. A story in The Hill, a staid Washington D.C. publication, summed up the “no there there” reality nicely with this: “Following Wednesday’s widely-watched Congressional hearing… people flocked to social media — many proclaiming the government confirmed aliens exist. But that’s not actually what happened at the hearing.”
Here’s a handy checklist I found from an academic website to distinguish facts from opinion. I propose we start teaching this in kindergarten along with learning how to share:
|Is objective||Is subjective|
|Is discovered||Is created|
|States reality||Interprets reality|
|Can be verified||Can not be verified|
The distinction is so simple. If you don’t think about it too hard. How is a fact a fact if it can be true or false? Or is it true until proven false? Oy vey.
Google “what is truth” and you quickly go down the rabbit hole of religious belief. If anything deserves to be labeled as opinion, it’s one’s view of the existence of God. Google itself, by the way, is kind of like crowdsourcing truth — maybe that should be called our truth — given that the results you receive are based on algorithms mixing fact and opinion.
I’ll just conclude by urging us all to do a better job, at least in the public square, of engaging in debate with clarity of what is being offered as verifiable fact and what is an opinion. Both are valuable when weighed thoughtfully. As to the question of are there UFOs? The answer is no. They are now called UAPs — Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena. Oh, you say sometimes they are still called UFOs? The truth can be so hard to find. But it’s worth trying. And that, dear readers, is this writer’s firm opinion.
A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.”