Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Truthiness is still alive and strong

Frank Rich has an interesting column this week in defense of Richard Heene, the 'Balloon Boy' dad. Not because Heene is any kind of great dad, rather because "Heene is the inevitable product of this reigning culture, where 'news,' 'reality' television and reality itself are hopelessly scrambled and the warp-speed imperatives of cable-Internet competition allow no time for fact checking."

This column is an extrapolation of the themes Rich explored in his 2006 book The Greatest Story Ever Sold, a work that helped define the meaning of truthiness -- truth derived from emotion rather than from fact -- just as well as any late-night comedian could have. Even though that particular word has been absent from the popular lexicon of late, Rich reminds us that it still very much describes our present reality.

"None of this absolves Heene of blame for the damage he may have inflicted on the children he grotesquely used as a supporting cast in his schemes. But stupid he’s not. He knew how easy it would be to float “balloon boy” when the demarcation between truth and fiction has been obliterated."



Also this week, the Democracy in America blog over at The Economist cited recent research to help explain some of the reactions of both global warming deniers and believers to the new book Superfreakonomics:

"People's pre-existing personality biases, (the researchers found), actually shape their beliefs about the factual reality of the world; more information is unlikely to produce consensus, because people tend to reject information that does not cohere with their worldview ...

We have a dynamic of political discourse that produces absolute belief in things that, often enough, aren't true."


That, too, is textbook truthiness. From-the-gut truth is no longer a cornerstone of American policy (for now at least) so the catastrophic danger of blind faith does not feel as urgent. But it's clear that we've become a society that willingly abandons the need for fact-based truth for the sake of self-satisfaction -- and a good show.

(Note: I'm not trying to say anything about the truth or truthiness behind global warming here or what is said in Superfreakonomics. That's a different discussion entirely. It just happens to be the subject matter of the above link.)

(Only tangentially related, but related all the same: Here is an interview Dan Savage of The Stranger did with Frank Rich recently that is worth a glance. Describes how and why pop songs changed from show tunes to rock songs around the time the Beatles came along.)

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