Ignoring the truth: A long tradition

Posted on Monday, January 21, 2019

Author: Jacob Berkowitz

Jacob Berkowitz

ISSP Writer in Residence, Author and Performer

As a science writer, my work is grounded in not just facts, but the idea of truth. I used to believe wholly in something called the truth. Now, I'm struggling to understand what this means, and what believing in truth says about a person.

This transformation in my thinking is exemplified by an event from this past July.

I was on the street in front of my house on a stinking hot day (part of a record-setting heat wave) when my octogenarian neighbour and friend made a bee line for me, sheets of paper in flapping in his hands.

Here, I have something for you, he announced conspiratorially as he handed me a sheet.

I was in a heat-induced zeal to get back into the house, so took the sheet with an off-hand pleasantry and kept walking. I also had a sense I probably wouldn't like what was on it.

Walking into the coolness of the house, I glance at the sheet:

"WHERE DOES THE CARBON DIOXIDE REALLY COME FROM?" read the title, written in blue caps, with a shadow font effect to give it an even more dramatic air.

Several days earlier, in his first act as newly elected Ontario premier, Doug Ford cancelled the province's greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program. Ford claimed he believes in human-caused climate change, but that the cap-and-trade system isn't the way to deal with it.

The clear message, however, was that climate change isn't important, and doesn’t exist. In the same way that U.S. President Donald Trump's "there are good people on all sides" comments about the Virginia white supremacist rally emboldened white supremacists, Ford's perfunctory cutting of cap-and-trade inspired those who've known the truth all along.

"Just remember that your government is trying to impose a whopping carbon tax on you, on the basis of the bogus 'human caused' climate change scenario," says my neighbour’s hand-out.

I enjoy debating different points of view and welcome different perspectives as part of the great diversity of human experience. But over the past 25 years, I've come to feel angry with climate change deniers. It's a topic I can no longer discuss civilly. I consider this a weakness, a lack of patience and big heartedness on my part. Yet with climate change deniers I feel that I'm at the gates of Auschwitz looking up at the entrance sign: Arbeit macht frei. I cannot discuss calmly with a dangerous, deadly lie.

Of course, how to deal with public lies big and small is part of the current zeitgeist.

For its part, the New York Times has doubled down and positioned itself as the purveyor of an unalloyed truth. This past year, in its print edition the paper's been running a series of full-page, self-defining ads anchored in a Platonic notion of truth, such as this the poem-like ad from July:

The truth affects us all.

The truth helps us understand.

The truth can't be ignored.

It's a dangerous illusion to think that the truth can’t be ignored. Because, of course, the truth can be ignored—nothing more often is. 

On the same day that the NYT’s carried the truth ad, it carried a story about new construction in New York which noted: "Waterfront building has continued apace since Hurricane Sandy, and it could soon accelerate. As of January, there were roughly 12,350 new apartments under construction or planned in the city's worst flood zones…For all of the evidence and predictions of climate-change driven more intense storms, ‘I think we have short-term memory’,” says a real estate agent in the article.

In a career defined by scientific peer-review and copious fact-checking and attention to details, more and more I realize how hamstrung and hobbled this approach is in the wider arena of life in which so many things come before facts and the truth.

For starters, there's a condo view across the Hudson river, but then there's also, in no particular order of precedence, love, patriotism, family, friends, money, ego, not to mention survival, property lines, whether or not a particular pair of shoes was ever worn outside when you want to return them, and every other conceivable large and small personal preference and feeling of self-affirmation. And, we are often ultimately afraid of our own truths. Afraid that they will be revealed. All of us, at some point, live in fear of this: that the private will be made public.

And so, this has become part of my new sense of truth: that the truth is often ignored; that it is often not what we see; that it’s not clear how it affects us. That this is the truth.

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