Editorial Roundup: 2020 showed that facts are especially important

Published 9:00 pm Friday, January 8, 2021

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

With 2020 still closer than it appears in the rearview mirror, we’re reticent to add pressure to 2021 by way of resolutions.

But there’s one that, if widely adopted, could make the coming year better for all of America: Get back to facts, and that means by people on all points of the political spectrum.

Just facts. No need to extend an olive branch to people you believe to be bad at the core. No call for understanding of our fellow citizens. Just a commitment to stop bending provable truths or citing sketchy experts to fit your team’s rhetoric, to be right, to win arguments, or to defend a meme.

Email newsletter signup

Somewhere along the way, this nation lost its connection to a principle so bedrock to the foundations of America that both the Founding Fathers and Superman put it right up front: Truth. As in “we hold these truths to be self-evident” and “truth, justice and the American way.”

That’s not making light of a serious subject. It’s illustrating that the concept of truth — of facts — permeates our highest principles and our most popular and enduring pieces of pop culture. Truth is not reserved for elites, or for blue-collar workers, for left or for right, no matter how far we’ve strayed from it.

Straying from the logical and the provable to embrace the emotional is not a 2020 problem, although denial of and disconnection from facts caused plenty of problems last year. No, skating past inconvenient facts is as old as time, with eras of high tolerance for magical thinking (the Dark Ages, for starters) regularly giving way to eras of logic, reason and evidence (the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution, for example) and back again.

We’ve been in trouble with the truth most recently since at least 2005, when “truthiness” was named the word of the year by Merriam-Webster. (“Truthiness: a truthful or seemingly truthful quality that is claimed for something not because of supporting facts or evidence but because of a feeling that it is true or a desire for it to be true).

Our surrender to a fact-light public life has become entrenched, both caused by and feeding our deep political divisions. Our tribal need to be on the “winning” side and our emotional need to believe what we want to be true, even if it isn’t, leads to confirmation bias, group accommodation bias and many other bad things.

It’s time to reclaim facts as part of our public discourse and let the political and social debates fall where they may. Starting from facts — facts supported by credible evidence, consensus of experts, common sense and the conspiracy-theory-busting power of Occam’s razor — won’t end debates, but those debates will stand a better chance of fueling solutions, not just tempers.

What is the truth? For purposes of civic debate, truth has little to do with belief. It is about facts, evidence, measurement, data and consensus across a community of credentialed experts in a field, and with proper context.

The potential benefits of returning to a fact-based civic life are many. First among them: If we demand that our leaders deal in the currency of truth, the laws they make and the responses to crises they develop will be rooted in actuality, presumably leading to increased effectiveness. Which (color us radical) seems like a good idea.

But the benefits of re-embracing objective facts extend into our daily lives as well: fewer garbage fires on our social media feeds, more effective response to community challenges, even a better understanding of what those challenges actually are, rather than what we believe them to be.

It will take effort by millions of us to improve America’s future. That means vetting (and diversifying) the information sources we use, looking for the data behind the opinion, being honest with ourselves about the credibility of the sources we believe, learning about bias in media, science and research and how to weight those biases without turning to charlatans.

Some practical tips: Seek out information sources that correct factual errors routinely, quickly and publicly. Learn the schedule of your favorite news channel — when they air news and when they air opinion-based entertainment shows, and learn to tell the difference (Hint: If you see a panel of people arguing, it’s not a news show). Learn where credible experts publish their findings. That’s rarely YouTube or TikTok. Bookmark two or three credible fact-checking sites, then use them before sharing that meme, that outrageous “fact” or that incredible “injustice.”

Everyone is, in fact, entitled to their own opinion, and that’s as much a part of the American way of life as honesty. But opinions rooted in facts are better — yes, objectively better — than what we want to be true, what we wish to be true or what we know is not true but keep standing behind out of deference to our “team.”

Truthfulness is part of how we see ourselves as a nation: Asked to describe the ideal American, “honest” usually comes right before “hard-working,” “neighborly” and “brave.”

If we can claim that national persona, we can live up to it. If we decide to. Let’s give it a shot this year.

— St. Cloud Times, Jan. 3

About Editorial Roundup

Editorials from newspapers around the state of Minnesota.

email author More by Editorial