Humans greatly desire to feel that they are in possession of the truth (I should probably call it “capital-t-Truth“). We often think of “truth” as indicating something such as “Did they lie when you asked them where they were? Oh, they told you the truth?!” But it also has been one of the main philosophical phenomena (I think “value” or “virtue” kind of misses the mark a tad) since antiquity. The Bible talks about it. Scientists discuss it. Philosophers argue about what it is and whether we can actually apprehend it. Psychotherapists work with their clients to grasp it in the context of their childhood and their present, challenging relationships. Truth is a big, big deal. It has always been a challenge – think of the titanic struggle between capitalism and Communism, or Muslim Saracens vs. Christian crusaders.
A while back, Scientology came on the scene and that was a low point for Truth (in America at least)(L. Ron Hubbard made a well-known statement about how if you want to manipulate people, go ahead and invent a religion)(that statement is very paraphrased, for the record). Lately, though, it seems like it has mixed in with and become adulterated by not just economics and religion, but also politics. It feels that in the era of Facebook and obesity and religious zealots and alternative medicine quacks, it’s now a lot harder to know what is true. This strikes deeply into the heart of a human because we loathe feeling insecure, especially in a social context – the one in which Truth tends to dwell (after all, few of us are cloistered monks thinking about the nature of God).
And Donald Trump talks about it. A lot.
The man has said: “The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”
Truthful hyperbole, huh…
Is that what this obnoxious man-child is peddling – exaggerated truth? It feels more like bald-faced lies, Machiavellian machinations, and unethical chicanery. It all serves his best interests, and little else. He routineless calls mainstream news outlets “fake” and peddlers of “fake news”. It’s disconcerting to say the least (well, for 70% of the nation, at least).
Here is another choice morsel from the mind of a maniacal narcissist: “Bill O’Reilly asked me is there a Muslim problem? And I said absolutely, yes. In fact I went a step further. I said I didn’t see Swedish people knocking down the World Trade Center. It was very interesting. I thought that was going to be a controversial statement and somebody, I think it was Dennis Miller introduced me, he was doing like an analysis of me, he said, I love it. The guy said what the truth is. He didn’t mince his words. He didn’t say, ‘Oh, gee, no there’s not a Muslim problem, everybody’s wonderful.’ …[Y]ou have to speak the truth. We’re so politically correct that this country is falling apart.”
I really used to like Dennis Miller, too. I would say that maybe there is a problem with political correctness, but it’s not black-and-white, and it’s not in America’s top 20 problems at the moment.
Here is an exchange in a debate that can make a liberal (and any normal, decent American, I would say) cry:
- Anderson Cooper: You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?
- Donald Trump: No, I didn’t say that at all. I don’t think you understood what was — this was locker room talk. I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do. …if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your [Hilary Clinton’s] situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it, and we’re going to have a special prosecutor.
- Hillary Clinton: …it’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.
Yah, wouldn’t that be a disaster…
It has in fact been a disaster. The fringe might have been virulently anti-Obama, and stocked up on guns and such. But not until Donald Trump ascended to the highest office in the Land did they start coming out of the woodwork. Look at the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, VA and you see folks who have been emboldened by a quasi-racist in the White House (no pun intended). Indeed, April Ryan said this, and it really caught my ear: “Trump may not feel he is a racist, but racists think he is a racist.”
Part of his schtick (the word for the act that one puts on, or in Trump’s case, the big con) is that he muddies the water. He pokes at sore spots in the American heart. He makes Orwellian pronouncements, and his group of hyper-loyal knuckle-draggers eat it up. It fits in very nicely with what they already feel, so they love the consonance. It is back-up; it makes them bolder and more self-assured.
What happened to the truth?
How could a man such as this win the presidency? I mean, clearly this is the country that gave us Truman rather than Wallace (a very interesting and disturbing story you can read HERE). JFK was shot here. Children are molested by Catholic Priests here. Slaves were imported here. Women were not allowed to vote here. L. Ron Hubbard made his big splash here and has sucked in thousands of folks, hook, line and sinker since! We have a long history of denying Truth and other important values and virtues if it is expedient. Which usually means, if it conveys some power or some money or some other social good to the liar in question.
Truth is challenged daily by mainstream media, sure. But no one prior to now has made an endless assault such as this on the integrity of venerable sources of information. Just the other day, Trump contradicted the fucking weather. He mistakenly said that Hurricane Dorian was greatly endangering Alabama. It was not. He couldn’t let that go, and made a big brouhaha with the media and such about how they were framing him. Seriously, Orwell is rolling over in his grave.
So that is the macro sense of it.
Truth can be elusive, even to the best of us. Have you read about the Cottingley Fairies? Fascinating story. The creator of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – was taken in by a hoax whereby little fairies were said to exist in a forest in England. Basically Bigfoot and UFOs for that time. Let me repeat this so you don’t miss it: The creator of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – was taken in by a hoax whereby little fairies were said to exist in a forest in England. It is a cautionary tale about being hubristic about what one thinks one knows, because of course it would seem to 19/20 adults that of course fairies are not real. And Doyle famously fell for it. So it can happen to anyone. This means you.
What happened to the truth?
Now for a personal turn: I am experiencing a hellish situation that involves Truth.
You see, a sibling and a parents of mine believe with all their hearts that vaccines are very dangerous to kids and that the government of California must be stopped before they ruin the lives of everyone on behalf of “Big Pharma.” This is, needless to say, extremely disheartening to me. But perhaps I should share exactly how I feel about vaccines, lest you think I am a zealot from the other end of the spectrum:
- Vaccines are one of the greatest health and public health developments ever created by mankind. They are truly spectacular feats of science. I know your granda Martin and my dad Mort believed this to be true. I bet your dad would even have to admit this.
- Diseases are bad. Horrible. Evil.
- Vaccines stop diseases in kids and people – those who are strong enough to take them. They are almost free. They have been used for decades and decades. Some diseases, like smallpox and polio, used to cause Americans great suffering, but were almost eradicated (defeated, beaten) by vaccine science.
- Most of us received vaccines when we were growing up. In fact, prior to this extreme left-wing and right-wing movement of privilege and ignorance, virtually everyone received all the vaccinations they could. We didn’t get measles, mumps, rubella, polio, smallpox, and so on. I got vaccinated for Hepatitis C because I was a lifeguard. When folks go traveling abroad, they are usually supposed to get extra vaccines so that they don’t get horrible diseases that are present in those other countries, like malaria, Hepatitis A, yellow fever, Typhoid fever, meningitis, Hepatitis B, rabies, zika. As you know, dogs are supposed to get all kinds of vaccines like rabies and bordetella and parvo because they can become very ill or can die if they get these diseases. In times like World War II, I guarantee you some of my Jewish relatives would have given their pinky fingers to be able to be vaccinated against the horrible diseases they faced, such as typhus. Many people alive today have physical handicaps because they were alive before the polio vaccine was invented. Vaccines are one of the greatest advances in science and medicine ever created by humans.
- Vaccines are very safe (not perfectly safe) and very effective (but not perfectly effective). Diseases are very dangerous. Thus, unless vaccines are very dangerous, one should get the vaccines.
- Yes, the pharmaceutical industry is a nasty thing. Anytime you let money have such sway over the CEO and Board, and key members of State and the Federal government, things can get out of control. But I don’t think this means that nowadays vaccines are any more dangerous than any other routine activity.
- If you want to live in society, you must not make personal and elective choices that endanger others. You can’t shoot an AR-15 in public, you can’t drive your car 100 m.p.h., and you can’t abort a fetus halfway through the 8th month because you lost your job. You can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and you can’t take a crap in a public fountain. We have to live together, and as refugees and immigrants and homeless people know all too well, crowded, unsanitary conditions lead to disease transmission. Even being at Disneyland can lead to a veritable outbreak of the virulent measles. If pandemics don’t scare you, watch the engaging movie Outbreak. If you want to read about the seriousness of this one disease (out of many for which there are vaccinations), look here. It’s frightening.
- “Herd immunity” is a thing, and it means that we humans are like one big herd of animal, and that those who are weak and have immune system problems or who are infants and cannot have vaccines can be protected from predators (disease) like animals protect their young and weak because they are part of a huge, healthy herd. It is virtually the definition of privilege and audacity to deny that herd immunity doesn’t matter for the weak among us.
- Maybe 1-3% of folks actually cannot have vaccines safely. My sibling and their spouse might tell my nieces and nephew that they cannot have vaccines safely (and get a doctor to testify in writing to this), but that is not true. It is not Truth.
- It is dangerous not to have vaccinations, especially since my sibling and their family have traveled abroad, and live 75 miles from Disneyland. The kids are not homeschooled. Vaccines might have had some issues in the past, but causing autism is not one of them. There is very little in vaccines besides saline solution and a dead or decimated virus. One would be at greater harm to simply eat at Wendy’s three times a week than to take vaccines.
- Many of our forebearers would be outraged if they knew that we were electively not taking vaccines, especially for diseases like polio and smallpox which we virtually eliminated in this country! And yet, in other countries, people die of these diseases. In 2019.
- Look up Ethan Lindenberger. He is famous for being unhappy that his parents didn’t vaccinate him properly and yet he couldn’t choose to get vaccinated because he is under 18. He said, “I saw that there were a lot of people with different opinions, and as I explored those opinions, I came to the conclusion that they were good and beneficial.” He also noted that “”My parents think vaccines are some kind of government scheme … I’ve never been vaccinated for anything, God knows how I’m still alive.” He asked “Where do I go to get vaccinated? Can I get vaccinated at my age?” No, he could not. He was 17 and his mom wouldn’t let him do what scientists and doctors pretty much agree is the responsible thing to do. But when he turned 18, he did. His mom, being a moderate, didn’t disown him or something. She let him decide for himself.
- Jenny McCarthy is a nimrod. Social media is dangerously misinformative.
- Confirmation bias and other mental tricks run rampant online, especially with this issue. I just can’t see how my sibling could be so extreme about this topic. How she could be so cocksure and wrong at the same time is astounding.
It has virtually ruined my relationship with my parent and my sibling and her spouse. It is very hurtful to me. I wish they could accept that I don’t believe the way they do and drop it. It is obviously because California is facing some serious criticism of religious exemptions and pseudo-medical exemptions to being vaccinated. The pressure is up and instead of accepting that society must be kept safe (if not your own fucking children!) or simply leaving California, my sibling is making this into a crusade of epic proportions.
My family dysfunction notwithstanding, this is about Truth to a large degree.
I wrote this to my now-middle-school-aged nephew, though the shit-storm it would cause among my strident relatives has kept me from sending the letter:
“Vaccines are made and invented by pharmaceutical companies and are supervised by the federal government. If I were to rate how successful and proper this process is, I would give it a 5. That is, I would say it is mostly satisfactory and acceptable. If I gave it a 10, that would mean I thought that the whole system and process was perfect. If I gave it a 1, that would mean that I would say it was such an awful and horrible system that everyone should resist taking vaccines. So, I think it is something we should do, but that we should make major improvements to the system.
Your parents believe that vaccines are dangerous; your parent called them ‘poison’ once. This is not the case. They are, in my opinion, about 99.9% safe, and about 95% effective. Considering that diseases can decimate a population, we really have no choice but to vaccinate now, and then if possible change government so that it is stronger, better, and makes vaccines manufacturers make even safer products. But as far as there being mysterious, poisonous stuff in vaccines, I and most scientists do not think this is the case. I think your parents and grandma are wrong about this. And I think it is dangerous.
I know your grandparent [who was a medical doctor, and who has now passed away] was appalled to see your parents not vaccinating you. I feel this way. Most scientists feel this way.”
I ran this by a mutual acquaintance of my sibling and parent. I didn’t know that they also felt very uncomfortable with the position this puts my nieces and nephew in. I must say that I felt 90% confident in my grasp of the “truth” about vaccines, but my parent and sibling are so exquisitely capable of manipulating others that I sometimes do question the Truth of the phenomenon. There is a cottage industry out there, in fact, peddling misinformation, disinformation, and fringe theories about vaccines. I think it has much to do with emotion, and social contagion, and cognitive biases. It can be very alluring to hear about someone who “went to the doctor and got vaccines for little Johnny, and we came home and they had a fever, and two weeks later they stopped talking and because autistic.” It’s truly social-psychological processes running wild and unthinking fearmongering. I’m 99% sure.
Actually, my parent has spent huge amounts of money lobbying the California elected representatives to try to quash a bill that is about to be signed that makes minor improvements to the ability of school districts to say “Hey if you want your kid to go here, they must be vaccinated, no matter how scared you are of injecting your precious children.” Everyone’s health – especially the elderly, the immune-compromised, and the very young – is endangered by gaming the system like my relatives do. Using money to, say, hire the best defense attorney you can find if you are accused of or did commit a crime is forgivable. Money does buy special treatment in the criminal justice system. But I think my sibling should just suck it up like the rest of us and pull their head out of the rabbit hole, or go and move to the woods like Henry Fucking Thoreau. You can’t live amongst us and not do this little thing society asks of you. You’re special but you’re not that special, I think.
This makes the second time they shunned me for not buying into their view of the state of affairs. I wish it weren’t such a deal-breaker, and that they would either relax or move or grant me the right to have my own opinion about social issues. That would be liberal of them. I know for a fact that neither would tolerate extreme views about guns or religion coming from me. They don’t even tolerate me giving non-organic foods to their children. In FACT, once my wife, who is Catholic, and I, visited them. She mentioned God. My sister is passionately atheistic, so she asked my wife not to talk about God in front of my nieces and nephew. Can you believe such hubris?!
Just like most Republicans with a certain position in society and power on the line either deny climate change is real or scuttle efforts to solve the problem, or many Republican 2nd Amendment extremists, or many Republicans who don’t have much experience with people from different walks of life think that gays and immigrants and Jews and blacks are the root causes of problems in our society, those who are against vaccinations (be they on the far Right or the far Left) are (mostly) mistaken, but (usually) very confident. It takes brass balls to walk into a doctor’s office and claim they are just agents of the State, or dupes for Big Pharma, and no you’re not going to vaccinate your child against serious communicable diseases that scientists invented inoculations for. That should be a lesson to us all about Truth.
In this letter to the editor of a newspaper, Howard Winet succinctly characterizes the nature of extremism in this manner:
Is there any meaningful difference between Donald Trump evangelists who are at war with climate and evolutionary scientists, and anti-vax identity folks who are at war with epidemiology and immunology scientists? They are all anti-science tribalists, although at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
This statement was made about Winet’s statement, and I can’t quote them because they used a moniker to leave the comment: “The point Winet is trying to make is that there are billions being spent by corporate PR firms and political operatives to create populist outrage using pseudo-science and outright lies. In the past, a responsible media would have taken the time to identify the source of the information, the funding behind it, validated the information with multiple, independent sources and provided a balance report. Now some news stories are written based on a tweet with a source and they don’t even know the identity of the publisher.
A percentage of our population doesn’t want to put any effort into learning, understanding or comprehending anything. They want to be told what to do, what to think and need validation from others who believe the same falsehoods to feel important and part of something. Most importantly, they need to feel they are somehow better than others. These people are no different than rock band groupies and people who sell Amway.”
So, what happened to Truth? It has been eroded by self-serving politicians, multinational media conglomerates, Republican disinformation machines (e.g., the Koch brothers), and the lazy and ignorant part of the population. Nowadays, just like every kid gets a trophy for participating, and social media rules our lives, and Donald Trump has yet to be sent back to the Abyss, folks can claim to have the right to subject the weak and frail among us (and their children!) to devastatingly serious diseases like polio. Being an agnostic, I feel that religious zealots have it wrong, too. Truth is difficult to grasp, but need it be as difficult as it is nowadays? Ω
A few quotes about Truth, and about vaccines in particular:
“One of the proofs of the immortality of the soul is that myriads have believed it…they also believed the world was flat.”
“It’s definitely very hard to have faith in the regulatory agencies in our government, but I think to suggest that the CDC, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — just to name a few — are all in a massive conspiracy to underplay the dangers of vaccines is a bewildering leap.”
“I really think that if we don’t start caring about whether people tell the truth or not, it’s going to be literally impossible to restore anything approaching a reasonable political discourse. Politicians have always shaded the truth. But if you can say something that is provably false, and no one cares, then you can’t have a real debate about anything.”
“Of course, information is not knowledge or wisdom, and data can mislead. The Internet’s lack of filters or referees, while liberating, has helped birthers, truthers, anti vaccinators, and climate change deniers increase their numbers. The profusion of online medical advice that saved my weed-eating dog can also make a headache sound like a brain tumor.”
“I still can’t get over this: Jamal Khashoggi was a columnist for the Washington Post! That could’ve been me or any number of other columnists. Would Trump just let a rich foreign monarch chop up our bodies and do nothing as well? I don’t know how this isn’t a full-stop moment!”
“The extent to which beliefs are based upon evidence is very much less than believers suppose.”
“There is a core of people who no matter what you say, they will not believe you. They are convinced that vaccines are dangerous or they feel they don’t want to take the risk of their child, even though there’s two reasons to give vaccine: one is to protect your child, the other is a duty that you have to society to keep society protected.”
“Who inspires confidence — and quells anxiety — about the future? We in the media have frequently cried foul at the shamelessness with which Donald Trump stirred voters’ fears, but that wouldn’t have worked if voters hadn’t been frightened to begin with. Americans have stumbled from a trademark optimism to a newfound pessimism. We see change, especially in the workforce, happening at an incomprehensible pace. In light of that, we’re not looking for gauzy banalities; we want concrete reassurance or at least something in the vicinity of that. Trump’s reductive, backward-looking fixes — tariffs, a wall — masqueraded as such.”
“The belief that there is only one truth, and that oneself is in possession of it, is the root of all evil in the world.”
“It’s important to be humble, which means knowing your limits. We tend to get into trouble when we assume we have expertise or knowledge that we don’t have or when we don’t question the limits of our knowledge.”
“It is natural for the mind to believe, and for the will to love; so that, for want of true objects, they must attach themselves to false.”
“An effective pro-vaccine campaign needs to remind us: Vaccines prevent two million to three million deaths globally each year. In developing countries, people line up for hours to get these shots. It’s also O.K. to get out of the gray zone. Scientists, especially, are uncomfortable with black-and-white statements, because science is all about nuance. But, in the case of vaccines, there are some hard truths that deserve to be trumpeted. Vaccines are not toxic, and they do not cause autism. Full stop.”
“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”
“There is overwhelming evidence that our president, for the first time in our history, is deliberately or through gross negligence or because of his own twisted personality engaged in treasonous behavior — behavior that violates his oath of office to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.’ Trump vacated that oath today, and Republicans can no longer run and hide from that fact. Every single Republican lawmaker will be — and should be — asked on the election trail: Are you with Trump and Putin or are you with the C.I.A., F.B.I. and N.S.A.?”
“Men freely believe that which they desire.”
“What an astonishing species we are. We acquire knowledge at a rate and in a volume unrivaled by any other. Then we throw it away. We have an awareness of the future and can project into it, so that our efforts today ward off trouble tomorrow. But we squander these abilities and hurtle toward disaster. On Monday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that there had been 704 cases of measles recorded in the United States this year, the highest number since the disease was thought to have been wiped out here almost two decades ago. Measles went away because humans outsmarted it: with vaccines. Measles is back because some humans are putting creed before prudence, myth before science, ill-supported opinion before demonstrable fact.”
“The divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity. Nowhere in the Gospels do we find a precept for Creeds, Confessions, Oaths, Doctrines, and whole carloads of other foolish trumpery that we find in Christianity.”
“I never cease being dumfounded by the unbelievable things people believe.”
“We’re in the midst of a public health crisis spurred by parents who won’t vaccinate their kids. Diseases such as mumps and measles, once on the brink of being eradicated because of vaccination, are making a comeback. Public health experts are struggling with how to reach parents who are vaccine skeptics, and a recent study shows it may be impossible to change their minds via some of the communication methods used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We need antidotes to the current wave of anti-vaccination celebrity craziness.”
“What are principles we can trust? What method do we have that will ensure that we only acquire (as much as possible) true beliefs and not false ones? This is the stuff of epistemology.”
“We seem to continue to expect intelligence and knowledge to predict rational behavior, as if rationality was some kind of byproduct of intelligence. Even skeptics can often be caught suggesting that if we just give people the right facts, they’ll change their minds about vaccines, E.S.P., and global warming. But that is not how people work.”
“To those who say that comparisons of Trump’s presidency to Nazi Germany are hyperbolic, I say try telling that to the mothers whose infants have been torn from their arms. A president responsible for such an atrocity exposes a level of cruelty that has no limits. None. Trump has already told us that for him there is little difference between the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and the Americans who took to the streets to condemn their bigotry.”
“To some people, especially those who worship at the altar of the free market, the collapse of communism in the 1980s and 1990s conclusively demonstrated the wonders of capitalism. That assumption is akin to the notion that the moral bankruptcy of the Republican Party implies proof of the greatness of the Democratic Party.”
“Americans who don’t want to vaccinate are increasingly getting their way: A June study found that, over the past decade, the number of philosophical vaccine exemptions rose in two-thirds of the states that allow them. What drives these wrongheaded decisions is fear — fear that vaccines are somehow dangerous, even though research shows the opposite. And these choices have consequences.”
“You have the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a guy named Scott Pruitt, whose job is to dismember environmental protection law in America. Everybody knows that. Those terrible regulations, so that the water you drink and the air your kids breathe will be clean. They want to end all that stuff, give people the freedom to pollute. So this is what we are up against. Of course you want to compromise. Well what am I supposed to say to somebody who wants to destroy the Environmental Protection Agency? Who doesn’t believe in climate change? What is the compromise? You tell me.”
“Liberals, conservatives – we’re all the same. We form opinions and then spend our entire lifetimes validating what we believe to be true. This rigidity is sad, because there is so much we can learn from points of view that are different from our own.”
“At the beginning of the 20th century, worldwide life expectancy was less than 40 years of age. Today the world average stands at around 70. The single biggest reason for this miraculous leap in longevity has been our ability to cure diseases. Vaccines, antibiotics and advances in medical technology have changed the game. We are still in an arms race against many diseases, but we stand at a unique period in human history where it’s possible to imagine a day when we have conquered disease.”
“But see how the Greek word is a-letheia rather than letheia; that is, truth is the opposite of lethargy. And what is the opposite of lethargy, if not waking up? The truth lies in being awake and throwing off the sheets.”
“How many studies do you have to throw at the vaccine hysterics before they quit? How much of a scientific consensus, how many unimpeachable experts and how exquisitely rational an argument must you present?”