Generally Speaking

The Tale of Truth and Lie

– and the Other Pandemic

There is a well-known saying about falsehood, credited variously to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and others, which goes something along the lines of a lie going half way round the world before truth gets its boots on. The following rather delightful version was published in an 18th century book of sermons by the English polymath Thomas Francklin:

Falfehood will fly, as it were, on the wings of the wind, and carry its tales to every corner of the earth ; whilft truth lags behind ; her fteps, though fure, are flow and folemn, and fhe has neither vigour nor activity enough to purfue and overtake her enemy.

1787, Sermons on Various Subjects, and Preached on Several Occasions by Thomas Francklin. (Google Books Full View)

Truth has neither vigour nor activity enough to pursue and overtake her enemy.’

Now isn’t that the truth. Thomas Francklin had no inkling that it would one day be possible for ideas, true or false, to spread to, quite literally, ‘all corners of the earth’, or that they wouldn’t need wings, winds, steps, or even time, to do so. But of course he didn’t mean his words to be taken literally—he was saying something about human nature which is just as valid today as it was two centuries ago, which had its origins in primitive society. And which, at this moment in time, is at the root of one of the greatest threats that humanity has to face – a virtual pandemic of false information.

I will start by considering two ideas—two messages—two tales to use Francklin’s word. I’ll call one Truth and the other Lie. And I’ll consider them as viruses competing for dominance in the ‘culture medium’ of modern, hyper-connected society—on the analogy of the Covid virus spreading throughout the hyper-connected world of international travel. (If you picture the charts you sometimes see of air routes and data highways linking all the countries of the world—both of them looking like nerve tracts in some giant brain—the analogy is obvious)

Truth

At first sight Truth seems to have all the advantages in this contest—it is Truth, after all!—the ‘Sword of Truth’, cutting through Falsehood and gleaming with Righteousness. It is Logical, it makes Sense.

It is backed by all the experts—or OK, most of the experts!—Oh, for heaven’s sake—all but three out of every hundred experts, and even they have hardly a single respected scientific paper between them!—Oh, give it a rest!

Truth is based on Evidence and it can be Tested and Verified. Truth, my children, is Sacred. You just have to accept it. Or as I remember my headmaster James (later Sir James) Cobban putting it in his final reply to an uppity 6th Former, ‘I am right and you are wrong’.

But then again Truth is Dull. It is flat, objective, and unemotional. What’s worse, it makes a Virtue of being like that. Which is sickening,

And Truth is Complicated. As Oscar Wilde pointed out, ‘Truth is never pure and rarely simple’. And it is often Difficult. One of the things we learn at school is that science (formalised Truth) is inaccessible to all but a few nerds. You only have to see the scientific illiteracy of contestants on TV quiz shows relative to their knowledge of celebrity culture or even the arts.

Which makes it another big snag that Truth cannot be Certain (except perhaps in limited areas like mathematics). But that’s what Science insists on telling us—scientific truth can only ever be provisional (even though it is the best explanation so far achieved for reconciling a host of reliable observations by generations of painstaking observers—but that’s complicated too, Oh dear!)

And Science can have an infuriatingly smug certainty that cries out for challenge by any self-respecting, red-blooded person. And some of the implications of its discoveries about reality are too deeply uncomfortable and disturbing for many rational and well-meaning people to accept—for example the many worlds hypothesis in cosmology, or the conclusion, which is insisted upon (with a vehemence which is surely unscientific) by what we might call scientific fundamentalists, that life—and for that matter the whole universe—is ultimately purposeless.

On top of all that ‘truth hurts’.

Charles Barsotti, 1933-2014, The New Yorker

Indeed, Truth can be frightening. Especially when it comes to climate change. Or , as Al Gore put it gently in the title of his classic book: the truth about the climate crisis is ‘Inconvenient’. So anyone who helps us to doubt this kind of truth is going to be popular.

And Truth is Constrained; it is held, most of all by itself, to a higher standard than Lie. Just as it takes a spotless car to show a spot, one proven lie can utterly destroy that precious thing, Reputation. While the thirty thousand and first untruth from a well-known liar is just part of his expected style, a single ‘spot’ on a proudly honest man can cast doubt on the truth of everything else he says.

Which brings me finally to that tedious thing, Morality, and the further constraint on Truth that it has to obey the Rules of civilised behaviour.

Lie

So what about message ‘Lie’?

Let’s face it – Lie’s got all sorts of advantages in the race for viral spread. Thomas Francklin was talking about the ease with which false information could propagate in the ‘culture medium’ which existed in 18th century England. In those days it could only spread by human contact, or through letters and/or printed materials among the literate (who were about 90% of Londoners and a smaller proportion elsewhere.) But, even so, Francklin saw there was a serious problem with virus Lie that he needed to warn about.

In the ‘culture medium’ of today’s hyper-linked world, where the spread of untruths is unconstrained by distance or even time, the inherent advantages of Lie are vastly amplified. Our minds—evolved for survival in the world of first-hand experience—have little instinctive grasp of the sheer scale of what is happening in this new, unnatural environment, and modern society has hardly begun to appreciate the threat, still less to erect defences against it.

For starters, instead of having to justify itself through cool, logical explanations aimed at the head, Lie can go straight for the gut and evoke the power of Emotion.

By evoke I mean awaken, or bring out something deeply buried—some instinct, passion, feeling, prejudice. Especially, it can bring out the ancient, tribal hatred of anything perceived as other. Truth thinks the modern world has moved on from this sort of primitive stuff, but Lie knows perfectly well that it hasn’t and plays that card for all it’s worth. Which can be devastating, and we forget that at our peril.

For example, Prime Minister David Cameron, in calling his 2016 Brexit referendum, assumed that the majority of voters would be guided by their heads (Informed and expert opinion then being overwhelmingly in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, as indeed it still is). Otherwise he would never have taken such a risk with the country’s future. But he fatally underestimated the power of Emotion—and the way hot nationalism and xenophobia can trump cool reason. And the rest of that, along with Britain’s international standing, is history.

The next advantage that Lie enjoys is not being constrained by quaint, old-fashioned things like Duty, Morality, Conscience, Guilt and Apology.

So Lie can be any message at all which presses the buttons of instant attention. And we know what those are well enough: Novelty, (‘The news’ – ‘Tonight’s main story’), Sensation, Horror (‘Man Bites Dog!’), Something Unexpected, Celebrity, Lust, Outrage, Pictures of Babies/Boobs/Atrocities, Stories of Little Davids besting Goliath Authority (Horatio at the Gate, Passport to Pimlico, Whiskey Galore).

Tuned to press one or more of these buttons, and dressed up in multi-media finery, Lie can launch itself into cyberspace and stand a chance of ‘going viral’ – finding itself passing on and multiplying like a nuclear chain reaction (think A-Bomb), regardless of time and distance, at the mere mouse-clicks of countless intermediaries—some malicious, some genuinely believing the message, some just having fun—anonymously and without personal consequences of any kind.

So we find ourselves in the midst of this pandemic of false information, hate mail and vicious and desperately-hurtful social media attacks on the finest of people—particularly on the finest of people. Dr Rachel Clarke, who writes heart-breakingly of caring for patients dying of Covid-19, is one current example. But the brave scientists who warned so many decades ago about the looming climate emergency experienced similar attacks, much of it seeded by professional deniers who creating doubt about the truth until it became almost too late to respond.

Another factor in the new situation is the distorting power of the artificially-mediated view. This is a subject I first wrote about in my book the Paradox of Progress. I had learned from my experience in general practice to glimpse, no more, the hidden/automatic power of our minds to focus on one tiny object of attention to the exclusion of the total experience hidden in our subconscious which is enormously larger than we can ever realise. In plain words, we get things out of proportion. But in the hyper-linked experience of the online world, even this selectivity of our perception has been immeasurably amplified. So that some spiteful and hate-filled obscenity typed by a lonely weirdo looms and utterly dominates the teeming multitude of decent people who are out there, entirely hidden from view.

But there is still one more factor in the spread of false information which is even more recent—it is the deliberate micro-targeting of individual people with emotive messages tuned to their personalities.

There is a sequence in the Channel 4 docudrama Brexit—The Uncivil War in which we saw Dominic Cummings, Director of the Vote Leave campaign, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, visibly reeling as the potential of this technology is revealed to him. In a secretive meeting on a park bench he is depicted being offered illicit access to Facebook’s vast archive of personal profiles, including astonishingly-detailed insights into their individual susceptibilities.

The story is documented elsewhere, as is the fact that the agency offering the ‘service’ was financially underpinned by a rich American as a trial run for its application during Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign. But I have seen little evidence that many people, or indeed many politicians, have fully understood this potential of social media, when used by unscrupulous people to bypass long-established checks on the dissemination of extreme ideas and inflammatory lies, and target them, completely ‘under the radar’, with terrifying precision, directly into the minds of people chosen for their susceptibility to those particular messages.

The possibility that this was a decisive factor in 2016 is regularly discounted by commentators. But in that case it must be a coincidence that its arrival as a viable technique coincided exactly with two ‘earthquake’ election results which confounded virtually all informed expectations. Even Boris Johnson, it seems pretty clear, never expected to win the Brexit vote, or even saw it as part of his plan.

The Outrageous Leader

To return, one last time, to Thomas Francklin and his 18th Century warning. And to the significance of the fact that he preached it in a sermon. Because it was all about Morality—fighting the good fight against the Evil of Falsehood. Because the ultimate enemy of Falsehood is Truth.

We have explored the vulnerability of Truth in the modern world, but yet again, something utterly new has happened recently:

Consider this weird item in the reporting of Joe Biden’s inauguration. Something said to a New York Times reporter by a man who was waiting to cheer Donald Trump’s arrival in West Palm Beach, fresh from ducking out of the ceremony going on in Washington:

“He gave us freedom,” said Valéry Barto of West Palm Beach, who sported a Make America Great Again hat and waited nearly three hours before Mr. Trump rolled by. “He was for us. Now it’s going to be all messed up.”

Patricia Mazzei and Julia Echikson New York Times 21 Jan 2021

What possible ‘freedom’ could Mr Barto have been talking about?—which he thought explained why he loved Donald Trump with such passion and devotion. Along with ‘us’—that astonishingly—indeed terrifyingly—large proportion of American people?

In my two previous posts since last November’s election I have developed the idea that Trump’s unique appeal was to challenge all aspects of established Authority, for example what he called ‘The Washington Swamp’ and, of course, the liberal press. But crucially, and this was my insight, he also challenged the authority of Truth and Reason of itself. As though it was some looming ‘other’, imposing rules and restrictions on their God-given freedom to think and do what they liked. That, I believe, is the deep reason they loved him so uncritically, and why they continue to do so—because his rhetoric didn’t merely fly in the face of reason—he rejected Reason altogether. He told them that Truth did not exist.

It is notorious that anything Trump didn’t like he labelled ‘Fake News!’—in what seems a gloriously-ironical coinage from the teller of more ‘false or misleading claims’ than almost anyone else in history.

And his response to the Washington Post’s fact-checking (above) was simplicity itself—he just dismissed it as more fake news—giving his followers another target for their outrage into the bargain.

His special counselor Kellyanne Conway joined in the fun in that famous Meet the Press session on January 22, 2017, describing White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s manifestly-false claims about the size of his inauguration crowd as ‘Alternative Facts’.

Once he had given his followers permission to escape the constraints of this tyrant Rationality, the sky was the limit. Conspiracy theories, climate change denial, vaccination rejection, paranoid ideas about distant or alien groups, authorities – ‘Brussels’ for the Europhobe, ‘Washington’ for the frontiersman – ‘others‘. Logical argument bounced off followers like water off the oiliest of ducks. Rationality, they hymned, was ‘just another theory’.

And so it went on, Trump found he could say absolutely anything at all, however outrageous—climate change was a hoax—Covid would just disappear ‘like magic’—and the starkest of evidence to the contrary made not the slightest difference to the faithful.

And so to the end, when he simply refused to acknowledge the evidence that he had lost the 2020 election, let alone heavily, and went on repeating, over and oven again, in strident tones and without evidence, that the election had been ‘stolen’. Even after his pathetic rump of lawyers made fools of themselves and the claim had been thrown out by every level of the judiciary throughout the land.

And even then a large proportion of Americans continued to believe his word against all the evidence, and the most devoted among them massed in Washington waving ‘Stop the Steal’ banners. They continued to believe after he whipped up an armed mob which then invaded the Capitol to try to prevent the formal recognition of Biden’s victory, and they did so even after lawmakers of both parties had cowered in the Chamber of the House in all-too-justified fear for their lives.

But even after all this his followers continue to take his word for it that the election was stolen, and a large number of Republican lawmakers persist in challenging the validity of the result. And still a crowd in West Palm Beach cheered him for giving them their ‘freedom’.

Nor is this just an American phenomenon, a similar downgrading of truth has infected public life in England. In his new book, The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism, Peter Oborne says “I have been a political reporter for almost three decades, and I have never encountered a senior British politician who lies and fabricates so regularly, so shamelessly and so systematically as Boris Johnson.”

Once again, the significant thing for me is how little Johnson’s supporters seem to mind. As William Davies comments in his review of Oborne’s book, “In a sane world this would be a political obituary”. He continues, “The question is why [this catalogue of proven lies]—and books such as this—do [Johnson] so little harm.” And his explanation is like the beginning of my own: “[in the contemporary world] where our honesty and character are constantly being tracked by managers, credit-raters, customers and one another, there is a certain relief in the spectacle of the outrageous leader who seems immune. ”

OK, Johnson and Trump are ‘outrageous leaders’, and huge numbers of people love them for it. I suggest it is because they have released their followers from long subjugation to Tyrant Truth.

Immunisation

Pulling these threads together, it is clear that something in the modern world has unleashed a terrible anarchy. It is one of the greatest threats to democracy, to civilisation, and even to humanity itself. But social distancing isn’t going to work this time.

Currently there is a wave of wild disinformation threatening to hamper the anti-Covid vaccination effort. In an attempt to raise herd immunity to this virus, Cambridge University has released a free computer game Go-Viral which tutors you in the tricks commonly used to make lies spread. They have evidence that seeing it from the inside like this increases people’s real-life resistance to misinformation, making them less likely to pass it on, and so breaking the cycle. Give it a try—I learned a lot.

Another sign that the fightback has begun is the main op-ed in today’s Guardian (9th Feb), by Timothy Garton Ash, What are facts? What is fake news? A new battle is coming. He emphasises the vital role of the independent press and responsible public service broadcasting.

The BBC itself has tended to fail in this solemn duty through seeing its news service in terms of entertainment. Controversy is another trigger button for viral spread, which I omitted from my list above, and BBC producers love it. For years they kept the aging fossil-fuel lobbyist (and ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer) Nigel Lawson on hand to ‘balance’ any new call for action by an eminent climate scientist who had spent a whole career in the field, and to undermine the urgent message with blatantly untrue claims. I remember hearing one such programme when they actually gave Lawson the last word. No wonder climate change denial is still rife today.

It will be evident from references in this post that I subscribe to two independent newspapers, the Guardian and the New York Times. Both are free of political or billionaire sponsorship and they depend entirely on voluntary support from ordinary people. I see it as a public duty to do my bit, and I hope anyone reading this feels the same. The motto of the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian, is ‘Comment is Free, Facts are Sacred’.

The ultimate enemy of Falsehood is Truth. The greatest lie of all is that Truth does not exist. And the greatest Truth of all is that Truth does exist, and that it can be known.

And that’s the truth.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” 1819

PS – It will be apparent to anyone who has read this far that this post has lacked any of the buttons which make for viral spread. Except perhaps Controversy, but we shall see. I rarely get more than a handful of readers for my posts, except for the two I’ve done since President Biden’s election. But I would dearly love to hear what people think of this one, so any comments would be really welcome. Please don’t be shy. I’ll try to write something lighter next time, with nice pictures. And jokes. But now I have everything else to get back to.

12 thoughts on “The Tale of Truth and Lie”

  1. A deeply thoughtful and faultlessly argued post James. Definitely worth reading more than once! And funny too in places – despite the lack of pretty pictures the children were able to keep up!

    “Our minds—evolved for survival in the world of first-hand experience—have little instinctive grasp of the sheer scale of what is happening in this new, unnatural environment,” What a brilliant nutshell!

    Like

  2. That was the most incredible and interesting peiece of writing that I have read for years. I do hope that you have submitted it to the Guardian for publication because it needs a wide audience of intelligent readers.
    A challenge might be to encapsulate your ideas so that a more general readership could wake up to what is going on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Philip. I must say I do think this is important, and I dare to think some of it is new. But apart from sending the link to the Guardian – which they are most unlikely to follow – I’m not at all sure what else to do to bring it to their notice. But I will try.
      Meanwhile, all comments and suggestions for improvements here are extremely welcome.

      Like

  3. Dear James, your blog is incredibly well researched and “evidenced” and you weave together lots of interesting material and lines of thinking. I hope it attracts the wide readership it deserves. You offer your readers a penetrating, richly-insightful description of the state of the world which is inevitably rather depressing … until I reached the end where you talk about the beginning of the FIGHTBACK against rampant disinformation. That is so important. We must have hope. Perhaps you could share your thoughts on how we can all join in the fightback?

    Three different paragraphs in the blog helped me particularly to understand this frightening time – where you talk about the UNLEASHING OF THE PRIMITIVE. As you say, this eruption of the primitive in large sections of society in some countries, especially the USA and also the recent riots in the Netherlands, threatens to bring down civilisation itself. We have to reassert humanitarian, decent, civilised values – somehow.

    A related argument is the change in role models in society over time. I read somewhere (and unfortunately cannot find the reference) that at the time of the Enlightenment and into the Victorian era, say 1750-1850, the influential and famous people in “western” society were politicians, but equally scientists, writers, painters. But by 1950, scientists and writers had much diminished influence, with the ascendancy of celebrities, sports people etc. as opinion leaders. And of course also populist politicians who appeal to the primitive, untamed and untrained areas of our brains.

    PS I must try the Go Viral computer game!

    Thank you James. Jenny

    Like

  4. This is stimulating, well-argued, and – it seems to me – all TRUE! I don’t think that lying politicians are anything new – Tony Blair paid scant regard to the truth when selling the invasion of Iraq to the British people, and selective use of evidence is par for the course and probably always has been. What’s more, the use of propaganda has been a tool of governments since I don’t know when (I’m sure the Romans must have used it – Robert Harris’s brilliant Cicero trilogy shows that there’s nothing new under the political sun), and this in itself tends to make us wary of taking anything that governments say at face value. I think your greatest insight, as you yourself have suggested, is that Trump has managed to validate the notion that evidence and rationality are just optional tools for evaluating the world. Mind you, his ascent to power was aided and abetted by extraordinarily partisan traditional written and broadcast media, as well as by digital platforms. I am horrified that the UK is about to allow Fox News-style operations to launch here. I hope you’ll be keeping an eye on them…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hello James,
    I totally agree with every single word that you have written here. I am personally very concerned that “beliefs” are, in the future, going to take over from “knowledge” and that we are headed on a slippery slope that could end in fascism. I don’t want to sound controversial, but it’s kind of plain to see in the many Trump, Brexit – and here in Germany “AfD”supporters. I sincerely hope that Biden’s administration is a sign that people do want truth and not lies. We will see.
    Heather

    Liked by 1 person

  6. James, this is a very insightful, thought provoking and brilliantly written article. The fight back for truth needs to accelerate urgently. There are some green shoots but not enough and a huge amount of catching up to do.
    I am looking forward to reading more of your excellent articles
    Thank you for posting and sharing, I agree with the other comments; this impactful article deserves and needs a large audience.
    Patrick

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Very relevant to your discussion James is the first episode of Adam Curtis’ new 6-part series, ‘Can’t get you out of my head’ on BBC iPlayer. I find his style disjointed and unnecessarily opaque, but he demonstrates how conspiracies can easily be spread, be they based on fact or fiction. Well worth watching.
    Dougal

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you so much for this James – a really good read. I loved it.

    I like how your references (Keats and Francklin) extend the scope of ‘truth’ to moral (and spiritual) aspects, rather than simply its scientific (formal) meaning. I suspect that the way that in scripture the meaning of truth encompasses notions of beauty, love, grace and justice, was predominant when Franklin delivered his sermon. I’m convinced that it’s (in part) what motivates Jo Biden.

    Of course Biden’s victory isn’t the end of it. Trump’s comments today in the wake of the Senate’s failed trial clearly show he’ll be back, to further exploit and manipulate his still huge body of support (- if he stays out of jail long enough).

    One of the big questions for me is why we haven’t leant from the 1930s? – the fact that Hitler came to power by popular vote, exploiting the power of emotion over reason (as you succinctly put it)?
    Nevertheless, I admire your note of optimism (“The fightback has begun”). It’s only a start, but here at home I sense that the BBC are beginning to address the ‘false balance’ reporting issue.

    Especially poignant was Biden’s response to the Senate’s decision on the very same day I looked at your piece in more detail:
    “Each of us has a duty to and responsibility…….to defend the truth and to defeat the lies”.

    Will we take heed?

    There’s so much more we could discuss (… as we never fail to do!)
    Thanks again. Rod

    Like

  9. James thanks for sending your thoughts to me and like others I found them stimulating and helpful. During my legal and political career my sword of “truth” was used on many occasions but then I found it astounding that others often utilised a different truth which will often involve an interpretation of what may be the same set of facts. Its mind boggling difficult. I found in present times a hero in James O’Brien who appears to me to be an antidote and your thoughts help as well. I have found that my belief in Democracy has been severely dented and this ties in with the “bending” of facts to suit a false argument. Radical policy which goes against my instinctively liberal views. Isn’t it about time that if people dont vote in elections then the vote should be taken away? I am also thinking some kind of citizenship test should be used to qualify for a vote. Am I tricking myself into following an anti-democratic position which unscrupulous future politicians could exploit? Having read James O’Brien’s “How to be right” I fear for the future and am particularly worried about impartial broadcasters such as the BBC. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

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