5
Apr
2017
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How to Tell Truth from Fiction

Pasadena, California
Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Dear Readers,

Troubled by the LA Times’ series of editorials about Trump’s lies, I offer advice on how to tell truth from fiction:

1. Remember language has limitations: Nietzsche once wrote, “Language is for lying.” When you run into a friend on the street, and she says, “how are you?”  You reply, “fine.” OK. Normal.

But no real, authentic encounter has occurred. It’s not bad; it’s just normal, superficial, social relating. Notice how an element of lying is occurring. It’s non-intentional. It’s a lie of omission. But it’s a lie nonetheless.

2. Access multiple sources of information: Let’s say you find Republican politics interesting, or consciousness, or galaxies. Remember all information you read, regardless of where you read it, has an angle.

Mauricio Mazon, the late psychoanalyst and professor of history at USC, used to find his students’ essays about history remarkably autobiographical. Their writings about seeming objective information, like the life of Abraham Lincoln, differed by sentence structure, priorities of information, emphases, etc.

On a related note, I have lately found CNN incredibly disappointing: Because so many people are interested, and so their ratings go up and advertisers flock to it, they show numerous talking heads every night speaking almost entirely about politics. Meanwhile, Mosul is a wreck, the Assad government used chemical weapons on its own people, famine threatens much of Africa, and more. You find almost no information about world events on CNN. In other words, information is highly restricted on CNN.

3. Consider all sources of information as limited: Of course, the same applies to this blog. I will be not comprehensively cover this topic. This will be an incomplete list. All lists are incomplete.

I am a fan of The Economist magazine. I’ve never taken a single course in economics; you don’t need one to understand it. But even that news source — covering international developments from politics to science — has an intentional libertarian viewpoint. You cannot escape an angle.

Even if reading a supposedly objective source of information, like Scientific American, a human being is still reporting the information, constructing sentences, deciding the order of paragraphs. These will influence you. They may highlight certain facts and eliminate others (a favorite device of Big Pharma).

If you have prostate cancer and want information on the best and latest treatments, read from as many varied sources as possible. And learn something about research design. Small sample sizes, for example, can throw conclusions way off. Also, and sadly, scientists have been known to lie about information.

4. Beware of meaningless words: Trump’s speeches and tweets offer a treasure trove of this rhetorical device. He often uses such adverbs like “very” or “super” or “great.” He describes world leaders using words like “very good” or “extraordinary.” He will build a “fine, superior” wall. He will stop “very bad” people from entering the country.

These words lack content. They are meaningless. They appeal to our emotions, but offer as much nutrition as a diet limited to white bread.

5. Watch out for false news: This seems to be a recent, disturbing phenomenon. Some persons, even journalists apparently, simply make up stories. Trump is frequently criticized for the same thing. See number 2 above for a solution.

6. Question authority: The late Tom Hayden invented this phrase, I believe, and it’s a good guide for anyone interested in seeking the truth. One of the vexing problems facing the populations of Russia and North Korea, just to select two examples, is that their governments control the media.

The Nazi propagandist Goebbels said, “if you control the media, you control the people.” Apparently, the average North Korean thinks of Kim Jung-Un as a “dear leader.” He or she gets no information about extra-judicial executions, economic problems, or income inequality, not to mention what’s happening in the rest of the world.

Having spent the last five years devoted to half-time scholarship, I have been amazed at the attitudes of various different peer-reviewed editorial boards. They offer “peer review” to ensure objectivity. However, I have had one journal reject an article after I made changes they requested, only to have another accept that same article on the condition I make opposite changes. And I thought these journals pedaled truth!

Truth is elusive. Truth is relative. These editorial boards mean well, but they consist of humans. We humans cannot help but have our judgments, biases, opinions. I don’t blame them. Au contraire, I appreciate them. They have provided me first hand experiences with the relativity of truth.

7. Ready yourself for discomfort: Another brilliant quip of Nietzsche’s, “We need fiction lest we perish from the truth,” speaks to this suggestion. We thrive on stories. Much of my work as a depth psychotherapist consists of deconstructing stories patients have developed about themselves, i.e. “I am fundamentally bad,” “my divorce proves I’m a failure,” etc.

Our neurobiology, not to mention the culture, creates a propensity for us to seek comfort from stories. They are awesome! Enjoy your stories, at least the non-painful ones. Make more up! But, if you are looking for facts, you may find information disturbing. More than 100 died in that Syrian chemical weapons attack of a few days ago. The photographic images are horrific. How can anyone look at those pictures without finding them disturbing?

I hope these few ideas raise your skepticism, even about my writing.

 

With skepticism,

 

Alan

 

 

 

 

 

 




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