Sunday, August 5, 2018

A Truth Decay Crisis

“Trump Doesn’t Give a Tweet about the Truth” was a title I thought about using for this article—but while it is partly about DJT, this article is more broadly about the crisis of truth-knowing and truth-telling in contemporary society.
Warnings about Truth Decay
Douglas Groothuis, an evangelical Christian, authored a book titled Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (2000). Hearing of that book soon after it was published, I thought it was a clever title and that it dealt with important issues.
Not surprisingly, The Social Construction of Reality (1966), the book I wrote about in my 7/25 blog article, is cited in Groothuis’s book. Among other things, postmodernism affirms that reality/truth is socially constructed—and Groothuis (b. 1957) sees that as a problem.
“Truth decay” is not just a concern of conservative Christian theologians, however. Increasingly it is becoming a serious concern in society at large, particularly in the world of politics.
Early this year, RAND Corporation produced a 324-page report under the titled “Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life.”
To this point I haven’t read but just a bit of the RAND report, but my impression is that it is an important study about a real crisis.
Warning about the Death of Truth
I have read the new book by long-time New York Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani. Her book, released last month, is titled The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump
Early in her book, Kakutani (b. 1955) writes that DJT “lies so prolifically and with such velocity that The Washington Post calculated that he’d made 2,140 false or misleading claims during his first year in office” (p.13).
(Update: According to an Aug. 1 Washington Post article, as of July 31 DJT had publicly made 4,229 false or misleading claims.)
In her concluding chapter, Kakutani suggests that “Donald Trump is as much a symptom of the times as he is a dangerous catalyst” (p. 152).
Indeed, before the end of her Introduction, she calls attention to academics in the 1960s who were “promoting the gospel of post-modernism, which argued that there are no universal truths” (p. 18).
While she does not mention Berger and Luckmann, Kakutani decries “the post-Trump cultural landscape, where truth increasingly seems to be in the eye of the beholder, facts are fungible and socially constructed” (p. 43).
But the prevarication so prevalent in present-day society is a problem that cannot be explained simply as something produced by the theories of social construction and postmodernism.
While there are positive (and true!) aspects of social constructionism and postmodernism, there is nothing commendable about the willful telling of untruths for political purposes and/or personal gain.
Heeding the Warnings
Last week I also read Preaching Truth in the Age of Alternative Facts (2018), a slim book (only 89 pages) by William Brosend, an Episcopal priest and seminary professor. (I recommend that fine book especially to any of you preachers who may read this.)
One of Brosend’s main points is that truth is not primarily what people believe or say but is found in how they live. Thus, he emphasizes, truth “may best be proclaimed as righteousness (dikaiosunē)” (p. 5).
In other words, which Brosend does not use, truth is something we do or practice (see John 3:21) by working for (social) justice. (The Greek word dikaiosunē means both righteousness and justice.)
Consequently, one of many negative results of truth decay is the maintenance, or increase, of social injustice.
So, yes, it seems that DJT—and many of those who support him—abets truth decay by not caring a tweet about either truth or justice.


  1. This is a very good blog, which does not take a superficial reading of postmodernism and social constructionism, and distinguishes between the insights of social constructionism/postmodernism and "the willful telling of untruths for political purposes." It also brings Brosend's profoundly important -- and I would add "postmodern" as well as biblical -- insight that truth is as much a matter of praxis as theoria.

    I would add, regarding theology, that theology needs to take on and appropriate the insights of social constructionism and postmodernism without viewing either of those intellectual movements as promoting absolute relativism, which they do not. However, evangelical theology is not up to this task insofar as it still rests its claims to truth on foundations (biblical inerrancy and doctrinal orthodoxy) inaccessible to criticism and experience. Evangelical theology is in the unenviable position of doing little more than apologetics for what remains an authoritarian position.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Anton. I am sorry to be so slow to respond to your comments, which are somewhat different from our friend Vern Barnet's (posted below)--and I think you will be interested in the response I made to him yesterday.

  2. Thanks, Leroy. I would strongly recommend reading Manlio Graziano's book, Holy Wars and Holy Alliance (2017) for his extensive take on the way well-meaning religious people (of all stripe--Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jew) are politically co-opted by political parties and their leaders. Not only is it not Muslims alone who are so co-opted, but the press's focus on global Islam further hides the truth of the insidious way religions themselves hide truth by legitimizing violence. American Evangelicals and others are no exception to the global reality of this false consciousness of reality (to use a Bergerian and Luckmannian concept).

    1. Thanks for these significant comments--and thanks for mentioning Graziano's book. I have asked the library to get me a copy through interlibrary loan and look forward to reading at least some of it.

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks, Bill. I appreciate you reading my article and for your kind words -- especially since you are undoubtedly the most famous blogger in the Kansas City area.

  4. Not only an excellent blog, but extremely succinct! BRAVO and thank you! George M Melby!

    1. Thanks, George -- and I appreciate you mentioning it being succinct. For almost every article I have to work to keep it to 600-words, so I am glad that you (and I assume many others) appreciate the articles being shorter rather than longer, which they could easily be.

  5. I appreciate these comments, received yesterday, from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky:

    A good point, Leroy. I think a lot of the decay in truth telling is related to the imposition of the business model on American society. The aim of business is profit. You do what obtains that end, tell the truth if it is profitable but tell a lie if it obtains that goal. You can directly connect that with Trump’s 'The Art of the Deal.'"

    1. Thanks, Dr. Hinson, for your comments. I hadn't particularly thought of the link to the business model--and certainly not everyone in business is untruthful. But DJT does seem a lot like the proverbial used car salesman who will say anything necessary to make a sale--except the stakes are so much higher in his case.

  6. Yesterday I also received the following comments from Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona:

    "Another very relevant and needed reminder about the growing lack of integrity in our society. The Millennialist and Dispensationalist may be right that we are on the eve of the 'Great Tribulation.'

    "I vaguely remember that Jesus described the 'last days' as a time when men would call good, evil, and evil, good. That is truly happening now.

    "What troubles me is that no one in government is calling Trump's hand on his lies, and where is the national outcry?

    "I recently ordered 'The Death of Truth, and I'm looking forward to reading it. I'm currently reading George Marsden's book, 'Fundamentalism and the American Culture,' and Ernest Sandeen's book, 'The Roots of Fundamentalism.'

    "Thanks for the insightful thoughts on a subject that I'm sure is troubling many people."

    1. Thanks, Truett, for reading and commenting on yesterday's blog article.

      There is certainly some "outcry" about DJT's lies, as seen, for example, in the Washington Post article reporting on his 4,229 lies and misleading statements from when he took office through end of last month.

      But the problem is, DJT and most of his followers just dismiss that as "fake news," and disregard the charges--although each of the lies and misleading statements are annotated and factually supported.

  7. Local Thinking Friend Vern Barnet gave me permission to post his comments, also received by email yesterday:

    "Please don't blame Trump on us Postmodernists! We certainly have not been the first to suggest that truth is socially constructed; our contribution has been to show vividly that what is regarded as 'true' reveals those in power, and that narrative is critical.

    "Trump displays how important the contest is! We believe in evidence -- which Trump does not, which is why Trump is not a Postmodernist. He is a demagogue, and uses tools as old as those identified by the ancient Greeks. Please lay off criticizing Postmodernists and focus on the insight Postmodernists bring -- unmasking the power-struggle by those who are in contest over truth."

  8. Thanks, Vern, for your comments and for your holding up for Postmodernists.

    Please note that it was Ms. Kakutani who was the one saying that the death of truth is partly due to social constructionists and postmodernists.

    Also, please note that I wrote that "there are positive (and true!) aspects of social constructionism and postmodernism." When carried to the extreme, I think there are also some negative things about social constructionism and postmodernism. But I think Kakutani's criticism was too strong.

    I wanted to say a bit about deconstruction in my article, but ran out of space (with my self-imposed 600-word limit). The postmodernist attempt "to show vividly that what is regarded as 'true' reveals those in power," as you wrote, is a very important contribution. That is also why I think it is important to realize that reality, or at least human understanding of reality, is largely socially constructed--and that that construction is often for the benefit of those in power. (Which, of course, is why deconstruction is often necessary and beneficial to those without power and especially those who suffer under those with power.)

  9. I think Brosend’s comment (as you quote) that truth “may best be proclaimed as righteousness (dikaiosunē)” would be more closely connected to a biblical perspective if ‘faithfulness/faith/fidelity’ (pistis/aletheia) were substituted for ‘righteousness’. This would be so especially if as you write: “One of Brosend’s main points is that truth is not primarily what people believe or say but is found in how they live.”

    I understand faith/faithfulness (truth) to be a component practice-type along with mercy and judgment (restorative/corrective justice) toward righteousness/justice (right/true relationship); not the whole.

    For those who care: The Septuagint translators overwhelmingly used Greek aleth- stem (truth/true) words for Hebrew emeth/emunah (truth/faithfulness/faith). [for emeth around three quarters of occurrences; for emunah about half] The most frequent secondary renderings do include pist- stem (faith/faithfulness) and dikaio- stem (just/righteous/righteousness/justice) words. [I researched substantive not verbal forms.]

    Thanks for an excellent post; especially provocative to those of us who own up to being postmodernists! :-)

    1. Thanks, Dick, for your substantial comments (and I apologize for not thanking you sooner).

      I am not a Hebrew/Greek scholar as you are, so I appreciate your explanations of the meaning of the words that are translated into English as "righteousness" and how they are related to "faithfulness" etc.

      But I still think that those words are importantly connected to the concept of social justice also, even though there are other nuances in the Hebrew/Greek words found in the Bible.

  10. For Pravda on the Potomac, also known as The Washington Post, to call President Trump a liar is truly the pot calling the kettle black. See "Ben Bradlee: Secret Government Stalwart" for starters:

  11. Here's more in the pot-kettle-black category with respect to The Washington Post, and this one concerns their very dishonest reporting on the Trayvon Martin case.

  12. Somewhere back in college I was taught there were two basic ways to look for the truth, through coherence and through correspondence. The first is a more mathematical strategy, used in the last generation by theoretical physicists in a search for a viable version of string theory for sub-atomic physics. They are doing this because they have outrun experimental physics, and are exploring the options future experiments may offer them.

    Correspondence is the more common method of discovery, looking for data and theories that match each other. If you want truth, try using science. Science will get you as close as you can get. You just have to live with the surprises when science jumps to a sharper picture, as when Newton's elegant E=mv2 was unexpectedly overturned by Einstein's E=mc2.

    There have always been struggles between truth and propaganda. Ironically, truth has become so big that this has turned into an advantage for propaganda. It has been estimated that Thomas Jefferson was the last person in history with a reasonable chance to have known everything worth knowing. As information doubles and redoubles through modern history, we have reached a point where all of us live with only a tiny slice of the truth. Skillfully applied propaganda can easily manipulate society. We live in a cloud of propaganda, where truth is the first victim of the fog of war. Unfortunately, we all know the standard, "Truth is stranger than fiction." How do we find the truth?

    We must look for coherence and correspondence. Does supply side economics correspond to its claims? Of course not! Do anti-vaccine claims have any scientific merit? No! Is abortion murder? Well, that is not a scientific question, so it does not get a scientific answer. Now we are looking a values, which have a complex relationship with truth. Values have a structure similar to truth, but it is not the same. Listen to a liberal and a conservative argue about whether people have an inherent right to heathcare, and you can hear how messy it can get. When Jefferson proclaimed a right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" he did not argue scientifically for this, bur rather ascribed them to God because they were "self-evident." Well, at least to some people. And for some people. We are still working on whether women are created equal, or are just there to be objects of what some feminists call "the male gaze." The Bible starts with all of creation looking for a platform for locating self-evident truth. Silo logic gets us nowhere except unexamined prejudices.

    Even as knights once sought the Holy Grail, so we can seek the truth. We must be humble with the approximations we find. We must be courageous with where the truth leads us.