Polygraph The Politics, Please!


Rarely could a quote from Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters (a show devoted to pursuing the truth about pop culture folklore, mind you) aptly summarize a Presidential election, but “I reject your reality and substitute my own,” seems to have it covered. 2016 is the year that politics divorced reality, dumped facts, and had dinner with delusion. Like every failed relationship, it progressed like this: tense interaction turned to tenuous connection turned to just tuning out the other. From the candidates straight through to the citizens, the examples are everywhere.

Unsubstantiated claims of election rigging, and widespread belief of these claims, is just the most recent manifestation. To sit and fact-check the candidates is to grow so distracted by the symptoms so as to miss the cause of the illness. It is, no doubt, a worthwhile and worthy pursuit, but one better left to experts. Of more momentary importance is analysis of the cause of our nation’s newfound truth-aversion.

When British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli declared that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics,” it wasn’t to be taken as a dismissal of statistics, but as a caution that any half-rate politician can put a spin or a shine on statistics. He was right. The spinning, the shining, these things are at the core of political discourse and, indeed, most intellectual dealings. A real issue, however, arises when those practices are dropped in favor of a Disraeli double whammy: lying about statistics.

Two people looking at the same jobs report could conclude that the unemployment rate is remarkably low or still higher than it should be, one could advise a stimulus package, the other a tax cut; this is what regularly occurs in the hallowed halls of the Department of Labor. Why, then, does it not occur on the debate stage or at the dinner table? In the case of the debates, it can be blamed on a political calculation. Give a voter the actual facts and you allow room for reasonable disagreement, but tell them that the unemployment rate is actually 37% because of a stimulus package and they will indisputably agree that we need to create jobs through a tax cut. Politicians know this, and shamelessly exploit it. Furthermore, to substantively explain situations and solutions requires time, complexity, and nuance, none of which are suitable for 140 characters on Twitter or a truncated quote on cable news. In the case of the dinners, it is to be attributed to the massive amount of disinformation and misinformation that fills the political sphere.

As much as American politicians shoulder the blame and the American people shoulder the burden, the media is their enabler and coconspirator.

With 59% of its on-air statements ranking ‘mostly false,’ ‘false,’ or ‘pants on fire,’ Fox News would be well-served by changing its “fair and balanced” slogan to something along the lines of ‘a string of slander and libel lawsuits waiting to happen.’ CNN’s comparable statistic, 26%, is also less than stellar, and its refusal to abandon constant coverage of month-old stories, even in the face of something more pressing, may warrant taking their “go there” and adding an ‘and stay there, forever.’ Yet the regular viewers of both generally take what they hear to be true. It is not surprising, then, that which cable news channel a voter watches is one of the most reliable indicators of how they will actually vote.

Perhaps even worse than cable news is social media, in which users not only screen out those with whom they deeply disagree, through unfollowing and unfriending, but the platforms are themselves designed to speed along this process in order to provide a more personalized and pleasant experience. Those who obviously lean conservative see predominantly conservative news, not only Fox, Breitbart, etc., but talking heads like Tomi Larhen. Those who obviously lean left see outlets which tend to share their bias, but more importantly, do not even come into contact with online-based conservatives. Each sees what Facebook can tell (with astonishing accuracy) that they will agree with.

It’s not that there aren’t impartial outlets of information, whether dedicated fact-checkers or print newspapers or online outlets that just try a little harder, but they get lost in the abundance of nonsense, and when they are found, many are so accustomed to the incorrect facts that suit their views that they refuse to believe them anyway.

The danger is that without any starting point, without a few assumptions upon which members both parties can base their arguments, we just end up talking past each other. From such a position, achieving substantive progress is nearly impossible. An election should not demand a decision on what the facts are, it should ask what the facts should be, and what the best way of getting there is. Elections should be about ideologies, not false tautologies.

To some extent, bias and deception and mistakes are unavoidable, but there is much room for improvement, if for no reason other than that we’ve already hit rock bottom. Improvement comes from not accepting the supposed truth spoken by your chosen candidate as the word of god, by examining a wide variety of news outlets, by seeking out those ruled objective and those with which you disagree, by tracing information back to its original source, by applying critical thinking.

Past that, the Mythbusters should expand their purview to cover politics too.

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