Listen: Nick Enfield in Conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
Truth – its nature and importance – has throughout history occupied hours of philosophical and ethics debate. It has informed systems of justice and exercised the minds of orators, politicians and clerics.
However in today’s world, especially in politics, it can be hard to discern truth from spin and sorry is a word that is hardly ever heard.
On Open House we had an engaging and wide ranging conversation with Nick Enfield, professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney. He is director of the Sydney Social Science and Humanities Advanced Research Centre and head of a Research Excellence Initiative on The Crisis of Post-Truth Discourse.
Truth is a foundation stone
We place a high value on the principle, if not the personal practice, of truth. Truth is at the heart of many customs, folk tales and legends – for instance, Pinocchio or the boy who cried wolf. Shakespeare knew the important role of truth in our lives and truth is a recurring theme in his work. Contemporary works like “To Kill a Mockingbird” are about truth.
For Christians, God is truth. In the Old Testament God is described as the God of truth (see for example Psalm 31). In the New Testament Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 13:6).
At his trial before Pilate Jesus describes his purpose in this way: “In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Pilate retorts “What is truth?” (John 18: 37-38).
Choose your own version of truth
Racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, abuse of human rights all depend on people choosing a certain version of truth that suits their world view. With increased access to the internet – and the rise of populist politics there are many more sources of information claiming to be truth and as discussed by Colin Klein on Open House conspiracy theories and hate speech spread unchecked. The program has also discussed the issue of confirmation bias and bias in journalism.
Recently, President Trump – who fumes constantly on twitter and at political rallies about ‘witch hunts’ and fake news’ has asked us to believe that what everyone heard him say at a press conference after his meeting in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin was not what he said. He claims (despite all the evidence to the contrary) that he ‘misspoke’ and didn’t really take the word of Mr Putin over that of the US Security Services in the matter of Russian meddling in the 2016 American Presidential elections.
‘Why would’ or ‘why wouldn’t?’
When Mr Trump said “Why would Putin interfere in the election?” Mr Trump explained days later he misspoke – he in fact really meant to answer the question with a double negative – as in “Why wouldn’t Putin interfere in the election?” Apparently it is the sort of mistake that can happen when you are a ‘very stable genius’.
Twitter calls out Trump
Songwriters on Twitter had a good time with the would/wouldn’t issue. Richard Marx tweeted about the chorus to his 1989 hit “Right Here Waiting.” posting “I misspoke. I meant to say I “wouldn’t” be right here waiting for you.” It sparked lots of jokes about other lyrics and got around 260,000 likes. It also sparked this bit of cheek from Fire & Rescue NSW and a slew of memes.
It is all about language
Professor Nick Enfield is a linguist from Sydney University and part of the University’s Post Truth Initiative. His view on all of this, including apologies, is naturally that language has everything to do with it. That, and our biased forms of cognition. Public discourse is filtered by language, and filtered through human minds and then subject to a whole world of attitude, bias, learning, expectation and other ‘bugs’.
In August Professor Enfield is participating in a panel discussion in Sydney called “Truth Decay: exploring the diminishing role of facts and analysis”. The event will explore the increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts in both Australia and the United States. While this trend is not unprecedented in history, the level of disagreement over objective facts and the declining trust in formerly respected sources of facts is a new phenomenon.
On Obama’s reading list
The change, “truth decay” is something the non-partisan RAND Corporation is currently studying — the diminishing role of facts and analysis in American public life. RAND’s President and CEO Michael Rich – whose report on truth decay was on former US President Barack Obama’s summer reading list – will join United States Studies Centre CEO Professor Simon Jackman, the ABC’s John Barron (a regular Open House guest) and Professor Enfield for a panel looking at truth decay. The event is jointly presented by the USSC and RAND Australia.
To listen to the podcast of this conversation click the red play button at the top of the page, or you can subscribe to Open House podcasts in iTunes and they will appear in your feed.