What is truth?

The original banner title of Pravda, the Russian Communist Party newspaper

If — somehow or other — you’ve missed it, there has been much in the news and elsewhere about truth, post-truth and fake news. This concern with what counts as fact, what is factoid and what is downright lies is nothing new, nor is the dissembling that goes along with it, though it’s certainly been in very sharp focus in recent days, weeks and months. Here are ten quotes or thoughts about Truth, offered in the hopes of clarity:

No way out of this maze?
No way out of this maze?
  1. What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.
    Francis Bacon opened his essay On Truth with these words. Pilate, reports John the Evangelist, has been questioning Jesus, who in reply to being asked if he is a king replies that he was born to bear witness to the truth. Pilate asks the rhetorical question “What is truth?” — in the New Testament Greek Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια? and in the Vulgate Latin Quid est veritas? Then, being satisfied that Jesus is not planning a political revolt, Pilate in effect says that he is innocent of all charges of sedition. (Incidentally, Philip Pullman’s truth-telling device the alethiometer, in the trilogy His Darkest Material, includes the Greek word for truth, ἀλήθεια.)
  2. I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father if not by me.
    Jesus, St John states, gave this cryptic answer at the Last Supper to his worried disciples, who were feeling lost after his predictions that the authorities were coming to get him. (Via et veritas et vita is the wonderfully alliterative Latin translation.) Jesus is saying that his followers can only get to heaven if they follow his teachings. Perhaps he was unaware that other spiritual leaders had promised similar things.
  3. Allegedly.
    ‘Let out’ clause when reporting rumour if there is a fear of being accused of slander, famously used by the BBC satirical news quiz Have I Got News For You. The modern equivalent of the phrase employed in a friend-of-a-friend tale or urban legend such as “They say” or “It’s said”. Subsequent tellings usually omit these qualifying phrases.
  4. Alternative facts.
    After Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States his counsellor Kellyanne Conway said that Sean Spicer, his White House press secretary, gave “alternative facts” regarding the numbers attending the inauguration in Washington compared with those for President Obama’s inauguration. Let’s not beat about the bush: alternative facts are actually lies.
  5. Factoid.
    One definition of a factoid is “an item of unreliable information that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact.”  Generally, when coined in 1973 by Norman Mailer, it was intended to refer either to a piece of information that becomes accepted as a fact even though not actually true, or else an invented fact believed to be true just because it appears in print. That distinction could be made more explicit: a factoid is an unintended untruth, but fake news is a deliberate untruth, either spoken or written.
  6. Humpty-Dumptyism.
    This is a term I’ve often used though I’ve no idea if it’s in common usage. It’s a well-known concept however, from the following dialogue between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass.
    — “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
    — “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    — “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
    I suspect this notion — using a word to mean just what the speaker chooses it to mean — is becoming even more common in modern politics (for example, changing the term ‘minimum wage’ to ‘living wage’).
  7. Pravda.
    Russian for Truth. The former official newspaper of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. This organ expressed the views of the party in power, increasingly dispensing ‘facts’ which were largely disputed or at least doubted by the non-Communist world.
  8. Newspeak.
    The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines this as a language “marked by euphemism, circumlocution, and the inversion of customary meanings”. George Orwell, who invented the term for his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, described it as “designed to diminish the range of thought.” By now we can also see it as alternate facts, fake news and Humpty-Dumptyism.
  9. Propaganda.
    The modern usage derives from the notion of disseminating, in others words the spreading of ideas to a wider audience. Merriam-Webster helpfully gives us two definitions relating to the meaning propaganda acquired in the 20th century: (1) the spreading of ideas, information, or rumour for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person;  and (2) ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause [my italics]. Whether it’s the ideas themselves or the act of disseminating that’s meant, the negative intentions — rumour, injury, damage — are what tends to come to the foremost in most people’s minds. And it’s significant that while we think of friendly governments doling out information, it’s baleful polities (Nazi Germany, say, or Soviet Russia, or Trump’s administration) that we associate with propaganda.
  10. Terminological inexactitude
    Apparently first used over a century ago by Winston Churchill, this phrase has assumed the status of a euphemism; the circumlocution is for a lie (or, if it sounds less unpleasant, an untruth or even misleading impression).
    — Edmund Burke, a century before, had used the phrase “an economy of truth,” a phrase that seems to suggest, at best, a white lie.
    — Thirty years ago, during the famous Spycatcher trial in Australia, the Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert ‘Roddy’ Armstrong was involved in the following dialogue while on the witness stand:

    Lawyer: What is the difference between a misleading impression and a lie?
    Armstrong: A lie is a straight untruth.
    Lawyer: What is a misleading impression — a sort of bent untruth?
    Armstrong: As one person said, it is perhaps being “economical with the truth“.

    Why can’t they have all used the one word that sums up all these veiled phrases?

These then are our ten quotes. I fear, though, we may be no closer to the answer to the question “What is truth?” after threading our way through a labyrinth of smoke and mirrors.

Perhaps, however, given the several examples above, we know exactly what a lie is.


30 thoughts on “What is truth?

  1. elmediat

    In advertising the term/technique “weasel word” is a variation on Terminological inexactitude .

    Numerically vague expressions (for example, “some people”, “experts”, “many”)
    Use of the passive voice to avoid specifying an authority (for example, “it is said”)
    Adverbs that weaken (for example, “often”, “probably”)

    I have been wondering if Alternative facts is related to AC/DC .
    Current can be alternating or direct. Facts can be alternative or direct. Alternative facts keep switching directions and intention while direct facts do not change .

    1. Good summary of the various manifestations of weasel words, thanks! I also like the AC/DC analogy, though I don’t know how far that takes us.

      There is that famous parable of the blind men and the elephant: they each gave their version of what they believed was true — a rope, a treetrunk, a palm branch, a brush and so on — but they couldn’t ‘see’ the bigger picture. I think that’s how we all appreciate what’s out there: it’s always going to be a facet of the whole truth.

      Alternative facts are, however, about insisting that what is patently obvious isn’t: an elephant isn’t a hole in the ground, one crowd at a presidential inauguration isn’t numerically the same as another. Compared to weasel words they are of a different magnitude, I feel.

      1. elmediat

        In the present case of the American President & his cohorts, the hole in the ground is the elephant in the room. Trump & his company of arrogant fools are digging a deeper and deeper hole. There are moment when I fear we will all end up in it – I hope-pray it will be only them.

  2. inkbiotic

    Brilliant stuff! I’m going to start using Humpty Dumptyism as a phrase, I never heard it before and it’s great. A very interesting read, I love to get a bit of context around the nonsense of journalism, because you’re right: there have always been problems with truth. 🙂

    1. “Humpty-Dumptyism”: I give it to you! Use it as a hashtag, an insult, a term of abuse, a sly criticism. I suspect a lot of people won’t be aware of what you’re talking about!

      Thanks for the appreciation: I rather think that in the UK at least we’re about to be subject to a lot of #humptydumptyism with phase 2 of the Brexit debate. As an antidote look out what David Lammy said in the House of Commons in the last day or so …

  3. This ia such a great post, Chris. And such a variety of euphemisms for lying. Funny how people can fool themselves – and think they’ll fool others – by claiming what they’ve said isn’t a complete lie. If you have to curve the facts to keep people happy, then you’re not telling the whole truth. I love Humpty Dumptyism too – what a fabulous phrase.

    1. #humptydumptyism: see above. 🙂

      Thanks very much. The classic lie/weasel words/factoid/propaganda voters were fed pre-referendum was the £350 million to fund the NHS on a regular basis. I’m still seething over this …

      1. As we watch hospitals struggle to cope for another winter, as more go into the red, groan under the weight of an ageing population, as people die lying on trolleys, waiting to be seen … You and me both.

  4. I came across a quote just the other day to the effect that it was no longer the fact that people couldn’t tell what was true and what was false that should concern us, but that they have stopped thinking that the difference matters. A friend of mine puts this down to the rise of reality TV in which on one level people know it’s a set-up but find it so satisfying that gradually it comes to feel like truth to them. I think there’s something in that. And in the fact that we are hit with so much information from so many directions that the line of least resistance is to believe what you want to, and if your hero is caught out being economical with the truth you just shrug and say, ‘everyone does it’. The astounding and horribly powerful thing about Trump and his spokespeople is that they have no embarrassment at all about blatantly lying. It leaves normal human beings just floundering, totally disarmed.

    1. We were on a reality programme about house-buying many years ago. We were both unsurprised and surprised by how much fiction goes into making these programmes, from scripted exchanges appearing unscripted to retakes of spontaneous reaction shots that weren’t the right kind of spontaneity.

      And I remember my mother saying that Cheetah really did understand everything Tarzan said, instead of responding to commands from an off-camera animal wrangler. I’m still in two minds about whether she believed what she said.

      Having said all that, I think there’s a lot in what you say, Gert. And I think that there are too many of us ‘normal’ human beings floundering. Time to get our shit together, as they say?

      1. Yes, I know someone who was on “The Voice” which is supposed to be all about discovering new talent, and one of the major things they wanted in the finalists was some sort of sob story that could be built up around them. Not enough to be a good singer. I suppose reality is actually quite boring a lot of the time!

        1. Goes to prove that it’s the ‘story’, the more dramatic the better, that matters to most people — rags-to-riches, overcoming-the-monster, pride-comes-before-a-fall etc — and not the boring slow-but-steady narrative that ideally should allow us to live life on more of an even keel. But where’s the fun/drama in that?!

  5. Thinking about truth in fictional writing leads me to conclude that all authors are lying to their audiences. Narrators experience subjective reality, giving even the most reliable of them a potential for unreliability.

    It’s extremely sad that people who are world leaders, and should therefore act as professionals, feel the need to tell “alternative facts” to inflate a childish man’s ego. What kind of message does that send to the next generation? It’s perfectly fine to lie through your teeth to make yourself look better.

    Great quotes, and thanks for sharing!

    1. I saw a writer recently quoted as saying all memoirs were fiction, and that goes for much classic history non-fiction. As for fiction itself, particularly first-person narratives, we as readers are all thrown when the protagonist turns out to be an unreliable narrator. It throws us off skewwhiff (?spelling) and leaves us feeling cheated, especially when compared to third-person novels where we assume the writer is a kind of demiurge directing people’s fates.

      I agree very much about the troublesome message certain politicians are sending. Especially when the world has been here before, and that in many individuals’ lifetimes.

  6. President Humpty Dumpty. Yes. That has a nice ring to it 🙂

    Now would you do a post about the folks who believe all this Humpty-Dumptyism, Alternative Facts and so on? Though they presume to believe in the Guy Who IS ‘the Way the Truth and Life” they still believe the lies of the Great Orange One. And that scares me more than him.

    This is what many of us on the left are trying to understand and what is the most frightening. Trump’s biggest victory, in my opinion, is casting doubt on the way we get information. He has maligned and derided the media and the governmental institutions that provide information to the extent that his supporters believe he is being persecuted and only he and his administration have the truth. This is catastrophic. And it is also unsustainable This cannot go on for 4 years…

    1. Laurie, I still find it hard to believe, let alone understand, why so many Trump supporters who say they are Christian are prepared to trust a serial adulterer and someone who has trouble even naming a book in the Bible. Is it only because he’s prepared to not just challenge but go against so-called political correctness? But perhaps in this case hardline conservatism trumps — if you pardon the inadvertent pun — religion, even one that puts compassion at the heart of its message.

      “Trump’s biggest victory, in my opinion, is casting doubt on the way we get information.” It’s exactly the way cynical rightwingers work (well, actually, anyone on the extremes eager to gain power): in the case of Brexit, before the referendum we had hollow promises that £350 million a week would go to the National Health Service (a lie still apparently believed by a large number of pro-Brexit voters); and a prominent Government minister declared that, where the economy was concerned, the public had “had enough of experts”. That so many are still prepared to believe that the NHS would be better funded, when outside the EU, by a government keen on creeping privatisation, and that no one needs experts when it’s actually expertise which is needed, makes me despair for the rationality of fellow humans.

  7. I’d like to add Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” (2005) to your list of terms — according to Colbert, it’s the valuing of “passion and emotion and certainty over information”. Although applied to a different era and its leaders, it’s more dispiriting evidence that there’s nothing new under the sun.

    1. “Truthiness” sounds familiar enough that I must have come across it at some time. As you say, Lizzie, there’s nothing new under the sun, and the supreme value placed on gut reactions (sometimes equated to “commonsense” or, perhaps better words, prejudice or bigotry) is one that unscrupulous politicians and rulers have pushed since time immemorial.

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