Saturday, June 3, 2017

Model Truth Telling

A talk by Carl Baker at the March for Truth
Pasco, Washington, June 3, 2017
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Our founding document begins with the idea that power in this country is held by the people.  That we are to govern ourselves. And that the government that we have built is our tool that we use to govern ourselves.

I know that many of you think that the government that we have today is no longer responsive to the people. That it's been corrupted. And I agree. But I contend that the core idea of self-governance cannot be removed. It is still present.  The constitution still starts with "We the People". And we can return our government to its proper role as a servant to the people rather than as a tool for their exploitation.  The tools are there if we will do the work. And we are doing the work. We are marching and protesting and organizing and running for office.  And we are calling and writing and emailing and talking to our elected representatives and reminding them that they work for us.

And I'd like to add to this work by asking that we take a minute to ask how we got here. To step back in time and consider the historical context in which the words "We the People" were originally penned. Because this was a unique time in the history of the world. We've labeled it as the Enlightenment. And it was a time in which the thinkers of the day were recognizing the importance of the idea of truth. That it was possible (even easy) to be fooled about what is and isn't true about the world. And that it mattered. That if you believe things that are not true about the world, you have no defense against behaving in ways that cause harm to yourself or to others.

René Descartes quote "Cogito ergo soom" is an important element of the early Enlightenment. These are words that many of us have heard many times. But what do they mean?  They translate to "I think, therefore I am".  But that's hardly helpful, is it?  What is Descartes doing here? He seems to be making an argument, the conclusion of which is "I am".  How is this any kind of satisfactory or sensible conclusion?  "I am"?  I mean, of course you exist. How is this a question?

The answer is that these are the words of a man seeking to know the truth. A man who was so obsessed with finding the truth that he was determined to make no assumptions. To question everything. Including his own existence.

This idea that the truth matters pervades the Enlightenment. One might say that it is the Enlightenment. And it forms the basis of all of our intellectual enterprises. In science, and mathematics and philosophy and history and other endeavors we find this dedication to the truth.

And to discover the truth, we've built institutions dedicated to finding it. Human institutions that try to compensate for our tendency to fool ourselves.  Systems that try to winnow the good ideas from the bad.  Institutions in which ideas are put forward and examined and corrected or discarded. And these systems allow us to make progress toward learning what's true. They are human institutions and subject to human failings, but the do make progress.  Over time, slowly and clumsily, they fumble along and bad ideas are discarded and good ones retained.

So this is where we come from. This well-motivated, high-minded passion for the truth has brought us these clunky, ponderous, failure-prone, but ultimately effective institutions that help us find what is and isn't true about the world.

And this actually pretty good, right? Because by figuring out what is and isn't true about the world, we've come to understand that:

You shouldn't invest with Bernie Madoff.
It's not ok to own black people as property.
Vaccines do prevent disease and don't cause autism.
We can have an adverse effect on our environment.
We can fix the problems that we cause to our environment.
It's really true that we are exploiting immigrants and not the other way around.

The idea that I'm sneaking up on is the idea that our government shares its heritage with our other truth-seeking institutions. That it is one of these cumbersome, ponderous, adversarial, failure-prone, but ultimately effective processes for uncovering the truth.  And yet, today, we live in a world of "post-truth politics".  A world of "alternative facts".  A world in which the President of the United States can contradict himself multiple times within a single sentence, and it's considered normal.

So what do we do about this? Well, get out your smartphone or tablet, because the "ask" is coming up. Or you can respond on paper later at that table over there. But here's the idea. We're going to start by modeling the behaviour that we want to see in our elected representatives. We'll adopt the idea that the truth matters, and we'll act on it. This is actually the hard part. Because if the truth matters, our own ideas about it have to take second place. When we present an idea, and someone challenges it, we have to ask "could they be right?"  "Am I wrong about this?".  And when we're shown to be wrong,  we have to correct ourselves. Which is something that humans have a huge psychological resistance to. Especially at first. But it gets easier with time.

Here is what the research suggests we need to do to get people to do

- fact-check information before believing it
- share only verified, trustworthy information
- retract information that they shared that proved false
- encourage others - even your allies - to avoid sharing false information
- defend others - even your opponents - when they share true information
- ask others to retract false information
- celebrate when others acknowledge they are wrong

So we model the behavior. And we ask others to do the same. Including our elected officials. And we hold them and ourselves accountable when we fail. We start with ourselves and our local officials and we move to state and federal officials and we change the culture. We discard "post-truth politics" and "alternative facts" as failed ideas and we return the truth to its rightful place in our political system.

So if you're on-board with this idea, I'll ask you to go to Protruthpledge.org and take the pledge. Do the things I've talked about and the longer list of things that are on the website and the posters at the table.  And once enough of us have done this, we can go to our local elected officials and ask them to sign on. Point out that their constituents care about the truth and that we want our officials to do the same.

An important element of this project is that there is an accountability aspect to it.  We're asking those who have taken the pledge to be public about it. And substantive violations can be reported to the organization for evaluation and corrective pressure applied. This won't apply as much to individuals, but more to elected officials.

This effort needs volunteers and organizers as well. If you're willing, you can help recruit others to sign on. You can lobby your elected officials to sign on.  You can be part of the organization promoting this culture shift. There are places on the website to volunteer to be part of the effort in various ways. Or you can just sign up.

I'll close with a quote from a Facebook comment by a friend of mine named Mike Blackford: "We must always remember that the behavior of free people in a democratic society can only be controlled by the manipulation of what they believe.  A totalitarian regime doesn't need to be very concerned with what people under their control believe because their behavior is directly controlled. A theocratic regime imposes itself upon what the people are allowed to believe and often punishes heresy with death.

When the very nature of Truth itself is under attack, and facts are buried under a pile of lies, falsehoods, deceit, myths, and frauds, and when hypocrisy is rewarded while integrity is assaulted, our liberties in a democratic society are in serious jeopardy.  Those who peddle falsehoods and lies are enemies of our democracy itself."