Truthi­ness on the march

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

The late US Se­na­tor Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han fa­mously said, “

That may be true. But, en­ti­tled or not, politi­cians and elec­torates are con­struct­ing their own al­ter­nate re­al­i­ties – with far-reach­ing con­se­quences.

Nowa­days, facts and truth are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to up­hold in pol­i­tics (and in busi­ness and even sports). They are be­ing re­placed with what the Amer­i­can co­me­dian Stephen Col­bert calls “truthi­ness”: the ex­pres­sion of gut feel­ings or opin­ions as valid state­ments of fact. This year might be con­sid­ered one of peak truthi­ness.

To make good de­ci­sions, vot­ers need to as­sess re­li­able facts, from eco­nomic data to ter­ror­ism anal­y­sis, pre­sented trans­par­ently and with­out bias. But, to­day, talk­ing heads on tele­vi­sion would rather at­tack those with ex­per­tise in these ar­eas. And am­bi­tious po­lit­i­cal fig­ures – from the lead­ers of the Brexit cam­paign in the United King­dom to US Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump – dis­miss the facts al­to­gether.

The en­vi­ron­ment is ripe for such be­hav­iour. Vot­ers, par­tic­u­larly in the ad­vanced economies, are jaded by years of bro­ken po­lit­i­cal prom­ises, rev­e­la­tions of cover-ups, and re­lent­less po­lit­i­cal and me­dia spin. Opaque or du­bi­ous deal­ings have cast doubt on the in­tegrity of or­gan­i­sa­tions and in­sti­tu­tions on which we should be able to rely. For ex­am­ple, the New York Times re­cently pub­lished a se­ries of ar­ti­cles on think tanks that high­lighted the con­flict of in­ter­est faced by those who op­er­ate as an­a­lysts, but are be­holden to cor­po­rate fun­ders and some­times also act as lob­by­ists.

As soon as a few ex­perts are found to have been of­fer­ing half-truths – or worse – the cred­i­bil­ity of the en­tire field can be called into ques­tion. Chris­tine Todd Whit­man, who was Head of the US En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA) on Septem­ber 11, 2001, told residents of New York City that the air was safe to breathe and the wa­ter was safe to drink in the days after the ter­ror­ist at­tack on the World Trade Cen­ter. But, as a 2003 EPA re­port noted, the agency “did not have suf­fi­cient data and analy­ses to make such a blan­ket state­ment” at that time. With cases of se­vere res­pi­ra­tory ill­ness pil­ing up, Whit­man now ad­mits that the state­ment was wrong.

Like­wise, as the re­cently pub­lished Chilcot re­port showed, in­ter­view go un­chal­lenged, as if Trump were in­deed en­ti­tled to his own facts.

The lead­ers of the UK’s cam­paign to with­draw from the Euro­pean Union en­joyed a sim­i­lar ad­van­tage in the run-up to June’s Brexit ref­er­en­dum. They painted a wholly false pic­ture of the coun­try’s cir­cum­stances – from its role in the EU to the im­pact of im­mi­gra­tion – and know­ingly made im­pos­si­ble prom­ises about what would hap­pen if the pub­lic voted “Leave.”

For ex­am­ple, lead­ers like Boris John­son, now Bri­tain’s for­eign sec­re­tary, de­clared that the GBP 350 mln sup­pos­edly paid weekly to the EU (a deeply flawed fig­ure that fails to take into ac­count the ben­e­fits re­ceived) would be redi­rected to the Na­tional Health Ser­vices. The Leave cam­paign even plas­tered the pledge onto the side of a cam­paign bus.

Now that the ref­er­en­dum is over, John­son and oth­ers have back­tracked, and the cam­paign has re­branded it­self the “Change Bri­tain” move­ment and promised to re­di­rect EU funds to other ar­eas in­stead. This has in­fu­ri­ated many, es­pe­cially given the re­cent warn­ing by the body that rep­re­sents hos­pi­tals across Eng­land that un­der­fund­ing has pushed the NHS to the brink. Brex­i­teers have also walked back pledges to curb im­mi­gra­tion, amid a sharp in­crease in hate crimes across the UK that their rhetoric helped to fuel.

The down­sides of Brexit should have been ob­vi­ous to vot­ers be­fore the ref­er­en­dum – not least be­cause so many econ­o­mists, de­fense ex­perts, and world lead­ers spelled them out dur­ing the cam­paign. But, as lead­ing Brex­i­teer Michael Gove proudly ob­served, peo­ple in the UK had “had enough of ex­perts.”

In fact, it seems that some peo­ple voted for Brexit specif­i­cally be­cause so many ex­perts spoke out against it. They seemed to be­lieve Brex­i­teer MP Gisela Stu­art: “the only expert that mat­ters” is the voter. It should be no sur­prise that the post-ref­er­en­dum re­al­ity is not what many Brexit vot­ers ex­pected.

Yet the rev­e­la­tions of the false­hoods that pro­pelled the Leave cam­paign to vic­tory have hardly driven peo­ple back into the arms of ex­perts. Truthi­ness is on the march, par­tic­u­larly across Europe and the US – in large part be­cause so many of the author­i­ties who should be call­ing out the lies are tainted by truthi­ness them­selves.

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