America finds itself at a moment in history that demands clear, honest, knowledge-based responses to existential threats ranging from climate change to manipulated elections to pandemics.
Yet too often, society’s leaders are not only ignoring these threats but elevating dishonest, artful pandering over difficult but honest decision-making. There appears to be a willingness to casually use deception when it’s convenient.
Increasingly, Americans are navigating a world where facts are secondary to emotion and demagoguery, with no cognitive GPS to guide us.
The problem is not merely the corruption of language. As we have seen today and throughout history, lies have the power to pervert public policy, undermine institutions, fan hatred and violence, and claim lives.
Nowhere is this malignancy more apparent than in politics, where social media swamps breed disinformation and bad behavior encouraged by anonymity. In her book “Democracy and Truth: A Short History,” University of Pennsylvania history professor Sophia Rosenfeld notes that the relationship between democracy and truth has always been uneasy. But the extent of the “truth crisis” today, she writes, has no historical precedent.
Politics is not the only realm where the truth is a casualty, however. Even the physical sciences — where empirical observation and immutable rules carry the day — are under attack, as the COVID-19 vaccine and climate “debates” have demonstrated. Science offers us a lifeline to truth, but it is often swept aside in favor of fealty to ideology. More dangerously, it is often denigrated by dark, conspiratorial theories and rhetoric.
Despite ever more evidence that vaccines represent our best shot to defeat the coronavirus, for example, politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene keep marching their constituents into the dark forest of post-truth. The anti-vaccine movement includes people driven by earnestly held beliefs, but it is bolstered by a multibillion-dollar industry that makes money whenever someone clicks on an outrageous anti-vaccine ad.
In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence about climate change, too many policy makers continue to throw lies and misinformation into the machinery of science and evidence-based policy making. According to the Center for American Progress, there are 139 elected officials in the 117th Congress, including 109 representatives and 30 senators, who refuse to acknowledge the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change.
As public university leaders in the state that invented public education, we are especially concerned with advancing the truths that flow from historically constituted scholarly disciplines with shared schemas and agreed-upon practices. We speak of physical truths, psychological and neurological truths, anthropological truths, and linguistic truths. We also understand that our society works best — and our pursuit of truth is abetted — when we engage all our communities.
To be sure, truth has always been contested territory in academia — and we are better off for it. But the search for truth animates the work of the modern research university. It is in our DNA. Here is what we can do to reverse the truth’s insidious slide toward a slow death:
▪ Continue increasing access to higher education, where truth is taught as a matter of both scholarship and democratic citizenship. Universities should elevate truth-seeking, truth-finding, and truth-telling to a sense of existential urgency.
▪ Expand experiential learning and encourage students’ focus on local problems — both of which lead to a better understanding of real problems and the transformative power of concrete solutions.
▪ Support leaders who lead by proposing real solutions to economic and social problems that, when unaddressed, create fertile ground for demagogues.
▪ Defend the news media in its fact-checker, watchdog role. No institution is perfect, but there is no better bulwark against prevarication and misinformation.
Lies don’t die with each passing news cycle. They are believed. They shape current and future behavior. Their impact is broad and deep. Today, the university’s call to arms must take the battle to the culture of pessimism, anomie, and disengagement. It starts with the rescue of truth.
Marty Meehan is president of the University of Massachusetts system. Marcelo Suárez-Orozco is the chancellor of UMass Boston. This essay was adapted from their remarks to the Vatican’s “Truth and Post-Truth in Communication, Media, and Society” conference.