Facts, prefacts, and truth

by | Aug 18, 2022 | Health/Fitness, Politics/Government

photo from nytimes.com

It’s time to have a heart-to-heart talk about truth, lies, facts and fiction. A whole new season of make-it-up-as-Trump-goes began last week. So, I felt obligated to share some research about how bad many of our countrymen, and yes, they are mostly men, have gotten in recognizing nonsense when it lands on them. 

First, a short list of facts:

On Monday, August 8, the FBI executed a search warrant at the home of former President Donald Trump. The warrant was issued by a federal magistrate in Florida, who had the legal authority to do so, after a determination was made that probable cause existed that a crime was being committed on the property. The FBI seized and removed several sets of documents. Many of these documents were defined as confidential, classified, and, or top secret. Regardless of these labels, many of the documents were not authorized to be there and were being sought by the National Archives and Records Administration, which had been trying to gather them for months. 

Whew. Again, those are facts. These are not all of the facts, but for simplicity’s sake, the paragraph above is entirely factual. These facts, as is the case with all facts, should not be confused with truths. Truth is more akin to what one believes. 

Indiana Jones may have said it best when he said, “archeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.” Yes, I know “Indy,” or “Dr. Jones” is a fictitious character, but fiction is part of today’s story.  

While archeology is known for the search for fact, politics is more known for its manipulation of it. Americans once had a more rational perspective on what political speak even is and what it isn’t. It never used to be gospel. But fans, idolizers and devotees of the most recent former president are rewriting the handbook on what people can and will believe, and how they come to believe it. It is embarrassingly easy. 

Beth Anne Helgason and Daniel Effron of the London Business School published an extensive study on the topic this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled, “It might become true: How prefactual thinking licenses dishonesty.” The study covers a lot of ground, but the concept of “prefactual thinking” is something with which all Americans should become familiar. 

Prefactual is just what it sounds like it is. A narrative, rhetoric or theory is provided that could end up being factual before the facts are known, so that when it is time to decide what is true, the masses have already been conned into believing something clearly untrue. An example is the announcement by the Trump team that the FBI planted evidence last week. As a “prefact,” it will no longer matter what actually happened to those who want to believe the earliest preferred theory. Trump supporters are already convinced that the comforting made-up fiction is true.

Former Attorney General Bill Barr’s description of the Mueller Report is an earlier example of the same thing. He released a statement of the report that served as the definitive result of the larger set of facts that convinced a good number of Americans that there were no crimes committed. That’s not what the report actually said, but the shorter, simpler and earlier description of the complicated findings is what many will always believe. It’s too much work to overcome the manipulation and biases that were first established. 

An epidemic of gullibility has spread across America, and it is scarier to me than COVID-19. I have read commentary from the Wall Street Journal editorial board, David Brooks of the New York Times and David Frum of The Atlantic all surrender to this sickness in just the last week, as if there is no hope for facts ever prevailing in the world of Trump.

I am more optimistic. 

Dr. Grant Hilary Brenner wrote about the research in April for Psychology Today. He wrote, “We are profoundly unfamiliar with the information environment in which we live and the ways our own psychology plays a role in what we decide is real and true.” 

We are capable of becoming familiar with the environment though. We can learn. We learned how cigarettes are killers, how seatbelts are life savers, and how Trump University was a scam, didn’t we? 

The key is that those who know better can’t ever stop defending actual facts over prefacts, or in other words, nonsense.

1 Comment

  1. Jim Hammond

    Mike:
    I really enjoyed the metaphor regarding archeology and politics…I couldn’t agree more. It also brings to mind a quote I read, “The problem ain’t what we don’t know, it’s what we know that just ain’t so. (sic)” This quote often is attributed to humorist Mark Twain, but I believe I read it in one of Sheila Kennedy’s columns a number of years (maybe 6 or so) ago.
    I really enjoy your writing and comments on so many things. BTW, part of the “Flipping the Circle Gang” had to pay the piper except for Rod Ratcliff.
    Jim

    Reply

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