Watching the debate last week as well as the chatter that accompanied its aftermath, I couldn’t help thinking in this election season we could be forgiven for wanting more respect for facts, not less. Charles Dickens wrote in his classic novel Hard Times:
Now, what I want is, facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.
Dickens was satirizing a dull-headed, narrow-minded teaching that emphasized rote memorization rather than creativity and humanism.
As this week’s Time Magazine cover story, “The Fact Wars,” has noted, the Presidential candidates are battling “over the very nature of reality,” each criticizing the other for playing loose with the facts while neglecting their own stretching of the truth. Meanwhile, a small army of fact checkers is struggling to tease out the truth from falsehood. The article quotes one Republican operative: “It’s like the campaigns are driving 100 miles an hour on a highway with a posted speed limit of 60, but the patrol cars all have flats. There was a quaint era in politics when we were held accountable for the truth and paid consequences for errors of fact. No more.”
The seeming decline of respect for factual accuracy predates the current election cycle. Stephen Colbert unveiled his “truthiness” as a response to former President George W. Bush’s stated predilection to go with his gut when making decisions. “Truthiness is tearing apart our country,” Colbert opined. “It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty. People love the President because he’s certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don’t seem to exist.”
Researchers have theorized that people tend to seek out validation of their existing beliefs rather than neutrally research some objective “truth.” But it may also be that social and cultural forces are at play to produce an ongoing epidemic of “truthiness.” The Internet dumps such a torrent of information at us so quickly that we don’t have time to slow down and subject everything we read to critical scrutiny—even if we were inclined to do that. Ensconced in our media bubbles, we are used to having our beliefs validated for us and often aren’t subjected to serious critiques of what we think. Add to that the widespread cynicism that exists about cultural authorities—the notion that anyone can come up with data to support any given argument—and we’re less inclined to subject arguments we already agree with to scrutiny.
The decline of facts is by no means limited to politics. University Presidents report that plagiarism on the part of students is on the rise. So, too, is fraudulent scientific research. This past summer, a major pharmaceutical company pled guilty to having written a research article that seemed to cast its drugs in a favorable light, attaching the names of prominent academic researchers to the article.
Ignorance about basic facts seems to have reached epic proportions. One recent survey found quite shockingly that 70% of Americans do not understand what the American Constitution is. A 2008 poll found that 37% of Americans are not able to locate our country on the map. In the UK, a poll of young people found that almost half didn’t realize that Muslims, Christians, and Jews all prayed to the same God.
The decline of awareness about facts and the apparent emergence of multiple alternate realities should concern us all. “As a general rule,” observed the 19th century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, “the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information.” And it likely is also true that the most successful nations are those in which citizens can and do make decisions grounded in a firm sense of reality. With all of our talk about authenticity, the most successful companies and brands are certainly those that respect the facts in their dealings with stakeholders.
That’s where public relations comes in. As professionals, we should be sure to always root the stories we tell about clients in fact. I believe that truth will always prove most persuasive, even in our cynical, polarized age. As the media’s first contact point with an organization, we in public relations should serve as the Truth Tellers in Chief and also the Chief Myth Busters—and we neglect these roles at our peril.
Even with so many apparent distortions circulating all around us, let’s rededicate ourselves in this election season to standing tall, speaking up, and staying close to the facts. It may be the harder path, but it is certainly the nobler one—and ultimately the most successful.