What is Truth?

A story in the Globe and Mail about issues with TFW (temporary foreign worker) usage brought to mind a fundamental question — what is ‘truth’? For years we have seen stories in the media about the cutbacks in actual reporting and the increased reliance on central news agencies to supply our daily fixes. My wife and I find it mildly amusing to watch how a story propagates through the various online media — somewhat like the old joke about nerve transmission rates in dinosaurs (historic and corporate).

With most issues we are besieged with opinions about things — more how we should feel about them than what they are. Climate change is a good example but there are many, many others. With a little reflection it occurs that our reading habits orbit around the style of writing and editorial slant of the news services. I read the New York Times and the Globe, not the Sun (and not because I don’t like looking at scantily dressed females…) and never Fox (or is it faux?). Sorry, my tastes are showing…

It may be that ‘truth’ is a terribly difficult thing to pin down when it comes to human affairs. Physical things are different — simple math is sufficient, for example, to calculate the amount of energy released when a big rock slams into the planet at orbital speeds. But with people — particularly how people see the world around them and their relationship to it, it is much messier.

Research tells us that the vision process is filtered through the brain regions for memory — so what we see is to some extent controlled by our experience and cultural rules. Two people of wildly different social backgrounds, perhaps, for example, a wealthy Chinese person and a marginalized Detroiter, could see the same scene and describe it very differently. Or see the same circumstances and formulate very different thoughts about what can and should be done, if anything. So it is probably not unreasonable to think that if these two individuals were writing a news story it might be very different — a third party might not even recognize the two stories as being about the same event. And I would suggest that in the end the flavor of the story would govern how we responded to it based on whether it resonated or jarred our own sensibilities. Indeed I suspect that what we chose as our sources of information about the world is likely governed by precisely those kinds of factors.

Then we need to layer onto this mess the idea that the filtering process of news generation would emphasize some items and ignore others — and likely create a few more because it seemed artistically right to do so. A cynic would refer to this as embroidering on the ‘truth’ or worse. Or perhaps improving on the ‘truthiness’ of the story. In one episode of Babylon 5, a scifi TV series, a character used the term ‘realfact’ to describe events as they actually occurred. And ‘goodfacts’ for events as supportive of the current government talking points — the ‘spin’ du jour. Corporations shovel out many of them as well, by the way.

As I have gotten older and seen more of the world and heard differing descriptions of events, I find it is harder to be judgmental about many things. Deliberately reading a multiplicity of news sources is a quick way to get there… Al Jazerra, NHK news, Pravda and the New York Times sometimes see very different worlds. What makes it harder is that sometimes one of the actors flatly refuses to explain their reasons for things in recognizable terms. Why is China seemingly working so hard to destroy the culture of the Uyghirs and Tibetans? Or the mess in Ukraine? (Though I confess that in these cases it is more for the quietness of my spirit and intellectual curiosity than anything else.) Or, closer to home, why is the Ontario government so obsessed with covering the landscape with huge wind turbines over the protests of the residents and a demonstrated inability to use the power? This one matters to me — there are five of the things across the channel and the threat of 37 more surrounding me on this little island. And as a retiree our power bill is the second largest cost, rising more rapidly than taxes [freezing in the dark is so unattractive…].

And so, being aware that I am surrounded by a shifting sea of ‘goodfacts’ and probably would not recognize a ‘realfact’ if it hit me in the nose. I suspect that in the old days peoples’ world horizons were much smaller — video from the other side of the planet really changes appearances. News stories about these distant places were much easier to mentally reframe when it was largely an act of imagination, I am sure. Some of the old reportage was probably true. Some of the current stuff is too. Damned if I know how to tell which is which if I have no personal experiences to compare it with. Did we ever? Anyhow it seems the answer if we want one to the question ‘what is truth’ is ‘a beautiful flower than smells bad’. It is truely depressing how many things that applies to.

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