It seems to me that, by a wide margin, most statements uttered by most people are inaccurate or downright untrue. Most of these problems result from sloppy fact-finding and sloppy reasoning; they are not the result of people intentionally misleading each other. This problem with inaccurate and false statements is even more common in the political arena, and they are also more dangerous because political lies and coverups damage our democracy. They cause us to waste time and resources on many small things and some huge things like needless wars. Falsehoods pour out of politicians mouths like water gushing out of fire hydrants. It has gotten so bad that many of us fear that our democracy is at risk. What else could one reasonably conclude when less than 10% of Americans approve of the work of Congress. But these untruths, the falsehoods, the lies and the coverups continue unabated. I’d like to discuss two of reasons for this sad situation (I’m sure there are other reasons too):
1. The confirmation bias. When political or financial motivation exists (and it almost always exists), human animals notice, say and believe the things they are motivated to notice, say and believe. The confirmation is invisible to us; we are aghast when others call us “biased” (See Jonathan Haidt’s discussion of the invisibility of the confirmation bias here). We only see bias and selective perception in other people. We constantly deny that our own perception of the “facts” is warped by our motivations, including our financial motivations. We are convinced that the lies we want to believe are truths and that our coverups are not coverups. Actually, we don’t see the coverups that benefit us as coverups. Rather, we see accusations that we are covering-up the facts as annoyances. We deny these requests for purposes of expediency and we declare inconvenient things to be “irrelevant.”
2. It is much easier to lie (or to palter) than to take the time to determine the truth. I don’t know how to quantify the extent of this problem, but I’ll take a wild guess: On average, it takes 500 times more work to expose a lie or coverup than to tell a lie and cause a coverup. It’s a lot like the physical world. It takes a lot longer to build a house than to destroy a house. Whatever the exact number, we ought to give this lopsided Ratio a name, because it is a phenomenally important factor to consider in our need to fight for policies to encourage open government. Perhaps it could be called the Lie-Truth-Cost-Ratio. This lopsided Ratio gives untruthful people (liars, obfuscators and those who are reckless with the truth) huge advantages, given that time and money are such precious resources. In the time it takes to write one accurate and detailed report regarding a serious policy issue, untruthful people can issue hundreds or thousands of untruthful statements on the same topic.
In the political realm, is the solution investigative journalism? Probably not, because investigative journalism is dying; to do it right costs lots of money. Further modern media outlets often resist free-wheeling investigative journalism because the corporate media is in the position to foot the bill for investigative journalism, yet the results of such journalism too often embarrass advertisers and business relationships connected to media enterprises (only six corporations own and control most of the media in America).
Citizens can also function as journalists too. Can we depend on private citizens to fill the void? Unlikely. Who is willing to give up significant time with their family or time to take a walk or time to watch a movie in order to do the painstaking research to expose liars, even when those lies cause massive waste of desperately needed public funds? Because we are human animals, we live in a distracting world where fatigue is a reality–we crave eating, exercising, sleeping and entertainment, and none of these enjoyable activities is long-term compatible with hunching over a computer keyboard or analyzing big piles of abstruse documents in order to expose corporate or political lies. Who do you know who is willing to do any of these things in his or her spare time? Do you even know anyone who has an adequate skill-set for doing this type of work? Who do you know who would be willing to spend even $100 of his or her money to obtain records, even where there is a good chance that those records would expose government or corporate wrong-doing? We are sometimes fortunate that public interest groups gather a critical mass of people, money and energy to investigate complex political issues, but their funding is often no match for the funds spent (and the number of untruths told) by corporate and government players, who are highly motivated to make issues complex in order to make them impenetrable. It is important to keep in mind that making a political or corporate system needlessly complex (2,000 page bills, anyone?) are a highly effective way of hiding the truth.
Further, there are so many lies out there that they cannot all be investigated. I’ll make another highly speculative guess: Only 5% of important political claims are investigated by any journalist or public interest group to any meaningful degree. That is largely due to the power of the Lie-Truth-Cost-Ratio.
Here’s a real-life example: the current controversy regarding proposed Keystone XL pipeline. I’ll set aside, for now, the environmental concerns that are often dismissed or underplayed by the corporate players and the alleged news media. Instead, I’ll look simply at the alleged quid pro quo regarding those who have been pushing for the project. The Koch brothers have indicated that they have no financial stake in the XL pipeline.
In the real world, these sorts of claims appear in newspaper headlines, and they are declared be the “news.” In a perfect world, these claims would be meaningfully investigated before being reported. But investigating each of these sorts of claims would require highly motivated people (including journalists at the U.K. Guardian) countless hours, because the truth regarding complex matters like this can only be determined by reviewing hundreds of convoluted documents. Robert Greenwald has produced the following 2-minute video announcing his own suspicions:
As you can see, Rep. Henry Waxman is trying arrange for a hearing, but he is being rebuffed by Rep Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, whose confirmation bias appears to be activated thanks to substantial political contributions he has received from Koch Industries. Whitfield is convinced (he might really be convinced, because that is how powerful the confirmation bias is) that the Koch brothers have no stake in the XL Pipeline project. Consider the Lie-Truth-Cost-Ratio playing out in this Congressional hearing. How much of an investment did it take the Koch Brothers (and Whitfield) to claim that Koch brothers had no involvement? Not much time at all. How much of an investment would it take Henry Waxman to hold fact-finding hearings? It would require a substantial investment. It would likely take many hundreds of person-hours to prepare for those hearings, hold them, then prepare findings of fact.
Should we trust the Koch brothers and the members of Congress who receive money from Koch brothers? Or should we spend considerable time and money to really determine whether Koch Industries would be benefiting from the XL pipeline? In our convoluted modern world, expediency wins out. Members of the public and self-critical members of Congress are often too distracted and fatigued by thousands of other claims of untruth to fully investigate each claim. Or they are prevented from doing so by financially motivated players. Or, far too often, our representatives are working hard to protect contributors from investigations like these.
Can we ever depend on the news media to stay on top of stories like this and to fully investigate these sorts of situations? Don’t hold your breath. As you can see from my interview with John Nichols, newspapers are closing at a rapid rate (32,000 newspapers workers have lost their jobs over the past two years). In the U.S. In 1960, we had one public relations specialists for every journalist. Today, we have four public relations specialists for every journalist. In other words, manipulated communications are now dominating our discussions of critically important political issues. Who would like to give up a week of their hard-earned vacation in order to plow through the corporate records of Koch (with the understanding that only a smattering of those records are publicly available).
Under circumstances like this, should reasonable people assume that the truth will come out? It is more reasonable to assume that the Lie-Truth-Cost-Ratio works against our need to know every single day with regard to every important political issue. We live in a world where lying and obfuscating pay off well, because it’s easy to spew untruths and it takes exponentially more effort to expose untruths than to promulgate them.
That is our situation. That is our plight.