Disdaining ‘the Search for Truth’

When information becomes a weapon whether in geopolitics or domestic politics the democratic principle of an informed electorate is sacrificed, as is now the case in modern America, where some leaders pander to parts of the electorate that are disdainful of science, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar observes.

By Paul R. Pillar

It is unusual for a political leader to disavow truth-seeking as explicitly as Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin did when he tried to expunge from the longstanding mission statement of the University of Wisconsin a reference to “the search for truth” being a core purpose of the university.

Walker backed off, but only after public outrage and only with a retraction of his previous retraction that blamed the proposed change on a “drafting error.” The change in the mission statement was one part of a larger proposal by Walker that would slash much of the state’s subsidy of the university system.

Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

The prevailing interpretation about Walker’s moves is that striking blows against the elite intellectuals one finds on the campus of a leading university, and suggesting, as Walker did, that the university could adjust to budget cuts by increasing professors’ work loads, pleases a sector of the Republican primary electorate to which Walker is appealing in seeking a presidential nomination in 2016. The same interpretation could be applied to Walker’s recent refusal to say that he believes in evolution.

This interpretation is undoubtedly correct, but for a leader to turn his back on truth, or more precisely the search for truth, as directly as Walker has is also part of a larger disturbing pattern in Twenty-first Century America and American politics.

Although direct and explicit rejections of truth-seeking are rare, Walker does not provide the only examples. Another one that comes to mind was the proud declaration by an anonymous aide in George W. Bush’s administration (believed by many to be Karl Rove) that he and his colleagues were not part of the “reality-based community.”

Of course, rejection of reality and the truth by people in power, sometimes to a sweeping degree, is by no means an artifact of Twenty-first Century America. The Big Lie has long been a well-practiced technique of dictatorships abroad. But while such regimes have mangled and oppressed the truth, they have claimed to be pursuing it and acting in accordance with it. Even the department in George Orwell’s Oceania that dispensed lie-laden propaganda called itself the Ministry of Truth.

The more unabashed willingness we see today to stray from respect for the truth has multiple roots. One could explain much by looking at the sort of political calculations that Walker and his advisers are making and at the underlying demographics and value systems of the sector of the electorate to which they are appealing.

But there are some more widespread roots as well, some of which Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post identified in a recent article addressing why so many Americans are so dubious about science. The ubiquitous Internet, for example, “makes it easier than ever for science doubters to find their own information and experts.” Much of the turning away from truth does involve rejection of scientifically established patterns and causalities, with denial of climate change being perhaps the most obvious example.

It is rejecting the search for truth that is the most important and destructive phenomenon in question. Achenbach quotes the editor of the journal Science, who observes that science is not a body of facts but instead “a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.”

It is a way of searching for truth, a way that has long proven itself to be effective. The antithesis of science is to take something as fact because it is a tenet of a political ideology or a revealed religion to which one adheres.

Besides the influence of unquestioning adherence to political ideologies and revealed religions, some of the blame for diminished respect for the truth ought to go to the world of the arts and the increasingly artful, and unapologetic, way in which fiction and nonfiction get blended. A historical novel used to mean a story about fictional characters set against the backdrop of real events. Now it may mean attributing made-up words and actions to real people.

Occasionally, as with the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson in a recent movie about Martin Luther King, such attribution may become a matter of discussion and controversy. More often it is absorbed by much of the public as if it were fact. Many people believe significant falsehoods about real Americans and real American institutions because they saw them in an Oliver Stone movie.

Film directors and novelists blithely rationalize the confusion of fact and fiction by saying that they bend facts only to make larger and more profound points. In other words, they are saying that the truth doesn’t matter very much.

Political polarization in the current United States is another contributing factor. The partisan divide has nearly ended any search for better understanding of reality through a constructive dialogue between those with different points of view. And much of what is taken as fact by many adherents of one partisan camp or another is so taken merely because other people in the camp with which the person identifies say it is so. This is not a search for truth at all; it is just an expression of a creed. Perceived fact follows prescriptive ideology rather than the other way around.

The diminished respect for truth and the search for it has multiple bad consequences. Most obvious is that a lot of untruths are left floating around, free to become the basis for misguided policies. Another is that debates about public policy are rendered more confused and less effective by muddying the respective roles of facts and analysis, and description and prescription.

Casual attitudes toward the truth, and having perceived fact flowing from preferred prescription, disguise fundamental choices and trade-offs. We have seen this with debate about the use of torture, in which many of those opposed to it have been determined to believe that it never works and many of those in favor of allowing it have been determined to believe that it does work. This has obscured the sort of hard choices that can arise when something is both effective and immoral.

To see so much straying from a dedicated search for truth is dismaying, for reasons that go far beyond a university campus in Wisconsin.

(Disclosure: My son is a student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I thus have a personal interest in the university continuing to search for truth, as well as in the degrees it grants not being debased by the sort of degradation and decline that would result from big budget cuts. I also have an interest in what happens to out-of-state tuition rates, which the university chancellor says are sure to be hiked if the legislature approves Walker’s cuts. I do not know what Gov. Walker, who also has a son enrolled at UW-Madison, privately thinks about any of these things.)

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

13 comments for “Disdaining ‘the Search for Truth’

  1. Eddie
    February 22, 2015 at 19:13

    Virtually everything Mr Pillar says is true here. It used to be that politicians would try to feign knowledge, or at least a respect for it, but now the right-wing Republicans literally ‘revel in their abandon’ in the truth-challenged statements they make.

    However, I would question whether ‘truth-telling’ is — at least nowadays (if ever) — very important to the general US public (i.e.; voting public, since those are essentially the only ones who politically count), or at least to the 30-40% of the ‘undecideds’ who typically swing elections. Over and over and over and over again in my 50+ yrs of observing politics I’ve seen TOO many instances of the truth being essentially available/out-there, but the election going to the dissembler. Think Nixon in 72, or Bush in 2004 as glaring national examples. And here in WI, the empty-suit disaster that is Scott Walker has been elected 3 times in 4+ yrs, including surviving a recall, in spite of plenty of information being presented about his failures and bad policies. I’m beginning to suspect that many of the right-wing voters and ‘undecideds’ actually favor ignorance on the issues with the old quote about ‘If you want to make people mad, lie to them. If you want to make them absolutely livid, tell them the truth’ being more applicable than any calm, relatively rational approach.

  2. alexander horatio
    February 20, 2015 at 09:33

    Dear Mr. Pillar ,
    Thank you again for another thoughtful article on an issue that stands, perhaps more than any other, as the central issue of our time……”the importance of the truth, for ourselves, our society, our nation and the world.
    I will be turning fifty-two next summer, which means , among other things, that the bulk of my life was lived before the events of 9-11 , and the” world” since then, has changed perhaps more profoundly in respect to “the truth”, (or its absence) then any other period of my life as an american citizen.
    Having gone to an all boys private school in Manhattan while growing up, and then graduating from a small liberal arts college, I felt that I received an excellent education….where the respect for the truth or, rather ,the truth ” itself “was the cornerstone of learning, the foundation of a viable education, and the bedrock from which one grows and engages the world…..
    Moreover, it seemed almost self-evident that this viewpoint was universal , it was shared not only by my family and friends, but served (along with our constitution) as the filament binding me with every other american citizen….
    and perhaps the vast majority of citizens in the world.
    ( No one is taught in school that lying, plagiarizing, or deceitful behavior is good !)
    This basic premise was neither assumed nor taken for granted…but functioned as a given in the general course of human events and human interaction !
    This premise carried over into the dissemination of information through the news media, both television and print, in a healthy way…..
    Before 9-11, one did not “doubt” the news,
    or at least I didn’t,
    I didn’t “doubt ” the news right after” 9-11″ either,
    I “believed” the news, as I had my whole life.
    When i was informed that the “anthrax ‘ attack on the US was from Saddam Hussein ,
    I believed it !
    When I was informed that Saddam Hussein had compiled “weapons of mass destruction “and was an “imminent threat” to our nation..
    I believed it !
    When I saw on TV, the statue of Saddam Hussein being torn down in Iraq,
    I was “cheering “in my seat ! I got out of my seat with my arms up !
    YAHOO ! Great work, boys ! Great work !
    I believed in what we were doing because I believed we were told the truth !
    As events unfolded, and the dust began to settle on the war, it became clear to me that every” key” element I was told was the truth…was a fraud!
    I had been “defrauded” !
    I, like perhaps nearly all Americans, had been defrauded …..
    and we had been ‘defrauded’ into war !
    Mr Pillar,
    What kind of evil would do such a thing…
    to me..
    .to us….
    What kind of sinister , monstrous entity would ever do that ..
    deceive me , deceive all of us into murdering and maiming hundreds of thousands, if not millions of innocent people ?
    Isn’t that the very definition of evil ?
    Isn’t that the very “essence” of terrorism ?
    Isn’t fraud the HINGE on which it operates ?
    If, today, the “war against terrorism” has any legitimacy at all
    and I believe it does…Then it is, without doubt, that “the sources” of the fraud , past ,and present , should be our countries number one target..
    They should be tracked and hunted…
    and brought to justice !
    And the President of the United States of America has all the resources ,all the assets, all the intelligence and all the financing we can muster to get the job done !
    Let us hope he does not fail us !

  3. Consortiumnews.com
    February 19, 2015 at 11:42

    Posted for Rob Roy:
    Two things for Mr. Pillar:
    One: In “Selma” the writer/director nailed Johnson perfectly, as you would know if you read the trilogy about Johnson written by Robert Caro. I think the ‘white’ community didn’t like the portrayal, wanting first to believe Johnson was the person who made the Civil Rights Act a reality, when signing it simply became a political thing for him to do. Everything that guy did was politically motivated.
    Two: Regarding torture: Paul Pillar says, “This [ideological viewpoint] has obscured the sort of hard choices that can arise when something is both effective and immoral.” I realize Mr. Pillar was in the CIA, but a man who was head of the CIA in Europe for five years told me that torture never works. And by all accounts, it has not helped save one life. In having two sides to a debate doesn’t mean that each side has equal weight.
    Rob Roy

  4. John
    February 18, 2015 at 21:33

    While in the university environment the proximity of challengers often leads to uncertainty and self-criticism. If rational public debate has a future, some means of bringing the full range of rational arguments into most debates must be found. Although we have increasing physical segregation by income, we also have diverse physical communities that are in fact highly segregated in their ideological communication groups, and may become ever more irrationally so. Web technology leads the ignorant and selfish toward group think.

    In defense of those novelists or producers who do not seek to deceive, let me say that fiction is the best means to present learning experiences which would in reality be too rare or risky or harmful to be educational. But the teacher must be honest, as many are not, or it is mere propaganda based upon contrived circumstances. I write fiction with the intent of honesty, and stick to what I know to be true from much experience. But I am often disappointed with fiction that turns out, after several hours, to be propaganda. No doubt such writers feel that others should be dragged through a lifestyle or viewpoint until they sympathize, whereas I view nonfiction as the genre for such arguments.

  5. Fribbits
    February 18, 2015 at 18:27

    A quote from Mason Williams, an American composer…”Who needs the truth if it’s dull.” That said, the role of Walker and his ilk is to continue the dumbing down of America, the obvious pandering to the lowest common denominator has always been most palatable to the groundlings. I see little hope as the University of Texas at Austin actually considers Condaleeza Rice as its President.

  6. Zachary Smith
    February 18, 2015 at 15:54

    http://thinkprogress.org/education/2015/02/06/3619368/scott-walker-tries-fails-rewrite-universitys-mission-focus-workforce-needs/

    That’s evidence the college drop-out Walker was lying through his teeth about the “drafting error”.

    Human caused climate change and the theory of evolution by natural selection are not settled science but beliefs based on ideology.

    Consortium News is now being watched by the devout Deniers.

    There is a new post up at CLUBORLOV titled Extinct—Extincter—Extinctest. This isn’t a site I’ve bookmarked because I’ve found the author to be quite irritating at times – this story came to my attention from another place.

    http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2015/02/extinctextincterextinctest.html

    The USA is best characterized as a decomposing corpse of a nation lorded over by a tiny clique of oligarchs who control the herd by wielding Orwellian methods of mind control. So far gone is the populace that most of them think that things are just peachy—there is an economic recovery, don’t you know—but a few of them do realize that they all have lots of personal issues with things like violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and gluttony. But don’t call them a nation of violent, drug-abusing gluttons, because that would be insulting. In any case, you can’t call them anything, because they aren’t listening, for they are too busy fiddling with their electronic life support units to which they have become addicted. Thanks to Facebook and the like they are now so far inside Plato’s cave that even the shadows they see aren’t real: they are computer simulations of shadows of other computer simulations.

    I believe it’s fair to say Dmitry Orlov doesn’t have a very high opinion of the US as it is currently constituted. The psychotic Elites are living for now, and use their wealth-purchased influence to make sure the average American citizen continues to live in his Facebook/Twitter/texting cocoon. And of course to encourage the devout dummies to keep their chant of No No No.

    The consequences are going to be horrible. Already Big Empire is jumping on the Geoengineering bandwagon. Not only is it a chance to confuse the issue (Making No Changes In Our Lifestyle Is Manageable) but the prospects for vast profits are great. AND, there is also the chance to increase the Empire’s ability to raise hell with troublemakers.

    Second on the list is something called geoengineering. If you don’t know what it is, don’t worry; it’s largely a synonym for mental masturbation. The idea is that you fix things you don’t understand by using technologies that don’t exist. But given many humans’ irrational belief that every problem must have a technological solution, there is always some fool willing to throw money at it.

    Recall how the American Torture Program began with the pretense that our heroic psychologists were devising ways to combat the evil practices of China and North Korea and the USSR. After 65 years of well-funded research the Empire now has the finest torture program on the planet!

    Under the guise of developing Geoengineering to fight Global Warming, the American Empire can openly develop weather modification techniques. As the American West is learning, going for years without rain can really put a kink in your agriculture. What a weapon against the evildoers!

    But back to Orlov’s main point.

    3. The climate of Earth, our home planet, is, to put it as politely as possible, completely ******.

    My main disagreement is that Orlov’s statement is that it’s probably overly optimistic.

    IMO it’s going to get very bad, and much sooner than anyone presently imagines.

  7. LarryS
    February 18, 2015 at 14:09

    Human caused climate change and the theory of evolution by natural selection are not settled science but beliefs based on ideology. Science may be the search for truth but scientists are humans with agendas. Check your basic presuppositions.

    • Dr Rick
      February 18, 2015 at 17:01

      Tobacco caused lung cancer and the germ theory of infectious diseases are more “unsettled” science than either anthrogenic climate change or evolution. Check your basic elementary school science class.

    • MarkU
      February 18, 2015 at 19:55

      Re: “Human caused climate change and the theory of evolution by natural selection are not settled science but beliefs based on ideology.”

      And of course gravity is just a ‘theory’!

      Be careful you don’t just float away on your way to work tomorrow, it would be a huge loss to the intellectual life of the planet.

  8. mememine69
    February 18, 2015 at 14:03

    It’s been 34 years of debate preventing CO2 climate action; proving science is NOT certain enough to say so. Are they 95% sure the planet isn’t flat?

  9. Tom Welsh
    February 18, 2015 at 12:15

    Good article, and I agree with your main thrust. But why the gratuitous dismissal of Oliver Stone’s movies (in particular)? That seems out of place in an argument about the pursuit of truth. Do you suggest that Stone deliberately lied or hid the truth?

    • Zachary Smith
      February 18, 2015 at 15:13

      {I’m getting the ‘password’ BS again, so this may be a duplicate}

      Do you suggest that Stone deliberately lied or hid the truth?

      I don’t know Mr. Pillar’s thoughts on the matter, but I’d use the term “delusional”. Stone has constructed his own reality, and therefore is neither a liar nor a “truth-hider”.

      Fantasy worlds can be pleasant ones – for those who inhabit those places.

    • Tom SIEBERT
      February 18, 2015 at 20:27

      Exactly right. Stone is stirring the pot with a mixture of fact and fiction to get people to question the existing narrative set forth by The Permanent Establishment/The Deep State.

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