“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” These words are from the late Isaac Asimov, a writer who was also a professor at Boston University.
Facts and opinions are not necessarily equal companions. In our democratic republic, the need to implement critical-thinking skills to filter opinion from fact is fundamental to the survival to our system of government.
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, recently echoed claims that the attack on the Capitol was a peaceful pro-Trump rally until fake Trump supporters, perhaps Antifa members, made it violent. He likely knew better, but he also knew Trump supporters would swallow just about any narrative if it fit their political view.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor in Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s, had some colorful insights on perspectives like the one Johnson voiced. Bonhoeffer wrote: “Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of power. Against stupidity we are defenseless; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed, and when facts are irrefutable, they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one.”
Does truth still matter? In my research of the German Holocaust and surveys of Americans’ opinions on its tragic history, one-third of U.S. citizens don’t believe Hitler’s Third Reich slaughtered 6 million Jews.
As a history major in college, I am aware that even history and its facts are open to interpretation. But interpretation must be based on historical facts, not opinions. The Holocaust is a historical, factual reality and not open to ignorant interpretation.
There is the dangerous and mistaken idea that truth is no more than personal opinion, no more than what the majority of people think. But if the majority doesn’t base its opinion on sound facts and well-researched information, the outcome can be disastrous.
Jared Schroeder, an associate professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University, gives us a guide to seeking facts and truth:
• We must take a hard look at our information diets. We need to consume information that is gathered by trained journalists — those who research, report, verify and organize for audiences.
• We must go to reliable news sources for information. Often, the information we encounter on social media is not true. It’s intentionally incorrect or misleading or is used to confuse or inflame.
• We need a starting point of facts that we can build from. We must make a habit to read news from organizations that expend resources on reporters and reporting each day. Social media outlets are not good news sources.
• We need to devote time and resources to news literacy. The information environment has become exponentially complex in the past two decades. We have to become skeptical of pretty much everything we encounter online and to check fact-checking sites about information.
There is little doubt that the democracy we now know cannot continue if we become incapable of encouraging and recognizing truth and facts. We must always make room for all of us to interpret facts differently. But we must always remember opinions do not necessarily equal truth or facts.
As professor Schroeder wrote in concluding his article, “Democracy is worth it. The truth should matter.”
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