Friday, February 4, 2011

The Illusion of Truth

Not long ago there was a public service announcement running on TV warning us all that the polar bears were becoming extinct. Over a mournful soundtrack, a Hollywood celebrity (whose name escapes me at the moment) warned us, in the kind of voice usually reserved for delivering the news that the dog was hit by a car, that it’s only a matter of a couple of decades or so and these magnificent creatures will all be gone, primarily due to global warming. This is all accompanied by footage of the poor, cuddly creatures clinging to ice floes, swimming through icy waters, cubs frolicking with their mothers, and so on.

Now, I’m not here to argue the Global Warming issue, (and forget for the moment that polar bears spend a lot of their time in the water and on ice floes looking for seals to eat), but this was compelling stuff. Until the facts started to emerge: according to a 2008 report by the Western Institute for the Study of Environment, for example, “Canadian biologist Dr. Mitchell Taylor, the director of wildlife research with the Arctic government of Nunavut (says): ‘Of the 13 populations of polar bears in Canada, 11 are stable or increasing in number. They are not going extinct, or even appear to be affected at present… It is just silly to predict the demise of polar bears in 25 years based on media-assisted hysteria.’" And there’s more where that came from.

And so one day the heart-wrenching footage, the Hollywood voiceover and the mournful music just… disappeared. I haven’t seen that particular PSA in months. But for a long time people accepted what they were being told just because it was repeated over and over, not just on TV by a Famous Hollywood Actor, but in print and over wine and gluten-free snacks with concerned friends of the environment.

One of my latest favorite blogs is PsyBlog out of the UK, where one of their posts talks about the illusion of truth, the idea that something repeated again and again becomes the truth to people, because “what is familiar is also true. Familiar things require less effort to process and that feeling of ease unconsciously signals truth.”

All of which is by way of saying that, to me at least, it seems the illusion of truth has pervaded just about every area of our lives, from public policy (“You’re destroying the environment: stop using those light bulbs!”); to entertainment (any “reality series” you care to name – even I believe that half the stuff I see is “true”); to the way children and young people are being brought up and sent into the world.

I know of university students who have failed out of a given program, but feel they should be allowed a second (sometimes a third) chance to get it right. The policy is clearly stated in the student handbook, and yet students who fail routinely appeal their dismissal – often with Mom and Dad’s encouragement – on the grounds that they were, oh, I don’t know, going through an emotional time, they were suddenly beset with psoriasis, their beloved aunt went into the hospital on the day of the final exam… the excuses are too numerous to mention, and more often than not, despite recommendations to the contrary, these students are allowed back into the program, only to crash and burn again. And again.

But I suspect this kind of truth will not serve them well when they enter what’s known as the real world, the world where eventually you must deal with your problems and show up. Or else. In certain professions there is no second chance: I’d have been appalled if the doctor who performed my recent surgery had botched it up and told me it was because he was upset with his wife, who had gone over the limit on her Visa card at Nordstrom’s the day before, but if I’d agree to go under the knife again he’d be sure to get it right this time, hand-to-God, pinky-swear!

Likewise, children are not well-served, I think, by being told that everyone on the losing T-ball team is a winner, and here’s a trophy for everybody just for showing up! I have yet to be awarded a raise in pay just because I showed up – late, unbathed, doing a half-assed job, but I showed up: how’s an extra ten percent sound, Fred?

Increasingly it seems alternate truths are being dreamed up and repeated, by caring people, based on emotion and feelings rather than facts. Eventually we come to believe the illusion, and woe to you if you challenge the faux truth with those facts.

It makes my head hurt. It frustrates me and can make me angry. Which is why I’ve written this: I hope you’ll at least think about it.

And that’s the truth.

1 comment:

  1. This essay was well written and heartfelt, but of course you know of many posts on my own BLOG that disagree with the findings of the study you quoted. Glad we are good friends and can agree to disagree! Still, excellent writing.