On Facts, Truths and Nicki Minaj

Photo credit: The New York Times

So there’s such a thing as “truth”, and there is such a thing as “fact”. And it turns out they are different things. How they are different is important. Especially re: now. Especially re: Facebook. And especially re: living in America — the republic, not the beer.

A fact is objective. A fact is verifiable. Fire, for example, is hot. So is Nicki Minaj. These are facts. Truths, on the other hand, are comprised of verifiable facts. All facts are true, but not all truths are facts. “Nicki Minaj is a cartoon wrestler” is a truth to me, and it contains at least one verifiable fact to you.

But humans these days don’t tend to scroll Facebook for facts, whether about Nicki Minaj or otherwise; they tend to scroll Facebook to find a version of the truth, i.e., to verify a previously held view which may contain some facts. That’s not a scroll for knowledge; that’s a scroll for an external authoritative source to justify your beliefs. That turns the search for truth into the search for a feeling of certainty. Not the same thing.

Hence why everyone’s so hot and buttered over the Facebook Trending Topics kerfuffle: it makes us confront our reliance on external authoritative sources — whether those sources are human or algorithmic, and whether those sources are media companies or Facebook itself.

Put this in the context of the uncertain now. Trust in the media is at an all-time low. Americans must be asking: if we can’t even rely on Facebook — the tool that helps us confirm our biases — who can we trust anymore?

Pull yourself up by your Fitbits, the answer is ourselves. Here’s a wild, out-in-left-Fenway idea: maybe Americans’ distrust of the media is a good thing. Maybe that distrust is a sign that we’re beginning to search for a better criterion for reality that filter bubbles and clickbait don’t provide. After all, research has shown that social media’s net effect on ideological segregation is relatively modest.

They say that freedom of the press is vital for a functioning democracy, but the scale and pace of information change that premise. In a world of atomized news — where information is disassociated from every context except for “now” — what’s equally vital is the ability to synthesize partial information and come to informed conclusions. To combine facts and seek ever-better explanations for how the world works. In pocket protector circles, they call that search the scientific method. What we need today is a scientific method of understanding the press. Until then, #NickiMinajforPresident.

Originally published in Dicks & Betties: the soylent email made out of people

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