Commentary: Why are Americans having difficulty knowing what’s true?

America is facing many complex and challenging problems. The well-being of our democracy depends upon our being able to address these issues in a thoughtful and constructive manner.

Currently, there is a high level of polarization and distrust, making any progress difficult, if not impossible. A primary reason for this is a very real disagreement about what the facts are on any given situation. Many of these issues are complex and multifaceted and there are certainly honest differences of opinion on their optimal solution. We are all free to believe whatever we choose, but that doesn’t change the facts. However, we can surely all agree that there are certain facts or “truths” about any given issue and without addressing them it is virtually impossible to come to a good solution.

Why, then, are Americans having so much difficulty knowing what is true? There are several ways in which we may become confused or mislead regarding the truth. First, and most obviously, we are told an outright lie and choose to believe it. This may be a deliberate attempt to mislead or confuse us or to cover-up something. At other times it may be a simple mistake, based upon bad information or judgement. Such misinformation may gain power in the form of conspiracy theories.

Secondly, bias may serve to blur the truth. A house or anything else will look very different depending upon your perspective. There are many legitimate facts base upon looking at any of these problems from one perspective and very different facts when looking at the same problem from a different point of view. Coming to a wise solution depends upon looking at a problem from all directions and weighing the pros and cons of all the facts. A used car salesman may try to persuade you by emphasizing a car’s fine features and not disclosing some mechanical problems. He hasn’t lied to you, but you’ve certainly been misled by omission.

There also is the issue of prejudice, which literally means “to pre-judge.” We must all be willing to accept that we have certain prejudices that distort how we process any information. The old adage “what you see is what you believe before you look” applies to some degree to each of us and requires a deliberate effort to look beyond our prejudices and seek the truth.

Finally, it is very difficult for any of us to admit that we are wrong. As Mark Twain said, “It’s easier to fool a man than to convince him that he’s been fooled.” This makes it easy to become locked into a position without fully understanding the issues.

Truth does indeed matter, and a healthy democracy demands that its citizens all make a concerted effort to uncover the truth, particularly now when there is so much confusion about what’s actually true. How are we to know what’s true? One clear place to start is awareness of a source’s bias. There are news sources with clear biases providing one point of view, but not another, such as FOX or MSNBC. They may each present the “truth” as they see it, but you’ll need to listen to both to have a full understanding of the whole truth. We all prefer to listen to those who support our own prejudices and opinions, but we’d all benefit from a better understanding of other points of view.

It should be clear to everyone by now that social media is not a reliable source of factual news. There is often a great deal of propaganda and conspiracy theory mixed in with legitimate information making it an extremely poor source. If you see something on Facebook, Twitter, etc. you need to check it out before accepting it as fact. Despite all the claims of “fake news,” the Associated Press and journalists with national broadcasters and newspapers are ethically required to check any story for accuracy before reporting it as fact, though each source may also have its own bias. Be alert, though, of confusing news with opinion or editorials. For example, Mike Wallace on Fox presents “the news,” but Sean Hannity, who has promoted several conspiracy theories, offers his opinions on the news. There’s a big difference!

To truly make America great, we must all strive to understand the issues facing us as honestly as we can and then be willing to debate, argue and ultimately come to some compromise agreement, based upon facts, on solutions to those problems. We must also demand that our elected leaders do the same and actually lead by demonstrating this behavior among themselves.

Dr. Nathaniel Kirkland is a resident of Edinburg.