Leadership, above all, is acknowledging reality. When politicians play fast and loose with facts, they immediately disqualify themselves from public service.
When Apollo 15 landed on the moon, astronaut Dave Scott, paying homage to Galileo Galilei, dropped a hammer and falcon feather to test whether objects in free fall accelerate from gravity independent of mass. In a near-zero atmosphere, as Galileo predicted in the 17th century, they did, hitting the lunar surface at the same instant. Years ago, a forgery of “Sidereus Nuncius” deceived the world’s foremost bibliophiles. Galileo wrote the astronomical treatise in 1610, using his newly invented telescope to describe features of the moon, craters and mares, never before seen. His iconic sketches of those observations are among the most famous ever printed. The faked copy commanded a fortune before the deception was finally revealed. Europe was outraged. Here, we take “truth decay” for granted.
John Stuart Mill considered free speech essential to verifying facts, a way to evaluate differing opinions. Even when saints were canonized, Mill noted, the church admitted and listened to “devils advocates.” Confrontations between fact and fiction only work, however, when strict evidentiary rules, such as the scientific method, determine reasonable doubt and corroborative standards.
The right to freedom of speech isn’t a license to deceive or perpetuate opinions proved wrong. Bees by comparison, rigorously adhere to the facts. They’re incorruptible and incapable of lying. Scouts will “waggle dance” information to their colonies with absolute accuracy about sites for food or relocating the hive. When other bees similarly reconnoiter, making their own cases for alternatives, fact-checkers go out to verify each claim. Once one bee’s recommendation is supported by consensus best for the hive, dissenting displays are ignored. Bee societies collectively evaluate the evidence, choose the better option and dispense with unnecessary divisiveness.
Were the same standards applied to human discourse, we’d have freed ourselves by now of creationists, climate change deniers, COVID-19 super spreaders and hunters. Freedom of speech, separated from its essential principles of veracity, can quickly devolve into chaos.
Neither grounded in reality nor burdens of proof, election fraud fallacies damage our democracy. When identity and winning matter more than the truth, lies go unchallenged, and disinformation exacerbates problems. That the same Americans, who balk at science, now question integrities of vote counts is farcical, assuring two-party suspicions and resentments destroying this country persist.
I once believed an all-encompassing crisis could unify this nation. Multiple crises have proven me wrong.
Amidst continuous disasters related to climate change, the pandemic, social disparities, 30 million Americans made jobless from SARS-CoV-2 (12 million of whom lost health insurance), the cultural divide is deeper than ever and likely irreparable. Media outlets and elected officials seem intent on validating falsehoods.
Both houses of congress are compositionally deadlocked. No single party or ideology represents a majority, and 71 million conservatives voted for Trump. The out-going administration, unsatisfied with that turmoil, is leasing tracts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas, discussing military provocations against Iran, withholding security briefings from Biden and refusing to extend the New START nuclear treaty with Russia.
“My name is Ozymandias…Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Sometimes, there’s comfort in impermanence.
Scott Deshefy is two-time Green Party congressional candidate.