Truth and Lies…What to Do?

OK, so I’m listening to NPR this morning, and there’s a news item about the United States and Poland signing an agreement to place a missile defense system in that country. Secretary of State Rice makes a big point of arguing that the Russians have nothing to worry about, that the missiles are “not aimed at anyone.” Now, either Rice is not the sharpest knife in the drawer (which I don’t believe), or she is, how to put it, lying. But it’s a lie that most understand is a “diplomatic” lie. Those “in the know” understand that Russia indeed has something to be worried about. My point here is not with Rice, Poland, Russia or the particular matter (i.e., whether the U.S. should or shouldn’t base a missile defense system in Poland), but rather with the issue of “acceptable” lying and what it means for us in the classroom. How do we teach about the importance of “truth” (understood as an accurate representation of reality) in the classroom when the vast majority of political leaders engage in continual lying? This is, I suggest, a problem both when we think of those who don’t know that they have just been fed a lie (e.g., there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda;  Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks; the U.S. would never engage in torture; the earth is 6,000 years old, etc.) and for those who know that these are lies…but a part of political convention; it’s “what politicians do,” so don’t get stressed. But why bother with “truth” in the classroom if truth doesn’t matter? This, of course, is hardly a new question, but it is an increasingly important one to the extent that the proliferation of viral news can spread lies so much more quickly than the rumor mill used to spread stories about spider eggs inside of Bubble Yum. What do you think?

Steve Volk

3 thoughts on “Truth and Lies…What to Do?

  1. Sebastiaan Faber

    A thought on a related issue by Harry Collins, lifted from Andrew Sullivan’s blog, Sep 6, 2008:

    The End Of Expertise?

    06 Sep 2008 04:38 pm

    A bit from an interview by Harry Collins author of Rethinking Expertise:

    I would say that the danger to democracy that my own discipline—social studies of science—is not doing enough to combat is the collapse of the idea of expertise. Current social studies of science has difficulty with the notion of expertise. The attitude that anyone’s opinion on any topic is equally valuable could spread, and there are some indications, such as widespread vaccine scares, that suggest it is happening. A world in which there is said to be no difference between those who know what they are talking about and those who don’t is not one that anyone who thinks about it wants. Such a society would be like one’s worst nightmare, exhibiting many of the characteristics of the most vile epochs of human history.

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