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Truth or Consequences: The Stakes Couldn't be Higher

The truth is no game—neither for politicians nor for their constituents.

"Truth or Consequences" was a popular game show that was initially broadcast on the radio and subsequently on the television between 1940 and 1988. On the show, contestants had to correctly answer an especially esoteric trivia question within a couple of seconds.

Failure to answer the “Truth” portion of the quiz inevitably led to the “Consequences” portion—a rather wacky and mildly embarrassing caper, which contestants nevertheless endured with suitably good humor. They did, after all, benefit from having the extraordinary experience of being featured on a national broadcast.

Consequences profoundly affect our actions. B. F. Skinner famously attributed most of what we do to the results of our behavior: positive consequences strengthen prior actions and negative consequences weaken them. The Law of Effect—what Skinner himself dubbed selection by consequences—may indeed represent the most fundamental law of behavioral science, shaping our conduct to abide by those consequences.

Truth and consequences feature prominently in the national news, particularly in political affairs.

Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, announced on February 5 that he would vote to convict President Donald Trump of abuse of power. He surmised that casting this vote would be “enormously consequential” as he was likely to be the only Republican to vote for Trump’s ouster. “I knew from the outset that being tasked with judging the president, the leader of my own party, would be the most difficult decision I have ever faced. I was not wrong.”

Romney’s considerations were complex and weighty. “I’m aware that there are people in my party and in my state who will strenuously disapprove of my decision, and in some quarters I will be vehemently denounced. I’m sure to hear abuse from the president and his supporters. Does anyone seriously believe that I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?”

In making his final decision, the Senator from Utah found notable strength from a hymn containing the words: “Do what is right; let the consequence follow.” As he had expected, Romney was swiftly and severely condemned. But he was also greeted with an outpouring of respect and admiration for his courageous call.

Quiz shows notwithstanding, the truth is no game—neither for politicians nor for their constituents. Whether making policy decisions or filing tax returns, we are all admonished to tell the truth.

But what is the truth? Is it ever pure and totally unalloyed? Or do beliefs and biases inevitably shade the truth? These are vexing questions, which seem to have become increasingly difficult to answer in the internet and social media age.

The defendant in the Senate’s impeachment trial, Donald Trump, has long endorsed the use of exaggeration in his business dealings. “I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration, and a very effective form of promotion.”

When it comes to politics, self-promotion is indubitably the name of the game. Here, perhaps, Trump has taken truthful hyperbole well beyond its “innocent” limits. Having made over 16,000 false or misleading claims since assuming office, Trump’s rate of exaggeration has not abated despite expressions of concern and criticism from many of his own supporters; indeed, statistics indicate that it has actually accelerated. Censure is clearly not punishing Trump’s untruthful utterances; if anything, it seems to be reinforcing them, thereby representing a most curious case of unintended consequences!

Writing in the New Yorker (“After the Fact,” March 21, 2016), Harvard University historian Jill Lepore asked how we might go about establishing what is “true”? This turns out to be a matter which science repeatedly confronts.

Consider the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov’s groundbreaking research with dogs—widely considered one of the best testimonials to the power of the scientific method. Pavlov noticed that his dogs salivated at the sight of food, at the assistant who brought the food, and even at the sound of the assistant’s distant footsteps.

Initially unable to understand the dogs’ reactions to stimuli which merely signaled food delivery, Pavlov first turned to introspection; however, this maneuver proved fruitless. Pavlov then later embraced the methods of natural science. He posed these three questions: Can I see it? Can I measure it? Can I repeat my results? Pavlov’s approach to answering these questions through systematic empirical research led to his discovery and explanation of the conditioned reflex, thereby revolutionizing science.

Perhaps these same questions would be a good place for us to begin when searching for truth in what has unflatteringly been termed the “post-truth” age. Pursuing truth through science may sometimes seem slow and stumbling. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that we should place much greater stock in science converging on important truths than either politics and jurisprudence doing so—politics possibly leading us to reject climate change and jurisprudence possibly leading us to reject evolution. Rejecting those truths would be extraordinarily consequential and dangerous.

References

Skinner, B. F. (1981). Selection by consequences. Science, 213:501-4.

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