A Provisional Anatomy of Truth

We frequently criticize MSM journalists for distorting the truth. But what is "truth"?

When Pilate asked that question, he was probably being ironic and didn't expect an answer.  But philosophers have written piles of impenetrable books attempting to answer him.  So far, there has been no consensus -- perhaps because we have been arguing about different types of "truth."

As in Dante's Inferno, "truth" can be divided into nine levels of ever-increasing deviation from "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."  To use an artistic analogy, the topmost level 1 corresponds to the real subject, level 2 to a photograph, level 3 to a painting, and so on until the bottom levels, which correspond to cartoons or vicious caricatures.

1. The highest level, "truth-1," would be a complete and absolute comprehension of the reality of any object -- which (because of the connectedness of all things) would require an absolute comprehension of the universe.  It is plausible to assume that this could be provided only by the Maker of the universe.  Some of us believe that Pilate asked the right person, but, unfortunately, the occasion did not allow time for a full answer -- which Pilate (or we) could not have comprehended anyway.  Therefore, we must reluctantly abandon our quest for truth-1 in this life.

2. Far below lies truth-2: the sum total of all the observations and experience that we acquire in the course of our lives.  Unfortunately, there are as many truth-2s as there are observers.  If a ring of people stands around a statue, each will see only part of it, and each will see something different.  We tend to be like the blind men touching the elephant in the old story -- each feeling a small part of the elephant and thinking it to be the whole truth.  Therefore, we strive to pool our observations into a collective truth-2 by literature, media, and personal communication.

3. Even truth-2 is an ideal, seldom if ever achieved in this world.  At best, we attain truth-3: observations distorted by inadvertent human error, such as misperception, acceptance of fallacies [1], faulty transcription, fallibility of memory, and the practical impossibility of completely studying and digesting any topic.  Moreover, these frailties hinder our efforts to collectively pool our shares of truth-3.  As anyone who has ever played the game of Gossip knows, such sharing is always prone to errors in communication and mutual misunderstanding.

4. The next lower level, truth-4, is the attempt to organize and digest our share of truth-3 into a concise summary, which scientists and sociologists like to call a "theory" or "law of nature." And here we come to a paradox. We tend to think of a truth-4 theory as somehow superior to the raw information of truth-3 -- as a distillation of that data into something nobler and closer to truth-1.  In practice, it is merely an attempt to organize the data of truth-3 into something simpler and more comprehensible, which is a different matter altogether.

The fact that a theory is "elegant" or "neat" is irrelevant.  We have no reason to expect that the reality of truth-1 has such properties; we simply happen to prefer them.  The only real value of a theory is its ability to predict the results of future observations -- and sooner or later, it fails to do so and must be replaced with something that more closely conforms to the available data.  Thus, early 20th-century results in astronomy and physics forced us to modify Newton's laws of motion with the theory of relativity.  Therefore, one should place the theories of truth-4 below the raw data of truth-3.

5. But alas, there are even lower levels, in which truth is diluted and distorted [2].  The least culpable of these is truth-5, the natural human tendency to laziness and haste, often exacerbated by shortages of funding and the pressure of deadlines.  This is the most excusable reason that journalists have for failing to verify their sources or search for contrary evidence.

6. Descending farther into the infernal mists of falsehood, we come to truth-6: the partial blindness induced by prejudice, obsession, ideology, or self-interest.  We become vulnerable to this dishonesty by avoiding sources that hold views contrary to our own.  (When did you last read the Huffington Post?)  A psychological ophthalmologist would probably describe these as the mental equivalents of blind spots, glaucoma, or macular degeneration.  An ethicist would retort that they are simply a yielding to the temptation to see only what we want to see.  And some psychologists have recently claimed that this tendency is wired into our brains.  Therefore, the culpability of this level is obscure and best left unjudged.

7. However, at some point, we cross the border of honesty into truth-7: the deliberate omission of facts that contradict one's viewpoint.  They are dismissed as "irrelevant," "insignificant," or "not news" [3].  A typical example was the suppression, by the wire services and U.S. media, of news about the Oslo study of the psychological effects of abortion.  This level also includes fallacies of omission, such as the false dilemma of assuming that capitalism and socialism are the only possible social systems.

8. The next level, not so much lower than truth-7 as parallel to it,  is the calculated verbal distortion of the truth by what rhetoricians call "persuasion."  This includes the use of elements of bias such as verbal coloring ("Notre Dame smashed Stanford 27-26"), informal fallacies such as red herrings and false comparisons, and the techniques for emotional button-pushing and misrepresenting facts which are the stock-in-trade of many MSM journalists.

9. Finally, we reach the bottom level of truth-9: deliberate falsification of data and the fabrication of lies.  Here, all pretense of truth-telling has been thrown aside, and the perpetrator knows perfectly well that he is lying.  This frees him to exercise his ingenuity by creating elaborate fabrications or constructing cunning devices such as the "TLT sandwich," in which a lie is inserted into a list of accepted truths, like a terrorist hiding in the midst of a group of veiled Arab women.  The level 9 liar may even try to justify himself by the assertion that he is lying for a good cause [4].

To return to the analogy to Dante's Divine Comedy: level 1 is equivalent to paradise, levels 2 through 6 resemble purgatory and imply the capacity for purification, and levels 7 through 9 are malicious and belong to hell.  For most of us, hopefully at level 4 or 5, the ascent to higher levels is slow and arduous, while the descent to lower levels is temptingly easy -- as anyone who has ever written a political article must admit.

Therefore, when we listen to journalists or politicians summing up the state of the world in a few catchy slogans, we can emulate Dante by assigning them to various levels of the falsehood inferno.  For all his faults, I doubt if Richard Cohen has ever descended below level 6.  In contrast, Maureen Dowd is firmly established in level 8, and James Poniewozik seems to have proclaimed that he is willing to go down to level 9.  But to what level should we assign Frank Rich or Nicholas Kristoff -- or our own favorite journalists?  And to what level must one sink nowadays to campaign for high public office?


[1] I have placed fallacies at this early level because the range of logical and informal fallacies, and their degree of culpability, extends through levels 4 through 9.  To those brave enough to explore the jungle of fallacies, I recommend these sites and this diagram.

[2] One might object that the levels that follow are not so much levels of increasing deviation from the truth as progressive levels of the moral deterioration of the author.  I wouldn't disagree, but so far, I have been unable to find a more accurate classification.

[3] Ironically, Noam Chomsky provided a detailed view of how editors train journalists to exercise this kind of bias, not realizing that it exposed the methods used for the liberalization of MSM.

[4] In describing this level of falsehood, I am indebted to Bertolt Brecht's essay "Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties," which is an inadvertent exposé of techniques for distorting and perverting the truth for ideological purposes.

We frequently criticize MSM journalists for distorting the truth. But what is "truth"?

When Pilate asked that question, he was probably being ironic and didn't expect an answer.  But philosophers have written piles of impenetrable books attempting to answer him.  So far, there has been no consensus -- perhaps because we have been arguing about different types of "truth."

As in Dante's Inferno, "truth" can be divided into nine levels of ever-increasing deviation from "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."  To use an artistic analogy, the topmost level 1 corresponds to the real subject, level 2 to a photograph, level 3 to a painting, and so on until the bottom levels, which correspond to cartoons or vicious caricatures.

1. The highest level, "truth-1," would be a complete and absolute comprehension of the reality of any object -- which (because of the connectedness of all things) would require an absolute comprehension of the universe.  It is plausible to assume that this could be provided only by the Maker of the universe.  Some of us believe that Pilate asked the right person, but, unfortunately, the occasion did not allow time for a full answer -- which Pilate (or we) could not have comprehended anyway.  Therefore, we must reluctantly abandon our quest for truth-1 in this life.

2. Far below lies truth-2: the sum total of all the observations and experience that we acquire in the course of our lives.  Unfortunately, there are as many truth-2s as there are observers.  If a ring of people stands around a statue, each will see only part of it, and each will see something different.  We tend to be like the blind men touching the elephant in the old story -- each feeling a small part of the elephant and thinking it to be the whole truth.  Therefore, we strive to pool our observations into a collective truth-2 by literature, media, and personal communication.

3. Even truth-2 is an ideal, seldom if ever achieved in this world.  At best, we attain truth-3: observations distorted by inadvertent human error, such as misperception, acceptance of fallacies [1], faulty transcription, fallibility of memory, and the practical impossibility of completely studying and digesting any topic.  Moreover, these frailties hinder our efforts to collectively pool our shares of truth-3.  As anyone who has ever played the game of Gossip knows, such sharing is always prone to errors in communication and mutual misunderstanding.

4. The next lower level, truth-4, is the attempt to organize and digest our share of truth-3 into a concise summary, which scientists and sociologists like to call a "theory" or "law of nature." And here we come to a paradox. We tend to think of a truth-4 theory as somehow superior to the raw information of truth-3 -- as a distillation of that data into something nobler and closer to truth-1.  In practice, it is merely an attempt to organize the data of truth-3 into something simpler and more comprehensible, which is a different matter altogether.

The fact that a theory is "elegant" or "neat" is irrelevant.  We have no reason to expect that the reality of truth-1 has such properties; we simply happen to prefer them.  The only real value of a theory is its ability to predict the results of future observations -- and sooner or later, it fails to do so and must be replaced with something that more closely conforms to the available data.  Thus, early 20th-century results in astronomy and physics forced us to modify Newton's laws of motion with the theory of relativity.  Therefore, one should place the theories of truth-4 below the raw data of truth-3.

5. But alas, there are even lower levels, in which truth is diluted and distorted [2].  The least culpable of these is truth-5, the natural human tendency to laziness and haste, often exacerbated by shortages of funding and the pressure of deadlines.  This is the most excusable reason that journalists have for failing to verify their sources or search for contrary evidence.

6. Descending farther into the infernal mists of falsehood, we come to truth-6: the partial blindness induced by prejudice, obsession, ideology, or self-interest.  We become vulnerable to this dishonesty by avoiding sources that hold views contrary to our own.  (When did you last read the Huffington Post?)  A psychological ophthalmologist would probably describe these as the mental equivalents of blind spots, glaucoma, or macular degeneration.  An ethicist would retort that they are simply a yielding to the temptation to see only what we want to see.  And some psychologists have recently claimed that this tendency is wired into our brains.  Therefore, the culpability of this level is obscure and best left unjudged.

7. However, at some point, we cross the border of honesty into truth-7: the deliberate omission of facts that contradict one's viewpoint.  They are dismissed as "irrelevant," "insignificant," or "not news" [3].  A typical example was the suppression, by the wire services and U.S. media, of news about the Oslo study of the psychological effects of abortion.  This level also includes fallacies of omission, such as the false dilemma of assuming that capitalism and socialism are the only possible social systems.

8. The next level, not so much lower than truth-7 as parallel to it,  is the calculated verbal distortion of the truth by what rhetoricians call "persuasion."  This includes the use of elements of bias such as verbal coloring ("Notre Dame smashed Stanford 27-26"), informal fallacies such as red herrings and false comparisons, and the techniques for emotional button-pushing and misrepresenting facts which are the stock-in-trade of many MSM journalists.

9. Finally, we reach the bottom level of truth-9: deliberate falsification of data and the fabrication of lies.  Here, all pretense of truth-telling has been thrown aside, and the perpetrator knows perfectly well that he is lying.  This frees him to exercise his ingenuity by creating elaborate fabrications or constructing cunning devices such as the "TLT sandwich," in which a lie is inserted into a list of accepted truths, like a terrorist hiding in the midst of a group of veiled Arab women.  The level 9 liar may even try to justify himself by the assertion that he is lying for a good cause [4].

To return to the analogy to Dante's Divine Comedy: level 1 is equivalent to paradise, levels 2 through 6 resemble purgatory and imply the capacity for purification, and levels 7 through 9 are malicious and belong to hell.  For most of us, hopefully at level 4 or 5, the ascent to higher levels is slow and arduous, while the descent to lower levels is temptingly easy -- as anyone who has ever written a political article must admit.

Therefore, when we listen to journalists or politicians summing up the state of the world in a few catchy slogans, we can emulate Dante by assigning them to various levels of the falsehood inferno.  For all his faults, I doubt if Richard Cohen has ever descended below level 6.  In contrast, Maureen Dowd is firmly established in level 8, and James Poniewozik seems to have proclaimed that he is willing to go down to level 9.  But to what level should we assign Frank Rich or Nicholas Kristoff -- or our own favorite journalists?  And to what level must one sink nowadays to campaign for high public office?


[1] I have placed fallacies at this early level because the range of logical and informal fallacies, and their degree of culpability, extends through levels 4 through 9.  To those brave enough to explore the jungle of fallacies, I recommend these sites and this diagram.

[2] One might object that the levels that follow are not so much levels of increasing deviation from the truth as progressive levels of the moral deterioration of the author.  I wouldn't disagree, but so far, I have been unable to find a more accurate classification.

[3] Ironically, Noam Chomsky provided a detailed view of how editors train journalists to exercise this kind of bias, not realizing that it exposed the methods used for the liberalization of MSM.

[4] In describing this level of falsehood, I am indebted to Bertolt Brecht's essay "Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties," which is an inadvertent exposé of techniques for distorting and perverting the truth for ideological purposes.