Do we want ‘truth’ or ‘truthiness’?

I’ve written about Howard Gardner before, and I regard his Frames of Mind. The Theory of Multiple Intelligences as the most important book I ever read. He has written many other important books, too, and his recent focus is on ‘truth, beauty and goodness’, which he fears are largely absent from our curriculum. A colleague passed on a reference to a speech Gardner gave recently at Harvard, where he works, and that set me on the track of a word I have seen once or twice, but without knowing quite what it meant — ‘truthiness’.

Gardner argues that it is hard to know any more whether or not what we are hearing or even seeing is accurate, or truthful, given the rapid progress of information technology. Not only that, there is a postmodern axiom that truth is relative — it all depends on who you are and where you are situated. He says we should go beyond the notion that there’s a fixed body of truths located in books or in Wikipedia entries anywhere, and focus instead on when somebody makes a statement, on what basis did they make that statement; what was the evidence?

This is not at all easy in the worlds of politics, economics and climate change, to pick three which appear on this website a lot, and Gardner asks us to persevere:  it’s much better to continue to strive to figure out what’s going on, knowing that you may not be completely successful, than to give up and say ‘It’s all noise, it’s all power, it’s not even worth the effort to find out’. 

Gardner used ‘truthiness’ in the title of his most recent book, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Age of Truthiness and Twitter, which I have not read. But I felt I ought to find out about the word.

It’s not a coinage (it’s an archaic form of ‘truthfulness’), but it was given a new twist ten years ago by an American TV comedian, Stephen Colbert. He defined it to mean ‘the truth we want to exist’. He elaborated: I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?…Truthiness is ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.

Colbert had particularly in mind the then President, George W. Bush, but it seems to me to apply quite as well to President Obama — indeed it applies generally to political leaders, whose task is to simplify issues so that they resonate with us, but in doing so they unavoidably (and often consciously, I am sure) engage in truthiness. The Wikipedia article on the word that I used for this essay provides an excellent political example.

[They] keep repeating the same lies over and over not just to smear their opponents and not just to mask their own record. Their larger aim is to construct a bogus alternative reality so relentless it can overwhelm any haphazard journalistic stabs at puncturing it.

No, it’s not from Australian politics, though it would apply equally to both sides of Australian politics in the last federal election campaign. It’s about what happened in the Republican primaries in 2007. It is also, of course, what Winston Smith describes as the work of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984.

Here’s another definition, from an MP in Canada’s House of Commons: something that is spoken as if true that one wants others to believe is true, that said often enough with enough voices orchestrated in behind it, might even sound true, but is not true.

‘Truthiness’ got to be the Word of the Year in 2006 from two American sources, and I think it’s on its way back. The announcement that 2014 was the hottest year ever is a good illustration, and it accords well with the examples above: it was said to be so again and again, and those who said it plainly wanted it to be true, but it wasn’t — or, perhaps more accurately, the data do not support such a confident assertion.

In fact, it seems to me that the whole global warming/’climate change’ issue, as I’ve seen it over the last ten years, is becoming a great example of  a bogus alternative reality so relentless it can overwhelm any haphazard journalistic stabs at puncturing it. Alas, there have been pitifully few such journalistic stabs until very recently.

I read a piece in The Conversation a morning or two ago about sceptics and ‘climate change’. The Editor’s note at the beginning ran like this: It often seems that arguing with climate sceptics is utterly fruitless. This is because their beliefs are influenced by more than just facts. Rather, their beliefs form the basis of their social identity. That’s why they defend their views so vigorously, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. The thing is, even those who believe in anthropogenic climate change tend to do the same thing, thus creating an “us” and “them” mentality that only polarises debate. 

Now while I appreciate the editor’s acceptance that believers are like that, I guess that in his terms I must be a ‘climate sceptic’. But I don’t have ‘beliefs’ about climate; rather, and as with other important issues, I try to find and deal with the ‘facts’, working towards the ‘truth’. The latter still eludes me, though I think I am closer to it than I was ten years ago. I don’t have beliefs about climate change, to repeat, and therefore my social identity isn’t constructed around them. Indeed, most people I know are unaware of what I think about global warming, unless, ignoring the kick on the ankle from my wife at a dinner party, I am impolite enough to say something about it.

And I am unaware of any overwhelming evidence, against which views should be tested. There’s lots of data, lots of information, and lots of argument, but none of it is ‘overwhelming’.

Nonetheless, as with the editor’s note, if you go into the articles and comments on many of the essays at The Conversation, you’ll find an abundance of ‘truthiness’ — authors quite sure of themselves, and commenters who plainly feel that if you say something again and again, and are scornful of anyone who disagrees with you, you have upheld your position against the enemy, and protected the truth.

I think it’s ‘truthiness’, not the truth, and I wish there were vastly less of it.





Join the discussion 25 Comments

  • Margaret says:

    I think we just want truthfulness Don. The individual’s interpretation of “truth” is their honesty. If someone is being honest I will read what they write (not the statistical details as I failed weather map reading years ago). Truth and truthiness are nebulous concepts in the modern world but being true to oneself takes self awareness about how your own mind is thinking. Colbert and Gardner are two unique examples of truthful thinking, observing and reporting. I like them both.

    • Peter Kemmis says:

      Hi Margaret

      I think there is a real distinction between intention and fact, between what we genuinely think may be so, and what is so. I can respect someone for their personal integrity, while not accepting what they think is the real situation. But the challenge is to determine that level of honesty anyway, and I’ve been fooled many a time.

      As do you, I pay attention in the first instance to the quality of intention, but quality of the substance is quite critical. I might not like my doctor, I may think he’s just in there for a quid, but if his diagnosis and treatment is sound, that’s what I’ll go with.

      • margaret says:

        Hi Peter
        Doctors have to compete for their authority with Dr Google now and they know this but I agree with you about the critical attention to one’s particular health problem – Doctor He/She may be not the type of personality you relate to but if Dr S/He is on the ball with your diagnosis and treatment it’s of no consequence at all.

        However I never, ever, think of the medical profession as being in there for a quid.
        Also, Truthiness seems very different from Truthfulness to me. The first sounds phoney for a start although Don states that it’s an archaic form of the latter. The latter sounds honest. If I’m Truthful I do recognise that I believe opinions expressed that are more in line with mine seem to be the Truth but I’m not close-minded and I’m curious enough to listen to and try to understand the arguments around AGW even though the highly scientific details provided by experts will not lead to my further enlightenment.

  • Aert Driessen says:

    Don, can I take you up on your third-last para. If you have sound data that show that CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was some 15 times higher than today (400 ppmv) and has been declining ever since, so that CO2 levels during many and long ice ages were many times higher than now, and that ice core data show that ocean temperatures move before CO2 concentration changes (in other words warming leads to higher CO2 instead of CO2 causing warming), and the atmosphere of Mars is 95% (yes, percent, not ppm) CO2 and it’s freezing cold there at night, does that not constitute overwhelming evidence that the hypothesis that ‘CO2 cause dangerous global warming’ is false? Aert Driessen

  • PeterE says:

    The search for the truth should be open and honest, not point-scoring or mere personal opinion. Where a statement has been made, you must say ‘I understand in full what you have said, including the finer details’ before seeking to criticise it. If you cannot show where the author is uninformed, or misinformed, or illogical, or incomplete in his argument, then (at least for the moment) you must agree with him. In relation to catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, the proponents have not made a case for a warming catastrophe and indeed it is ice ages that have caused the catastrophes of the past. Nor have they demonstrated that the globe has warmed much in relation to a broader geological time scale. Finally, they have not even shown that such minute warming as has been observed in recent times is caused by man. These are truths, this is knowledge but many are not prepared to play by the rules outlined above (drawn from ‘How to Read a Book’ by Adler and Van Doren). I conclude that truthiness is preferred to truth by the great unwashed majority.

  • David says:

    “And I am unaware of any overwhelming evidence, against which views should be tested. There’s lots of data, lots of information, and lots of argument, but none of it is ‘overwhelming’”

    Nice to see you have back pedaled from your “there must be certainty schtick” to something a little less absolute.

    But the “overwhelming evidence” criteria cuts both ways. As I have mentioned before your wait-and-see stance is based on exactly the same level of uncertain scientific evidence as my let’s have a carbon price approach. There is no opting out of the bet.

    You often like to assume a position, whereby you claim that you need to be convinced of the AGW hypothesis, like you are still the Chairman of the ARC tyre kicking a grant application. This whole process of community debate is going to be a lot more egalitarian than that.

    • Dasher says:

      David, your “lets just do something” approach worries me. I have lost count of the number of tipping points (the point at which no amount of action will avert a downward spiral into oblivion) that pass without comment. Interestingly these “milestones” never result in a pause for reflection, the usual suspects crash on to next apocalyptic prediction, nothing tempers their zealotry or “thruthiness”. I understand that the climate is changing, but I don’t know if it presents a danger to our planet any time soon, nor am i convinced that spending obscene amounts of money on local carbon taxes and wind and solar farms will make the slightest difference to the climate. Could we not spend this money better on research on say nuclear fusion? Even a massive expenditure on conventional nuclear power might buy us time to get the response right if we needed to. I can never understand how, when faced with the risk of oblivion so many seem to think that nuclear power with a near impeccable record of safety is an unacceptable option. Sigh!

      • David says:

        Could we not spend this money better on research on say nuclear fusion?

        I do like this idea.

      • David says:

        For the record, I don’t think AGW implies oblivion. But I do think it requires a measured response. From my point of view I cant understand the hysteria of those who object to a carbon tax that costs about $8 billion per year. That’s about 2% of total tax receipts. If govt was to get its way and put a GST on food, health and education that would cost the community close to $15 to 20 billion.

        • Dasher says:

          David. The problem is it does not make the slightest difference to the problem you are trying to solve…all pain no gain.

          • David says:

            Those sorts of arguments could also be used against research in fusion. What gain would there be if the rest of world continued to use coal?

          • Dasher says:

            The world will continue to use coal for a long time yet. The notion by the Greens that coal has tanked is a truthiness!. India and China alone will ensure that it is around for a long time yet. The point is that spending massive amounts of money on feel good remedies is wasted effort. As Bjorn Lomborg (Google him) points out, unless low emission solutions are affordable and available to the third world things will not change much. For all the hype and massive sunk costs we have not changed the trajectory of climate change one tick. Of course we need solutions that provide continuous and abundant power for industry. Much of the european effort has simply transferred their emissions to China. A global view is critical. So my point is investment on say, BUT NOT LIMITED TO (sorry to shout), nuclear fusion would amount to a tiny fraction of the crusade to put a windmill and solar panel in very paddock and I have great confidence that this investment will eventually bear fruit.

          • David says:

            So what gain would there be if the rest of world continued to use coal?

          • David says:


            Do you see solar and wind as a “feel good remedy”, and fusion as not? How could we know until we test the ideas out. Look these energy reserve estimates. Renewables are by far the largest source of known reserves. You would be mad to rule out solar and wind as potentially beneficial.


            Imagine if a single home could generate enough solar energy to power the house plus an electric car. That is not inconceivable in the future.

          • Dasher says:


            I support wind and solar in its place and have no disagreement with your household example but at present it is well short of the answer and too many people are extolling its virtues as the game breaker,”truthiness” in action. I do not argue for coal as my preferred long term option but I accept that it will be around for a long time because it is abundant, cheap and does the job that wind and solar cannot do. If the climate did indeed go pear shaped and the world decided to act fast the only silver bullet at present would be a massive shift to nuclear power, unless of course we as a species decided to go back to basket weaving. Finally I have great faith in science and I believe that the human race will one day power all their enterprise with clean energy whether or not climate change proves to be a problem that must be addressed urgently. It will make economic and environmental sense to do so. However to spend recklessly on solutions that don’t solve the targeted problem strikes me as daft, the Europeans are a case in point.

          • David says:

            One of the problems with waiting to see if the climate did go “pear shaped” as you call it is then it is too late. I agree a “massive shift” to nuclear, would stop a further increase in CO2, but it would do nothing to remove the already high CO2 from the atmosphere. Under your approach we stuck with a “pear shaped” environment.

            An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A carbon tax is a slow, steady and sensible approach, imo.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            So you don’t agree that more CO2 is good for living things, and seems to have led to a greening of the planet over the past couple of decades?

            Yes, it also leads to warming, though slowly, but that too is on the face of it good for living things (cooling is not).

            It is obvious, arithmetically, that no amount of carbon taxes will reduce global temperature by an amount that is even palpable. I posted on this last year or even earlier.

            What exactly is it that are you trying to prevent, and why are you confident that the prevention would occur?

          • David says:

            Hi Don,

            “So you don’t agree that more CO2 is good for
            living things, and seems to have led to a greening of the planet over the past couple of decades?”

            No. I believe concepts like balance and harmony.
            So over certain ranges an increase in CO2 may be good for a sub-sample of plants. But CO2 is not the only determinant of plant health and our environment is much more than a sub-sample of plants. In short your argument is very simplistic.

            “Yes, it also leads to warming, though slowly, but that too is on the face of it good for living things (cooling is not).

            (i) I disagree that on-the-face-of-it that warming is good for living things

            (ii) We are not cooling

            “It is obvious, arithmetically, that no amount of carbon taxes will reduce global temperature by an amount that is even palpable. I posted on this last year or even earlier.”

            Disagree with this statement also. In my view the purpose of a carbon tax is to not only to reduce CO2 emissions directly (which it does quite effectively) but to create the incentives for private sector to develop technologies to reduce our carbon foot print. The latter is much more important than the former.

            I think I remember your post, and critiqued it at the time.

            “What exactly is it that are you trying to prevent, and why are you confident that the prevention would occur?

            (i) Global warming
            (ii) I am not confident that global warming will be preventable, unfortunately.

          • Dasher says:

            You can spend massive amounts of money on misdirected prevention. At present the increasingly high CO2 does not seem to be making the difference the models predicted. Would it not be better to keep our powder dry and learn more? There is a huge opportunity cost here.

          • David says:

   in China.

  • EmperorJulian says:

    Your theme is taken up in some depth in a book entitled “Idiot America” , written seven or eight years ago by Charles Pierce and highly relevant to your essay. Lack of “truthiness” is lack of commitment to truth – expressed in Idiot America (a substantial proportion of its population and of its political movers and shakers) as a pig-ignorant rejection of the role of people who know what they’re talking about. I would thoroughly recommend a reading of it. You may be disappointed (as I was) by his defence, in a section of his book, of the AGW campaign but what he is opposing there is ignorant rejection of science, not the sceptical defence of science,
    As for AGW, the most devastating attack on it that I have read is political rather than scientific – treating AGW as a political construct led by the IPCC. It is by Donna Laframboise and is entitled “The Delinquent Teenager who was Mistaken for the Word’s Top Climate Expert” (Kindle). My own problem with the scary AGW predictions is that you can’t travel to the future, conduct observations and experiments that can falsify the model (or not) and come back and announce the results.

    Dion Giles

    • EmperorJulian says:

      Sorry, I see I’ve reversed Dr Aitkin’s meaning of “truthiness”. It relates more to the criteria excoriated by Charles Pierce. – Dion Giles

  • Gary in Erko says:

    Part related to this idea of “truthiness” is Bullshit – as in “On Bullshit” by Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt. FRom a review of it – “the difference between the bullshitter and the liar is that while the liar wants you to believe something untrue, the bullshitter doesn’t even care about the truth or whether you believe them. They just want to cloud the issue long enough to get their way.”

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