Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Word of the Year

According to Merriam-Webster, the people that make those books with all those words, the word of 2006 is Truthiness. Coined by the comedic satirist Stephen Colbert back in 2005, "truthiness" has become a funky way of expressing what's on every one's mind: Just what is the truth anyways? The definition of thruthiness is best described as "truth that comes from the gut, not books."

Merriam-Webster president John Morse had this to say:

We're at a point where what constitutes truth is a question on a lot of people's minds, and truth has become up for grabs. 'Truthiness' is a playful way for us to think about a very important issue.

I'm a fan of Colbert and his Report on Comedy Central, and he's used it quite often. Although it began more as a joke than anything else, it does a very good job of expressing what I consider to be the greatest fallacy of the Information Age. In a time when unlimited information is available at the click of a mouse or the press of a TV remote button, it becomes harder and harder to discern fact from fiction. Anybody, including me, can post whatever they want to on the internet, fact or fiction. I remember in middle school having to use books and print encylopedias to research papers or projects. Now, anything can be found on Google, and it doesn't matter if it's correct or reliable. Today, students researching a project turn to random searches on the internet far more than they do articles in Encyclopaedia Britannica and the like.

Take for example the story about the missing explosives in Iraq that aired just before the 2004 election. This hoax, presented as fact to the American people, had a lot of people believing that incompetence in Iraq whould destroy everything unless new leadership in Washington, D.C. was elected. This is a good example of truthiness. It's not a question of 'is it fact?', but a question of 'do I think it's fact', or 'do I want it to be fact?'

As a student of microbiology, I'm often encouraged by professors to look at the world with a doubtful eye and be mindful of the fact that what we percieve as truth may not be the case. Still, scientific exploration is often curtailed by narrow-mindedness. The scientific community has their way of looking at the world, and anyone that sees it differently is a heretic. I can't imagine how it must be for students of liberal arts. I took a sociology class last year for a diversity credit. Quite often I found myself wondering if the concepts presented were substantiated fact, perceived fact based on biased subjectivity, or opinionated drivel developed by the professor or others as a means to validate the subject matter. I don't mean to say that biology is superior to sociology, but I think it's more difficult for a biology professor to slant scientific information based on opinion, though it does happen.

My point is that the 'truth' should always be taken with a grain of salt. I think God gave us a sense of suspicion for a reason. Without it we may all be tricked into thinking the world is flat. The Information Age's saving grace may be that all kinds of resources are readily avialable to support or detract from our suspicions. Independent research can go far in this day and age. It'll make you feel smarter, too!

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