The Triumph of 'Truthiness'; How Emotion Drives Facts from the Debate

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 30, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Triumph of 'Truthiness'; How Emotion Drives Facts from the Debate


Byline: Suzanne Fields, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

With a rewrite of "1984" George Orwell might transform his Ministry of Truth, which controlled the news about everything, into the Ministry of Truthiness. Truthiness is far more powerful than mere truth. Orwell's Ministry of Truth grew out of his disenchantment with communism, his "God that failed." But truth was mere conspiracy; truthiness is consensus.

Truthiness is the amorphous cultural control that seeps into the public consciousness without anyone actually knowing or recognizing what's happening. The word "truthiness" was coined by the mock pundit Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central, and the word was designated by the American Dialect Society as the "word of the year," best reflecting the zeitgeist of 2005. It works as a word for reasons that go to the heart of the comic's definition. In his telling, "truthiness" is what right-thinkers conclude with their hearts, not their heads. Rhetoric is driven by emotion, not fact.

The comic coined "truthiness" to poke fun at the president, who often speaks of knowing another person's heart, but he stumbled on to something more profound than he knew, popularizing a word for the culture wars. Much that passes for fact in textbooks and in the media is really about truthiness, not truth. It starts with politics.

A new academic study uses magnetic resonance imaging to plumb the working of the brain during fierce ideological arguments. When a group of committed Republicans and Democrats discussed their differences, the centers of the brain bearing on the emotions "lit up," driving each group to opposite conclusions.

"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," says Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University, who led the study. "What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up." Opinions were shaped by emotional impact rather than logic or analysis. The circuits for cognitive reasoning were not engaged.

This won't surprise anybody who lives in political Washington (or political Hollywood) where it's rare for thoughtful reasoning to persuade anybody of anything. Where you start is where you finish. We use colors to describe red states as Republican, blue states as Democratic, and purple as undecided. But only a fool or a hopeless naif would set out to build a political base where the color is purple.

"These days, political ideologies are almost genetic," says pollster John Zogby.

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