A WSU professor asks: do facts still matter in the United States?

Stephen Stehr.
Stephen Stehr

Ten years ago, Washington State University political science professor Steven Stehr got involved in a large-scale National Science Foundation project, training doctoral students in the sciences about how their work could affect, or be affected by, public policy. The idea was to create scientists with a toe in the waters of government.

“As an outgrowth,” Stehr says now, “I became interested in the topic of how knowledge gets used in policy debates.”

The timing was right. Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report had made “truthiness” — the comedic notion that if a concept feels true, it’s a legitimate foundation for law — into a buzzword, and senior George W. Bush advisor Karl Rove was credited with dismissing journalists and historians as a powerless “reality-based community.” Stehr’s studies grew into “Is Truth Really Dead in America?,” his presentation for the Humanities Washington Speaker’s Bureau. To Stehr’s mind, the devaluation of truth and facts that’s now taking place in American government and media isn’t really a new phenomenon.

“People have strategically used language, for as long as democracy’s been around, to try and make problems look a certain way,” he says. “Because if you can define what the problem is, you have a big leg up on what solution is applied to it.”

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