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Two terms have entered common usage over the past year: alternative facts and fake news. The former was first used as Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President, defended the White House Press Secretary’s false claims about the crowd size at the recent inauguration.

In an era of 24/7 cable news, Wikipedia, and the Internet, it has become more challenging to distinguish fact from fiction as to what’s happening in the nation and world. Accordingly, California Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez recently introduced a bill requiring the state to add lessons on how to distinguish between real and fake news for 7th to 12th graders.

One of the goals of education is to develop critical thinking skills, which can be summarized as the ability to analyze and evaluate information objectively in order to form a judgment.

In his book, “Excellent Sheep,” William Deresiewicz observes, “The truth is there are powerful forces at work in our society that distrust critical thinking and deny the proposition that democracy needs an educated citizenry.”

The Oxford Dictionary announced a couple of weeks ago that “post-truth” is its 2016 Word of the Year. Post-truth is defined as an adjective, “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

As Berkeley Professor Alva Noe observes, “When it comes to post-truth, feelings, identifications, anxieties and fantasies matter. Not arguments. Not facts.”

Katherine Connor Martin, the head of United States dictionaries at Oxford University Press, suggests that post-truth reflects a step past “truthiness,” the word Merriam-Webster and The American Dialect Society chose as their Word of the Year in 2015.

“Truthiness” originated on “The Colbert Report,” a satirical mock news show, and refers to “The quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” As Stephen Colbert put it, “I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart.”

A September 2016 Economist magazine article, “The Art of the Lie,” observes, “Post-truth politics has many parents. Some are noble. The questioning of institutions and received wisdom is a democratic virtue.” It concludes the danger is when autocrats and dictators use the techniques of post-truth to silence opposition. “Cast adrift on an ocean of lies, the people will have nothing to cling to. For them the novelty of post-truth may lead to old-fashioned oppression.”

Many English and composition teachers use the classic Little, Brown Handbook to guide students in the writing process, grammar and usage, research and documentation. A section entitled, “Distinguishing Fact, Opinion, Belief, and Prejudice,” offers guidance in the Age of Post-Truth and Truthiness.

Facts are “Verifiable and can be determined to be true by research and evidence. Facts provide crucial support for the assertion of an argument.” An example would be, Russia was a mortal enemy of the United States during what was known as the Cold War.

Opinion is “An honest attempt to draw a reasonable conclusion based on factual evidence.” One must always let the listener know what the evidence is and how it led to arriving at an opinion. An example would be, The Academies of Science from 80 countries, many scientific organizations that study climate, and about 97 percent of publishing climate researchers conclude that human activity is largely responsible for climate change.

Beliefs are “Convictions based on cultural or personal faith, morality, or values.” Capital punishment and abortion are legalized murder are examples of beliefs that are often confused with opinion. Such statements are not based on facts or other evidence and cannot serve as the thesis of formal arguments. Nonetheless, beliefs are often expressed as facts or opinion, especially when appealing to the emotions of those who already share the belief.

Prejudices are described as “Half-baked assertions based on insufficient or unexamined evidence.” Unlike beliefs, prejudices can be tested and disproved based on facts. An example would be “All Muslims hate Christians.” Were this true, how would one explain that it is a Muslim who has the only keys that open the doors each day to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which houses two of the holiest sites in Christianity, Calvary and the tomb where Christ was reportedly buried?

At best, prejudices are careless oversimplifications. At worst they reflect a narrow-minded view of the world. In either case, they are not likely to survive the strict scrutiny of cautious observers.

Post-truth and truthiness may be the words of the year; however, truth is essential for democracy to survive.

Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: thedean@tbrownassociates.com

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