Sterilize US Politics by Neutralizing Begetters of Political Lies
History Professor Allan Lichtman, who has correctly predicted the outcome of the last eight presidential elections, ought to be brimming with confidence, but is unsure about his prediction for the 2016 election, namely a Trump victory, because the GOP nominee is an imponderable anomaly. Lichtman told an interviewer “The two candidates have been repeatedly fact-checked by independent sources, and his lies vastly outnumber hers.”
What, though, is more pernicious in this context: the number of political lies or their grievousness? How can we, as concerned citizens, use modern technology to expose and obstruct fabrication and propagation of political lies, to prevent ambitious blackguards and desensitized voters from turning a democracy into a kakistocracy (government by the worst)?
Anyone who wishes to combat mendacity should know that, according to the Bible, the devil is the father of lies (John 8:44), but compliance with gender neutrality demands that “father” should now be replaced by “begetter”; the amendment would also make it easy to understand why the Democratic candidate has been called “the devil” and “crooked Hillary” more than once by Donald Trump, no angel himself.
Political lying has been a favourite topic with satirists. With some effort, readers will be able to find delightful examples, going (at least) as far back as Francis Bacon. Isaac D’Israeli (1766- 1848), whose son Benjamin became Prime Minister of Britain, wrote an essay entitled “Of False Political Reports”; I (mis)quote a short excerpt below, after some tinkering for the sake of modernizing the text and updating the context.
“There is no class of political lying which will be found missing if we consult the records of American elections; there we may trace the whole art in all the nice management of its shades, its qualities, and its more complicated parts, from invective to puff, and from innuendo to prevarication! We may admire the scrupulous correction of a lie, after it had been told, by another from the same source, and triple lying to overreach their opponents. Republicans and Democrats are alike; for, to tell one great truth, the begetter of lies is of no party!”
The task of a satirist is to scoff at cant and deceit. Speaking of Bernard Shaw, the critic Kenneth Tynan wrote: “As a demolition expert he has no rivals, and we are being grossly irrelevant if we ask a demolition expert, when his work is done: “But what have you created?” It is like expecting a bull-dozer to build the Tower of Pisa, or condemning a bayonet for not being a plough. Shaw's genius was for intellectual slum-clearance, not for town planning.” My aim here to is start the work of town planning.
To the extent that America is governed according to “one person, one vote” principle, the elected government reflects the choice of the people who bother to vote. If the majority of political elite are perennially corrupt, the voters were remiss, in the first place, to have allowed themselves to be duped by unscrupulous candidates, or not to have used their voting right.
A healthy democracy needs an informed electorate, people who have the willingness and capacity to weigh evidence, and it is the duty of the media to expose humbug by supplying sound evidence. A notable step towards helping voters to establish (within reasonable bounds) the truth or falsehood of statements by political figures, and to assess the egregiousness of a false assertion, is the fact-checking system adopted by The Washington Post. The misdemeanour of a candidate is judged on a Pinocchio-scale, which ranges from one (some distortion, but no outright falsehoods; mostly true) to four (a monstrous lie). Handing a Pinocchio score is analogous to the use of a penalty card (yellow or red) in a soccer match.
Critical readers will have noticed that the above analogy overlooks at least one important difference: in a soccer match, the referee identifies the offending player and holds the card high for everyone to see, but the political offenders exploit the fact that, under the prevalent system, a liar does not fear being caught red-handed. However, this grave shortcoming of the Pinocchio treatment can be easily eliminated by borrowing yet another idea from the world of sports. To be specific, consider a men’s singles final at Wimbledon in which a player disagrees with the line umpire’s decision as to the ball being “in” or “out”. The introduction of the Hawk-Eye technology has made it possible for a player to challenge the official verdict, and have it reversed if the electronic replay shows the original call to have been wrong. The game is stopped to allow the “fact-checking” machinery enough time to figure out the statistically most probable trajectory. Everyone watching the match, at the stadium or at home, must wait patiently while the triangulation algorithm crunches the data and provides a visual display of the scientific approximation to the truth.
Technically, a player can continue challenging an umpire’s call as long as (s)he is right, but (s)he is only allowed to be wrong three times per set (or four if the set reaches the tie-breaker stage). Unused challenge opportunities expire at the end of each set and cannot be carried over into the next. (We need not go into other details here). I propose that in every major television debate involving a relatively small number of rivals (four or fewer, ideally two), every contestant should be allowed to challenge a claim made by an opponent, and the challenge system should follow rules similar to those in a tennis match. If such a system had been instituted in the last three presidential debates, which were watched by more than a hundred million viewers, the truth content as well as the level of the arguments would probably have been significantly higher.
A fact-checking system cannot be a panacea, for it can only verify or refute statements of fact, such as “Did Trump ever support the war on Iraq?”, or “Did Clinton once call TPP the gold standard?”, “Was stop-and-frisk declared unconstitutional?”, and so on. Unfortunately, many important questions do not have a simple “yes or no” answer, because “truth is rarely pure and never simple”. Since this essay is the first undertaking of its kind, I hope that its imperfections will be excused, and I invite others who have constructive proposals to come forward and offer their suggestions for improving the scheme. The Tower of Pisa, let alone Rome, was not built in a day.
(The author, a professor emeritus in the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (in Trondheim), has recently published a book entitled “Can Science Come Back to Islam?”)