Monday, September 19, 2016

Lucy P Marcus - Truth, lies and trust in the age of Brexit and Trump

Nowadays, facts and truth are becoming increasingly difficult to uphold in politics (and in business and even sports). They are being replaced with what the American comedian Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”: the expression of gut feelings or opinions as valid statements of fact. This year might be considered one of peak truthiness.

To make good decisions, voters need to assess reliable facts, from economic data to terrorism analysis, presented transparently and without bias. But, today, talking heads on television would rather attack those with expertise in these areas. And ambitious political figures – from the leaders of the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom to US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump – dismiss the facts altogether.

The environment is ripe for such behaviour. Voters, particularly in the advanced economies, are jaded by years of broken political promises, revelations of cover-ups, and relentless political and media spin. Opaque or dubious dealings have cast doubt on the integrity of organisations and institutions on which we should be able to rely. For example, the New York Times recently published a series of articles on thinktanks that highlighted the conflict of interest faced by those who operate as analysts, but are beholden to corporate funders and sometimes also act as lobbyists.

As soon as a few experts are found to have been offering half-truths – or worse – the credibility of the entire field can be called into question. Christine Todd Whitman, who was Head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on 11 September 11 2001, told residents of New York City that the air was safe to breathe and the water was safe to drink in the days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. But, as a 2003 EPA report noted, the agency “did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement” at that time. With cases of severe respiratory illness piling up, Whitman now admits that the statement was wrong.

Likewise, as the recently published Chilcot report showed, the Iraq War was launched in 2003 under false pretences. Intelligence reports had not established that there were weapons of mass destruction in the country, yet British prime minister Tony Blair dutifully followed US president George W. Bush in ordering his military to invade. The consequences of that decision are still emerging. If our leaders can be so willfully wrong about such consequential matters, how can we believe anything they tell us?.. Read more:

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