Long ago, during the presidency of George W. Bush, American satirist Stephen Colbert coined the term ‘truthiness’. In an FT column this week, British economist John Kay looks back on the evolution of truthiness, and the role it plays in political debate on both sides of the Atlantic.

We are all subject to confirmation bias — a tendency to find, or interpret, facts to support opinions we already hold. But truthiness takes us further. Mr Colbert has described it as truth that “comes from the gut”. There is a profound egoism about truthiness: these are beliefs we hold not because they look true to me, but because they look true to me. A statement is truthy if it is held valid independently of any evidence. Truthiness is the belief that comes when conviction is prized over information. ….

In his fine book Enlightenment 2.0, philosopher Joseph Heath notes an effusion from former (and prospective) presidential candidate Rick Santorum. The Republican described how in the Netherlands elderly patients are “euthanised involuntarily” and its fearful residents seek medical treatment abroad. Mr Heath observes that Mr Santorum “seemed not to realise that the Netherlands was a real place, where people might hear what he said, and hope to set the record straight”. But Mr Santorum was unmoved; a spokesperson explained to a Dutch reporter, without retraction or apology, that the former senator “says what’s in his heart”.

John Kay, “How beliefs became truths for the political establishment“, Financial Times, 22 April 2015 (ungated link).

Readers of this blog might recall that the TdJ “economics as faith” series — for example, here — provides examples of ‘truthy’ thinking by economists. By ‘faith’, I was referring to any strong conviction, not necessarily religious faith. Perhaps “economics as truthiness” would be a better title for the series. Some of the examples, however, are tautologies, so true by definition.


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