The Power and Responsibility of Truth in Science and Politics

Mercury MessengerPeople can handle the truth. They may not always want it, and it may be confusing, but eventually they will handle it. As they learn about the world and themselves.

When you present people with disinformation they no longer learn about the world, or themselves in relation to that world. Instead, they learn only the world you present them. In a sense, you have taken away their sight, to be replaced with your own.

Tonight the Mercury Messenger spacecraft will spend almost 70% of its remaining fuel in its final major maneuver, with the goal of reaching orbital insertion around Mercury. No spacecraft has accomplished this feat. Mercury’s mass is very small while the nearby sun is enormous, which means the slightest miscalculation in the elaborately-winding path to Mercury will lose the Messenger to the heavy sun.

Disinformation would mean disaster. Even a small, honest mistake cannot be tolerated. The only chance of success is an almost religious adherence to truth – but not only truth; the accurate communication of information without any bias.

That’s not so difficult in the company of science, and scientists. But moving into the world of politics where exerting influence over large numbers of people is the goal, truth tends to become a tool to be utilized rather than an object of aspiration.

In its best light, disinformation is propagated not through lies, but through the strategic withholding of information. We find a current example in the nuclear radiation leaks at the Fukushima reactor in Japan, where scientists are calling for a release of more information so they might better understand and predict the impact of this disaster upon the Japanese people and the rest of the world.

In a worse light we see budgetary crisis with little or no explanation that are exploited to further political agendas and proffer economic prizes within a small circle, while providing citizenry with little more than sound byte propaganda with few and quite selective empirical facts.

And worst of all, the telling of blatant lies, that everyone is aware of – yet somehow these lies have become expected, tolerated and even considered business as usual.

We certainly wouldn’t get to Mercury with practices like that. With such ego-power-centric forces driving us, our Messenger would certainly miss its rendezvous, careening to burn into the sun, or flung out to slowly freeze in deep space.

It is our choice to know and discover truth. It is our choice to withhold what we know, or share it with others. It is our choice to manipulate and deceive people, to suit our own interests. It is our choice, to care or not.