The Failure of Facts

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, April 19, 2024

Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better.

—Elizabeth Kolbert

I recently listened to a podcast where the host welcomed a leading expert on disinformation to talk about the impact of propaganda and conspiracy in our culture and politics. Like so many others, my family has seen the tragic consequences of disinformation and conspiracy in the lives of our loved ones, especially relating to health and finances. But the scholar said something that shattered my optimism. He said emphatically that facts will not correct misinformation or dislodge conspiracy theories. Intellectually, what the expert said made sense, and I could follow the constructive ways he suggested for addressing disinformation and conspiracy theories. But I can’t ever recall feeling so discouraged and hopeless. How do we speak loudly and convincingly to counter disinformation?

As I explored my feelings of hopelessness, I realized how reliant I am on the conventional, romantic view that verifiable facts can lead people to the truth. It is the belief that if we humbly fact-check or provide correct information, people will willingly accept it and act accordingly. But what chance do we have against the relentless flow of disinformation and conspiracies if data and facts don’t work? The expert’s answer was simple and profound: the best way to counter the appeal of disinformation and conspiracy is to understand what people are looking for or care about and respond to that. People want to be heard, understood, and respected. When the way of the world doesn’t work for you, when your dignity and humanity are assaulted, when it is hard to make ends meet or make a decent living, even an untruth, misrepresentation, or a farfetched conspiracy may just be enough to assuage feelings of pain, suffering, or disappointment, if not tangibly change your situation.

Perhaps we’ve been relying on facts and data to do the work of community. Possibly, we have not understood that the presenting problem may be an embrace of disinformation and conspiracy, masking the cry for dignity, equity, and compassion. I think Jesus of the Gospels understood the needs of the people in his time. He responded to their need publicly and relentlessly, demonstrating that the status quo of neglect, oppression, and domination was not the expected or acceptable condition of God’s beloved. However, even Jesus’ followers and the Gospel writers understood that facts and data about imperial evil were not the most effective counter to its power. Instead, they testified that God’s presence and community’s power spoke to their deepest frustrations when the world couldn’t. They bore witness to God’s promises of love and liberation that addressed the people’s hunger for good news. In the proclamation that the reign of God had arrived, Jesus and his disciples offered oppressed peoples an alternative way of life that countered cynicism and hopelessness. When the facts failed, love and community prevailed.