The thing that baffles most opponents of President Trump (and apparently all comedians) is that he and his staff show a blatant disregard for facts. Trump’s insistence that he won the popular vote and that President Obama wiretapped his phones have been easily debunked. Trump supporters who accept or even defend these statements must be stupid or willfully blind, those who oppose him say, shaking their heads in confusion (or, worse, righteous self-congratulation). As a scientist, I can’t totally disagree with the confused.
When much of our logic-based, Enlightenment-indoctrinated society holds Trump’s statements up for examination, they think that the whole world should see that he’s a lying liar, feeding us big-league lies. For these people, the ultimate measure of truth is that it can be supported with facts. It may also be the reason many conservative Christians, who are used to having facts shoved down their throats as the ultimate truth, can relate to Trump despite his disdain for many conservative Christian causes. The simple fact is that there are different kinds of truths.
Americans have had a fact vs. “alternative fact” standoff long before Trump. Western culture has not provided us with a good framework for understanding the nuanced nature of truth. Our current concept of truth is largely a product of the Enlightenment, when humans codified a way to state a question, pose a hypothesis and collect observations that either supported or changed their understanding of the “truth.” Most people learn this formula in elementary school, and even those who don’t grow up to be scientists use this pattern for determining truth. We use hypothesis-testing daily to figure out everything from where to invest funds to the best way to get our kids to eat their vegetables, and for the most part, it works. Using observations of evidence, we can figure out what’s “true” in our world. But factual truths aren’t the only truths out there.
My understanding that factual and nonfactual truths could coexist grew after a long period of intellectual dissonance between scientific and religious belief. I was raised in an observant and socially moderate Protestant family, where we went to church weekly and prayed before meals. Everything in the Bible was judged to be “true,” and if it didn’t make sense that five loaves and two fishes could feed a multitude, it was just a miracle that couldn’t be understood.
Sometime after starting my career as an academic scientist, however, the dissonance became too strong. In an effort to understand how both scientific fact and spiritual belief can be true, I completed a certificate in Christian theological education, and found the answer in the section on church history. Scholar Marcus Borg, in “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time,” calls it post-critical naivete: an ability to understand that stories are true, even when the primary elements of the story are not historical fact.
Biblical literalism and biblical inerrancy became more central in the Christian church after the age of Enlightenment; before that, scientific theory didn’t exist, so “factual” truth wasn’t a primary concern. The early Christians were reporting an experience that left a deep, meaningful and long-lasting impression on them, and it was the truth of the experience that mattered, not the factual recounting of every minute of Jesus’ life.
Borg, anticipating many Trump supporters by 15 years, said that the Bible was best taken “seriously, not literally.” Once someone can absorb the idea that factual truth and spiritual or emotional truth are two different frames of human experience, the conflict between science and religion is moot. The problem occurs when we try to apply the wrong frame to a given experience.
Trump has switched the frame on a society that so deeply values logical thought that many Americans are completely befuddled — and think that everyone else should find this reframing as repugnant as they do. Unfortunately, just screaming “Liar, liar, pants on fire!” and hoping that everyone will get on board isn’t going to be effective, because Trump often is delivering a certain kind of truth — an emotional truth.
Despite facts to the contrary, nearly a third of Republican voters believe that Trump, not Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote in November. While his claims that 3 million to 5 million illegal votes for his opponent lost him that race haven’t been justified, the emotional truth — that the voting system is out of their control and seems to be rigged against them — is real and deeply felt.
It’s certainly easy for Trump supporters to “know” without proof that the mainstream media isn’t trustworthy: It hasn’t represented their point of view, their truth, in years, and therefore is inherently suspicious. And after years of harboring suspicions that former president Barack Obama is a Muslim, a communist, or worse, any accusation about his interference with the current administration can be seen as something that he would do, even if there’s no proof to show that he did do it. Facts don’t matter if the emotional impact is real.
The dominance of emotional truth over factual truth is hardly limited to Trump supporters. Those of us who think we live by logic use all kinds of evidence to make decisions. Facts are one thing, but feelings and lived experience are another. Psychologists tell us that we make most decisions based on feeling, and fill in the supporting logic later. Emotional truths have weight, and a good story about an emotional truth doesn’t have to be factual: It just has to be true.
Tom Forman, chief executive of reality TV shows like “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” said in a recent NPR interview that Trump is a master at “being directionally correct.” Trump knows, Forman said, how to amplify what viewers already know to be true, what they “know in their bones.” That’s emotional truth, and factual truth can’t touch it.
There are times and places for each kind of truth. Scientific rigor is essential in medical testing, for instance, but not important when helping a grieving friend get over a loss. The administration should absolutely be held accountable for logical inconsistencies where logic is called for, which includes all of Trump’s misleading claims. But insisting to his followers that all truths be fact-based, and baiting them with factual inaccuracies over relatively minor issues, just increases the emotional truth of the story that they know in their bones: that society does not value their problems, and that Trump seems poised to upend a system that has harmed them in the past.
Our country was founded on Enlightenment principles that very intentionally left room for spiritual freedom. To survive, our democratic society needs to leave room for both logic- and emotion-based truth, and learn to apply them appropriately. To turn our national conversation from acrimonious partisanship, we may need to step back and switch frames occasionally, both to understand why Trump’s lies mean so little to so many, and to develop better ways to communicate with our neighbors who find his emotional truths more resonant right now. The future of America depends upon it.
Anna Katharine Mansfield is an associate professor of oenology at Cornell University, holds a certificate in Theological Education (EfM) from Sewanee-University of the South and is a 2017 Public Voices Fellow. She spends much of her time marveling at the depth of human knowledge, both scientific and spiritual.