WASHINGTON, November 3, 2015 — A Facebook meme about Dr. Ben Carson showed up on my feed today. That was no surprise; Facebook memes show up every day and about every candidate. The one about Carson, currently a leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, was typical of the genre.
That is to say, it was a lie.
On the continuum between science and religion, politics occupies a midpoint. There are objective truths involved — Hillary had her own mail server, Donald Trump said that some Mexicans aren’t criminals — but they’re wrapped around with subjective interpretations, and preference for candidates is more likely to be emotional than rational.
In 2011, Peter Gibson of Australia’s Monash University published research showing that people without celiac disease could experience gastrointestinal distress after consuming gluten-containing foods. His research supported the notion held by millions of Americans that they are gluten sensitive in spite of the fact that they don’t have celiac disease.
Gluten sensitivity is big business. Thirty percent of Americans want to eat less gluten, and the gluten-free food industry is worth about $15 billion per year. Yet only one in 133 people suffers from celiac disease, less than 1 percent of the population.
In a new paper, Gibson describes revisiting his study, this time with a more rigorous methodology. His results? “In contrast to our first study… we could find absolutely no specific response to gluten.”
Gibson’s research was conducted as science should be. In the face of doubts and questions about his earlier methodology, he went back with a new experiment and did a more rigorous job. Finding that he was wrong the first time around, he admitted it rather than hunkering down and protecting his initial mistake.
Gibson has been engaged in real science, but the area of nutrition and health has been inundated with junk science to the point that any quack with web-editing software and a lab coat can peddle just about anything to a credulous audience. The amount of noise and misinformation surrounding gluten, GMOs, paleo-diets, uncooked foods and more is almost as bad as the noise of politics.
Celiac disease is a real problem affecting about 1 percent of the population. The increasing availability of gluten-free products is a godsend for that population. The problem with shoring up support for offering gluten-free food options with junk science is that it calls into question the need for the options. The proliferation of junk science on the topic has made people cynical about anyone claiming a problem with gluten, and it calls into question the rationality of people who really do have celiac disease.
If you buttress a good position with a lie, no one will believe your good (true) conclusions. To the extent that politics is like science rather than like religion, the use of a lie to support an argument can take a true conclusion and reduce it to ash.
You might think that George W. Bush was a terrible president, but anyone who attacks him on the basis of “truther” rhetoric comes across as insane. President Obama has pushed some terrible policies policies, but if you throw in “birther” arguments when you attack him, you sound like a nut. If I try to talk friends out of voting for Donald Trump and incorporate fabrications into my argument, they’ll discount everything I say.
This brings us back to Dr. Carson. Facebook memes are almost always either gross misrepresentations or outright lies. If you do not support Carson, the best attacks against him would be on the basis of his actual policy proposals. Anonymous memes are corrosive to intelligent political discourse, yet on social media they have grown to a popular shorthand to bash everyone from Hillary to Bobby Jindal.
The Carson meme lists the ways in which he and his mom benefited from government aid, then quotes him: “The disintegration of the family unit and the welfare state are enslaving African-Americans and ruining their futures.”
But the quote is a lie. It first appeared in December, 2014. According to Carson, “Many people are critical of me because they say, ‘Carson wants to get rid of all the safety nets and welfare programs even though he must have benefited from them. This is a blatant lie. I have no desire to get rid of safety nets for people who need them. I have a strong desire to get rid of programs that create dependency in able-bodied people.'”
The truth is a better weapon in the long run than a lie. Lies work in the short-run, and our politics is increasingly short-run, but the destruction that does to us as a society and a polity is incalculable. Many of us love to discuss politics, and we try to maintain a respectful and open mind with people who disagree with us, but these memes aren’t about discussion or truth. They are calculated to trash an opponent with a lie. This fabricated reality is toxic for us all.