Government professor Michael J. Sandel and Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center Fellow Gwyneth Williams spoke about the role of truth in politics to a crowd of more than 70 people at the Institute of Politics Thursday evening.
Sandel and Williams defended “passionate public discourse in democratic societies” but said more than facts are necessary for political discourse. Sandel said “fact-checking alone” would not be enough to combat the growing influence of political polarization and misinformation.
Sandel attributed disagreement over facts to moral and ethical divides in society.
“We don't agree on the basic facts,” he said. “We disagree on the basic facts because we have a deep divide morally and ethically.”
Facts, however, must be coordinated with a worldview to effectively convey arguments, according to Sandel. “Only when facts are connected to a view of the world that is connected to your political argument do they carry out,” he said.
Sandel also touched on the prevalence of false statements in national politics. He said President Donald J. Trump made 16,241 misleading or false statements in three years since taking office, according to the Washington Post.
Coverage of Trump’s false statements “hasn’t changed many people’s views on the president and the administration,” according to Sandel.
Bringing attention to misinformation in the media is not sufficient, according to Williams. She highlighted the importance of context when reporting.
“I think people do care about facts and truth,” she said. “Generally, I think we're in a kind of world where people want to also understand the context and the background, which is more than we give them with our very fast-rolling news.”
Attendees raised questions about polarization and misinformation, specifically as applied to topics like climate change and cultural differences.
Sandel said that as people are increasingly educated about climate change, they become more divided on the topic.
“The more people know — the better-educated people are and the more scientific background they have — the greater the disagreement about whether climate change is a problem or not,” he said. “Not less.”
Williams said that if media outlets tell a wider range of stories, there will be better understanding across cultures.