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Reality literacy needed to combat ‘truthiness,’ alternative facts

By BERT GAMBINI

Published February 22, 2017

“Fake news has already met the real world. That’s a dangerous meeting.”
David Castillo, professor
Department of Romance Languages and Literatures

The emergence of fake news has complicated the media market in ways that few observers anticipated and “reality literacy” is among the skills necessary to navigate toward the truth, according to David Castillo, UB professor of romance languages and literatures and director of the university’s Humanities Institute.

Castillo will discuss reality literacy as part of the next Scholars on the Road lecture, titled “Reality in the Age of Truthiness,” on March 9 at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, 1 Lafayette Square in downtown Buffalo. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.; the lecture begins at 6 p.m.

“I want to start a dialogue about the status of reality today in our current media culture,” says Castillo. “Fake news has already met the real world. That’s a dangerous meeting.”

Scholars on the Road is an award-winning series presented by the College of Arts and Sciences that brings together faculty, alumni and other guests for discussions on contemporary research and issues, bringing a bit of the classroom environment to a community audience.

The event is free, but guests must register in advance online.

Castillo says reality literacy derives from understanding how news is constructed and presented.

“Truthiness” meantime, a term coined by Stephen Colbert, is an intuitive claim to the truth that ignores evidence, logic and examination, not unlike “alternative facts,” notions that are sometimes defended as matters of perspective, according to Castillo.

“How do we go about conceiving the notion of truth if everything is a matter of perspective?” asks Castillo, an expert in the early modern period who says the question was an open one in the 16th and 17th centuries when perspective was crucial. Perspective in painting was emerging and modern fiction was just beginning as a literary genre, feeding, in part, on the notion that reality was a process of negotiation.

“Can democracy survive the influx of fake news and alternative facts? That’s also an open question,” Castillo says. “We may believe our democratic institutions are safe, but we clearly see today that they’re fragile.”

Internet discussion began swirling when Kellyanne Conway first used the phrase “alternative facts” during a network television interview. Castillo says he saw many references comparing Conway’s remark to George Orwell’s 1984.  But he also read posts directed at a quote from Dr. Who: “You know the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts; they alter the facts to fit their views.”

But there’s more.

Intrigued, Castillo learned the entire quote ends with the clause: “…which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.”

“That’s the key,” he says. “Anas Modamani, the Syrian refugee who is suing Facebook over a selfie that has shown up in fake news reports associating him with terrorist events in Europe, is fighting for his real life.

“He has become an alternative fact,” says Castillo. “This can happen to anybody. We can all become alternative facts.”

But the humanities can play an important role, he says.

“More than ever, the humanities can facilitate and drive our society to the kinds of discussions that will allow for critical thinking,” he says. “Without critical thinking there is no freedom.”

Castillo made just such an argument in “Medialogies: Reading Reality in the Age of Inflationary Media,” the recently published book with William Egginton of Johns Hopkins University.

“Rather than cutting funding to the humanities and steering students in different directions, we need to encourage and strengthen the humanities,” he says. “Critical thinking is not some kind of lofty, scholarly goal.

“It’s a matter of survival.”