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Science, Law & the Environment Emerging Topics in Environmental Law

The Intersection of Science, Facts, and Advocacy in the Age of “Truthiness”

Posted in Climate Change, Emerging Policy, Energy Policy, NEPA, Project Permitting, SEPA, Truthiness

One of my pet peeves as a scientist and a lawyer is the distortion of scientific data or facts in advocating policy positions or making legal arguments. Stephen Colbert did a piece a while ago on “truthiness”-which he defines as something that “feels” right.

Although the references to current events are now dated, this bit is worth three minutes of your time (embedded in Flash, click here if you are not on a flash enabled device):

Stephen Colbert’s truthiness concept has since been validated by researchers at the University of Wellington in New Zealand–although ironically, when you view the above piece and think through Colbert’s point, it just, well, feels like a true concept. Truthiness validates itself.

How does truthiness fit into the environmental law world? Where I see it most is in public campaigns for or against projects. In a world of soundbites, playing to one’s sense of truthiness can go a long way to influence how people feel–and evaluate–facts surrounding controversial projects. Truthiness leaks into the courtroom regularly, despite rules and standards regarding the quality of evidence. In essence, when a judge is acting as a fact-finder, a lawyer would be remiss in not considering deploying the truthiness tool in influencing the judge. Truthiness is particularly effective when deployed to frame a “theme” of a case, with select supporting facts then used to bolster or validate that theme. And, the problem with truthiness is that it can be difficult to disprove–a few soundbites or simple statements may take pages of documented facts or significant testimony to refute.

What to do when you encounter truthiness? Gather facts. Look at them objectively. Bryan Garner so often states when discussing effective legal writing that “truth is the best form of advocacy.” Beth Ginsberg, an environmental litigator here in Seattle that I had the privilege to work with earlier in my career, used to continually hammer on me to simplify arguments–because the “simple argument often wins the day.” These two concepts are the antidote to truthiness, although that antidote can be difficult to apply.

If you are a citizen concerned about policy developments and the environment, you need to be aware of truthiness, both when it is potentially used to influence your own thought process, and when you are using it to influence others. Lawyers certainly need to be on the constant lookout for truthiness. I’ve added a new category to this blog, and will be periodically pointing out examples of where I think truthiness is being used to advocate for a particular position. If resources are available to evaluate the truthiness of a topic, I’ll try to provide and summarize those resources. But, don’t take my word for it; if you care about the topic or have the time to dig into it–decide for yourself, after gathering facts.