Thomas Jefferson on information and truth

I often think about my aspirations as an academic, and as an educator, both inside and outside of the classroom. When I do, I am reminded of Thomas Jefferson, speaking in reference to Shays’ Rebellion:

The tumults in America, I expected would have produced in Europe an unfavorable opinion of our political state. But it has not. On the contrary, the small effect of these tumults seems to have given more confidence in the firmness of our governments. The interposition of the people themselves on the side of government has had a great effect on the opinion here. I am persuaded myself that the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. […] The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them. [emphasis mine]

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Edward Carringon, Paris, January 16, 1787

There are countless debates raging, in politics, religion, philosophy, and economics, and over issues which are increasingly complex. Simultaneously, information has become extremely difficult to reliably obtain and decipher, data more susceptible to manipulation and lack of context, “expert opinion” more contaminated by bias. This age of information has brought with it a culture of informational deception, within a forest of policies and issues growing in nuance, depth, and complexity.

And yet, Jefferson’s ideal remains. Citizens can only actively participate in policy discussion when they are well enough informed. If there is an ideal worth fighting for, it is that of logic, reason, and truth.

… [T]ruth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

Thomas Jefferson, An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom [1779], passed in the assembly of Virginia in the beginning of the year 1786


One comment

  1. And if the newspapers become biased, give them access to the data and teach the public how to use it. 😛

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