Mention gaslighting, and it brings to mind a type of domestic illumination developed and made popular in the 19th century. Today it’s acquired another meaning when applied to politics and politicians. Curious, I decided to look it up and found this definition in the Oxford English Dictionary. Gaslighting is “the action of tricking, or controlling, someone by making them believe things that are not true.”

I thought, that’s familiar. How about the “big lie” and the work of Joseph Goebbels or P. T. Barnum? More specifically, I wondered about the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue along with his colleagues, his lawyer, his close political associates and the political party that enables him, especially when the Dec. 16 Washington Post reported that he’s made 15,413 false or misleading claims since being in office.

H.L. Mencken is credited with saying “you’ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” After three years of the current regime, I’m convinced Mencken got it right. Not that I’m a feel-good liberal. I supported Goldwater in 1964, voted for Nixon and am a regular reader of National Review and The Wall Street Journal. If Eisenhower were a candidate, I’d vote for him.

Sadly, the Republican Party, its candidates and its politics changed. I didn’t. P.T. Barnum is no longer with us. His ghost stalks the White House.

Maybe it’s in the family DNA. My grandfather followed Mencken and kept a shelf of his books in his upstairs sanctum sanctorum. I learned a lot from Grandfather, especially to always keep an open mind but maintain a critical attitude. Questioning was his mantra.

It didn’t make him popular in the family or in church — which he rarely attended. He was a Democrat and a skeptic. He supported the New Deal. The rest of the family voted for Hoover. Grandmother called him a contrarian and a socialist. I remember listening to the two of them debate the antics of Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn during the Army McCarthy hearings. One of their debates got so animated that she snapped her cane in two while making a point.

Grandfather possessed a sardonic wit and used it to demolish arguments with reason and logic. He also had a way of inflaming people. I admired his rhetorical skill, Socratic questioning and defiant spirit. Grandfather and Mencken would have great fun if they were with us today. There are so many opportune targets.

My favorite high school English teacher had the same bent and preached the same gospel. I can see him in front of the class, book in hand, rumbling in his sonorous voice: “Know your sources. Just because it’s in the newspaper or in a book or on television doesn’t mean it’s true. Question everything.” With that he would launch into a monologue on the fine art of spotting buncombe.

His exams were fun — no true-false or multiple-choice questions. You had to work. He’d give us a series of statements, all of them flawed, then have us write a brief essay in rebuttal calling out all the false arguments. He introduced me to Occam’s razor, after William of Ockham, a 13th-century philosopher who said, given two arguments, the simplest argument works best.

Once he gave me grief on a test because he thought I didn’t elaborate sufficiently in response to one of the questions. I protested, citing Occam’s razor, and was rewarded with an A. I’ll never forget it.

But that was the 1950s, when gaslighting was still about the local utility company,and journalism personified the likes of Edward R. Morrow and E.B. White. Today, quoth the raven, nevermore. We’ve come upon the age of social media and blogs, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and tweets. Social media has First Amendment protection, but sample it on the internet at your own peril.

I detest social media and refuse to participate. Anyone with a half-baked idea or rumor can spread it exponentially with a few keyboard strokes. Worse, too much of it goes unchallenged and gets ballyhooed about. There are calls for regulation of the internet and the media companies — and it may come to that, but beware the slippery slope of censorship.

The Washington Post reported on Jan. 9 that Facebook, cynically, will continue to accept political ads without validating their truthfulness. And why not? That’s how Facebook makes money — and, after all, what is truth? I recall Pontius Pilate asked that question.

So ignore Facebook, or not. The best “BS” detector is a questioning attitude — knowing your sources, spotting faulty logic and being wary of politicians and their wares. Assume you’re being manipulated or lied to until proven otherwise.

The late Carl Sagan’s bestseller “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in The Dark” has an entire chapter, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” that’s a template for sorting through all the shameless untruths and propaganda that spills from politicians and fills the media. It’s in the Scott County Library. I recommend it.

Alternate facts are everywhere. Just be sure you can spot the lies among them. Truth is about intellectual independence and accountability. Be persistent.

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and is the author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com.

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