The Fallacy of “Post-Truth”

The Fallacy of “Post-Truth” April 27, 2019

When exactly did we live in the “Truth” era?

It’s been a long time now that “post-truth” has been a thing: the Oxford English Dictionary made the term word of the year in 2016. Here at Patheos Nonreligious, lots of blogs have discussed the “post-truth” society, either criticizing people for being susceptible to fake news or mocking them for wanting to live in an alternate reality. The consensus in the blogosphere is that there are lots of people who just think the wrong things.

The fine lefty folks at Jacobin, however, take pleasure in pointing out that this cozy little myth is a form of “post-truth” itself, a lie we believe because it panders to our vanity.

Tell Me Another One

In an article called The Fallacy of Post-Truth, Danish political scientist Rune Møller Stahl says the notion that we’re living in a “post-truth” era serves just as many political and economic interests in our chrome-plated, technocratic utopia as the specter of fake news supposedly does. The idea that our time is unique in its approach to truth, particularly in politics, is just the sort of weird belief we criticize others for professing. Furthermore, the “truth” we deride people for ignoring has a lot of political and socioeconomic baggage that we never acknowledge.

Stahl isn’t denying that the current political arena is riddled with mendacity, or that our current leaders are pathological liars and crooks. His point is that calling our era “post-truth” implies that there was a time when truth was something our political leaders and corporate overlords respected:

[Liberal pundits] don’t seem to know how we entered this post-fact world or when the factual age, which must have preceded it, ended. Was it in the 2000s, when the whole world debated imaginary weapons of mass destruction before being conned into war? Or was it in the 1990s, when the Lewinsky scandal dominated newspapers, and the United States panicked over superpredators and crack babies? Perhaps it was really Reagan’s 1980s, with its secret, Central American wars, the Iran-Contra scandal, and the denial of the AIDS epidemic. Or maybe we need to go back even further: to Nixon’s not-a-crook 1970s, to George Wallace’s law-and-order 1960s, or to McCarthy’s redbaiting 1950s.

Of course, Stahl could go back much farther than that. The Founding Fathers wrote eloquently about liberty and the “rights of man,” but women and African-Americans were excluded from enjoying the fruits of these liberties for centuries.

The weightier problems with the “post-truth” idea involve anachronistic ideas about truth itself. That truth is just the sum total of correct data points is the philosophical equivalent of a Model T. More importantly, the definition of truth as some sort of value-neutral description of reality ignores the power dynamics that the very notion of “post-truth” is supposed to be criticizing.

Facts and Figures

Stahl insists that the way people idealize facts plays into the hands of the elites who benefited from Big Data and the neoliberal shakedown that’s still looting our societies of resources and trust:

As it happens, the facts simply don’t support the diagnosis that we have suddenly entered a post-factual landscape. Reactionary panics, collective hysteria, and political manipulation have been with us for a long time, and we should be skeptical of claims about the epidemic of Russian-backed fake news or the idea that social media lost Hillary the election.

In fact, liberals’ nostalgia for factual politics seems designed to mask their own fraught relationship with the truth. The supposedly honest technocrats and managers — who enacted neoliberal measures with the same ferocity as their right-wing counterparts — relied on a certain set of facts to displace the material truths they refused to acknowledge.

His analysis of the past half-century’s cavalcade of capitalist shenanigans makes for good reading. For my purposes, mentioning two “post-truth” phenomena should suffice.

Is It Hot In Here Or Is It Me?

Global warming is our era’s most pressing problem, and climate change denial is one of the major targets of those who lament our transition to “post-truth.” However, the phenomenon of climate change denial isn’t just about disregarding the facts, it derives from corporate greed. Individuals might harbor considerable anxiety over the extent to which Western society’s modes of living need to change to combat global warming; corporations who produce fossil fuel or depend on it for their manufacturing and distribution, in contrast, are looking at the end of their profitability. That’s why the private sector funds think tanks that attempt to legitimize climate change denial in the media and the public imagination. Anyone who thinks that fossil-fuel multinationals are somehow opposed to the scientific method has no business accusing anyone else of delusion.

If we want to confront uncomfortable truths, then the idea that technological progress isn’t the answer to everything has to be at the top of the list. Let’s also admit that corporations have far too much power and influence in our society to allow them to “self-regulate.” We can’t pretend there was ever a time when corporations had the best interests of the citizenry or the environment in mind. And we can’t deny that we’re complicit in climate change denial, whatever our stated opinions on the matter may be, if we continue to support these corporations by buying their products and allowing them to evade regulation.

The Measles and the Damage Done

Like climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers are also accused of driving us off the cliff into the “post-truth” era. Vaccines are safe and effective, and it’s irresponsible to neglect to vaccinate your children. That said, there are other truths about our society that come into play here.

Medical science still doesn’t have a handle on defining autism or explaining why it seems more prevalent than in times past. The pharmaceutical industry’s thirst for profit has created a PR problem that understandably motivates suspicion; lack of regulatory oversight has led to terrible incidents that further erode public confidence.

Furthermore, our society still treats public health as a commodity. The shrinking economy will probably leave many parents dependent on their children for security in later life, and those who have children saddled with developmental difficulties will be at a severe disadvantage. It could be that the root of anti-vaxx conspiracism isn’t paranoia or ignorance after all; maybe it’s anxiety in the face of the uncertainty and unfairness of our economic system. The powers that be have a vested interest in characterizing anyone who questions the political and economic status quo as a deviant, regardless of how reasonable the questions are.

As I write this, the campuses of two major universities in California are under quarantine due to fears of a measles outbreak. The debunkers here at Patheos Nonreligious have been ridiculing anti-vaxxers for years now, and the conspiracists are still around. Maybe we should rethink our certainty that online debates are going to put an end to this sort of conspiratorial thinking. Social media seems to disseminate bad ideas much more effectively than it eliminates them through critical scrutiny.

Conclusion

It’s one thing to criticize the dishonesty and corruption of those in the Trump Administration, but accusing them of ushering in a “post-truth” era leaves out a lot of context. Describing the pre-Trump era as a golden age of respect for truth and fairness borders on delusion too.


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