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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  • Anthrotheist

    “And we can’t deny that we’re complicit in climate change denial . . . if we continue to support these corporations by buying their products and allowing them to evade regulation.”
    If it were me, I might dial back on the notion that boycotting massive corporations — the notion of “voting with your dollar” — is either fair or likely to be effective. Gather up 50 products from around your home and you can probably trace them all back to 3 or 4 major corporations, all of whom spend most of their time being just barely good enough to stay on the right side of the law (and spend almost all the rest of the time not even being that good). Corporations are only accountable to consumers when there is genuine competition, when consumers have the option to switch to a better brand; when they are all equally bad, and you can’t afford to buy from a local manufacturer who can’t produce things as cheaply as a company that can dictate prices to their suppliers and exploit cheap labor overseas, there isn’t much room for dollar democracy.

    As for “post truth” reality, I can’t help but feel that the perception of a shift in how factual the world is probably correlates to the democratization of information. When I was growing up, if you wanted to find something out you went to the library. The librarian could help you find books on the subject, and at the very least you could look it up in an encyclopedia. The information you got seemed very solid and authoritative, almost certainly because there was literally no other source for that information. Most people didn’t have the training or the money to travel for in-depth research, and the people do did were almost always doing it to write a book or contribute to an encyclopedia that would be stocked in libraries. For the average person, going to the library and getting all the information you could on a subject made you a bona fide expert on the subject within their social circle (and perhaps in their small community).

    All this changed of course after information became much more available via the internet (at least after the brief period in the beginning where most information online was from libraries being digitized and uploaded). Now instead of one encyclopedia entry and a hand-full of books (or often just one or two), there are hundreds or thousands of search engine results. The fact that it is essentially free to publish online means that most of those results end up being a self-proclaimed “expert” stating their perspective or opinion as fact. The end result is that there is far more information available, and ideas spread and develop far faster than they ever did before, but that distribution and evolution of ideas makes it almost impossible to nail down any single idea as a “fact.”

    To me it seems a matter no so much that there aren’t any truths, but more that the ideas behind any truth are changing so quickly and so constantly that none of it ever feels finished and settled. That is great for innovation, terrible for any sense of stability and security.

    (And of course people lie just as much as they ever did, they just have a much bigger platform to do it from.)

  • As for “post truth” reality, I can’t help but feel that the perception of a shift in how factual the world is probably correlates to the democratization of information.

    Very good point. I remember even ten years ago people were grumbling about how the “information gallery” of the Internet put the trash alongside the treasure, and the technology makes it very hard to distinguish between them. In the old days, some crackpot would have to walk around with a sandwich board scrawled with his rantings; nowadays I—oops, I mean he—can have a blog of his own.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    It’s not a “handle,” and normal caveats about correlation is not necessary causation, but … or

    BUT in capital letters because it’s needed ..

    Several studies have correlated both maternal and paternal age at time of childbirth with autism rates. As in, on post-35 parenting, the older you are, the more likely to have a kid with autism.

    Otherwise, there’s pretty strong evidence of two other things related to this.

    One is that it’s being diagnosed better.

    The other is that autism itself has a history of redefinition. Remember, today, it’s “autism spectrum disorder,” not autism. Also, before DSM-IIIR, Asperger’s didn’t exist. No, really: https://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2008/04/rediagnosis-increases-autism-most.html

    Finally, as parents of school-age parents know, there’s plenty of money to get your kid “that” diagnosis. If that sounds cynical, shoot me. It’s still real.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    As far as what motivates antivaxxers? Could be yet other things.

    From other beliefs that some of them have, could be the naturalistic fallacy. (Probably most likely on New Agey elements of the left, but among some Xn rightists. And don’t forget that pagan religion people can be on the right, not just left; the Nazis tied themselves in with the pre-Nazi völkish movement in Germany.)

    Given that the majority of them are on the far right, though (and Orac has rounded up recent polling and research on this), many antivaxxers seem to be driven by an anti-gummint philosophy above all else, though. And a fair amount of political figures out there peddle this. Some of this may be fear of economic insecurity. Some of it may simply be anti-governmentalism. Some of it may be anger over changes in Merika in general … that’s it’s become less white. That it’s become as you note, more income-stratified. That it’s simply become more populated. Anyway, here in Tex-åss, at least, I see anti-gummint anger as being the biggest motivator. Rick Perry, when he was gov, tried to make the Gardasil vaccine to prevent HPV made a requirement in Texas, and it was the right decision, IMO. And he got flamed by people even further to the right.

    As for the online discussion issue? This goes back to astronomy and whether or not to “engage” Velikovsky and his planetary motions nuttery nearly a century ago. Far predates the internet. I’m not sure there is a “right” answer.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    As for the big ticket? Per my comment on astronomers figuring out how to deal with Velikovsky, this is an issue of long, long standing inside and outside of matters political.
    Look at the Yellow Journalism that led to the Spanish-American War. Or, from my perspective, Wilson stacking the deck pre-1917 with what I believe was sham neutrality.
    And the pogroms in the Rhineland by knights of the First Crusade, which appear to be where many anti-Semitic myths either started or got first big “airplay.”
    So, I agree with you and the Jacobin author this is nothing new, or even close to it. Actually, I “hyper” agree with the author by going back far earlier than she does.

  • Anthrotheist

    “In the old days, some crackpot would have to walk around with a sandwich board . . .”

    If I have any optimism about the future of truth and facts, it is related to this. I honestly hope that a generation of people who have lived with the absurd overabundance of internet information will eventually come to view people who spout irrelevant drivel online the way you or I would view some weirdo with a sandwich board: as a crackpot. My hope is that the burgeoning generation won’t be concerned so much with unplugging from the internet (which would be my generation’s solution) so much as stigmatizing and ostracizing the most unhinged voices in favor of those who exhibit more consistent expertise. The internet doesn’t have to be a free-for-all of ideas, any more than television and radio had to be after the era of printed media. Given enough time, I honestly believe that the most disruptively absurd voices will be relegated to the internet equivalent of the tabloids or fringe talk-radio.

  • Chuck Johnson

    In this age of information, we have greater amounts of truth than ever.
    But we also have greater amounts of error, dishonesty and fraud than ever and the alarmists are focusing on that.
    We also have too much gullibility and that’s another source of worry.

  • TheMechanicalAdv

    This article itself is denying a very important truth: It’s impossible to make any significant portion of the world’s people refuse to consume what’s produced.

    The word “neoliberal” is just a way of making people feel guilty about participating in the economic system. Knowing full well that most people will do it anyway, simply because that’s how human life works, and so polluters will continue to profit. And that applies to all possible worlds. In this world, it’s said that Capitalism is the evil force destroying the climate. But in a world where Russia won the Cold War, exactly the same thing would be said about Communism.

    Simply admitting that global warming is happening and is caused by people, isn’t enough. If you don’t also admit that it’s caused by people doing physical things that cause warming according to the laws of physics, you’re still in denial. That means that the blame for the biggest cause of global warming, carbon refinery, falls on the mechanical operation of the refineries themselves. The only way the carbon industry can be defeated is first for the refineries to be dismantled. You don’t need politics or morality to do that. You don’t even need the law. All you need is a worldwide crew of competent mechanics to figure out how to safely shut them all down, and then break in, seize control, and do their stuff.