Is Life in a ‘Post-Truth’ World Sustainable?

How do we overcome the human tendency to resist verifiable reality? Lee McIntyre takes this on in this installment of MIT's Essential Knowledge series.

Lee McIntyre
MIT Press
Feb 2018

Post-Truth is a new entry in MIT’s “Essential Knowledge” series, a collection of thin volumes that boast their accessibility into overviews of “compelling topics” ranging from the cultural and historical, to the scientific and technical. If you felt so inclined to go slightly deeper than a Wikipedia article on internet memes, say, you might pick up Limor Schifman’s “Essential Knowledge” book, Memes In Digital Culture, and learn what memes can tell us about ourselves and our digital footprint.

Lee McIntyre’s contribution to the series is on the concept of “post-truth”. He doesn’t give a one-line definition of “post-truth”, but rather works for the remainder of the pages to describe the atmosphere of it, a culture of campaigns of lies motivated by greed, gaslighting from public figures, and an environment where misinformation is spread as simply an opposing viewpoint. He introduces the idea as the winner of the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year, after a 2,000 percent spike in usage over 2015. It is the climate of disregarding facts as partisan, the “abandonment of evidential standards in reasoning”, and spares no one’s feelings in calling lies lies. He says, cynically, that to look at the Oxford definition, he gets the sense that post-truth is not so much to claim that “truth does not exist, as that facts are subordinate to our political point of view.” This sort of study is building on the same body of work as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2005) and sure enough, McIntyre also discusses the climate change debate.

He takes us through topics on science-denial, different anecdotes throughout history, and moving on to the behavioral aspect, various studies that show, when provided with corrective information, that liberals don’t double down on their mistaken assumptions, while conservatives do. His science denial chapter is successful in pointing out how scientists come to their conclusions, after research and experimentation and rigorous peer review. He points out the ways that science-deniers can impeach potentially all science by suggesting that if one scientist is biased, then all scientists are biased. He writes convincingly that while some theories cannot be verified 100 percent, this understanding should be embraced as an asset, since it doesn’t carve the findings in stone and allows for re-evaluation once better data comes in. What amused me about this, however, is that while he concedes that evolution cannot be proven 100 percent true, he says as a parenthetical aside that neither, then, can the theory that the Earth is round (as if surely we can all agree on at least that much, right?). The reason this is funny is that it seems to betray his own ignorance that deep within the smelliest bowels of the internet are dwellers known as “flat-earthers“, a fringe community of science deniers who refute any evidence that the Earth is round that is submitted to them. Some people in the communities are trolls who are just building on the nonsense of the true-believing flat-earthers, but that you are unable to tell the difference between the science-deniers and the people making fun of them is one of the most troubling things about this.

He talks about the history of the news media and the way media companies began offering an opportunity for a contrarian viewpoint to respond to their subjects, creating a kind of false equivalency on topics like climate change and vaccines. He then talks about the rise of the internet and its contribution to the decline in print media as a business, and the creation of information silos in social media algorithms. This gives us the ability to tune out the news sources we don’t like and the headlines that don’t fit our established world-view. He also spends time discussing fake news stories (as opposed to news stories Trump finds unfavorable and labels “fake news”). He also laments that what is part and parcel for the post-truth reality is just rejecting facts that don’t work for you, no matter the evidence. “It may seem unbelievable to those who care about facts and truth, but why would those who wish to achieve a political result bother with covering their tracks anymore when they pay no political price for doing so?” He goes on to cite Trump’s birther conspiracy theory that did not ruin his career, but helped to get him into The White House.

I wish McIntyre had spent more time writing about the FCC’s “fairness doctrine“, the 1949 rule that stated that broadcasters could discuss controversial topics if they did so in an “honest, equitable, and balanced way”. It did not require the broadcasters give equal time to the contrasting viewpoint, so you could better understand the context of the points they were trying to illuminate without being labeled biased. People are now saying that the abolition of the fairness doctrine by the Reagan administration is what gave way to the problem McIntyre presents in his chapter on news organizations giving too much air time to misinformed opposing viewpoints — but McIntyre never mentions it.

He does successfully list financial greed by corporations as the motivating factor for almost all misinformation campaigns in all of these chapters. Whether it’s tobacco companies, oil companies, corporate news organizations that have a financial interest in appealing to a wider base, money is essentially the root of all evil here. He doesn’t lay it on thick, but you start to pick up that every one of these players did it because facts were getting in the way of their making more money. I could have stood to have more meditation on the corrupting factor of greed, but that might be a different book.

McIntyre’s area of expertise is philosophy. He is a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and teaches ethics at Harvard Extension School. He has published extensively on philosophy, human behavior and social sciences, and ethics and law. It is this background that uniquely qualifies McIntyre to give this particular lens on the subject of post-truth. After giving us think-piecey chapters on science denial, social media, and fake news that — don’t get me wrong, are engaging and informative — he hits us with the abstract concept of postmodernism. He cites one possible root of post-truth in the postmodernists’ effort to police themselves. The reductive version is: there is no such thing as objective truth. He goes on to discuss the Sokal hoax, a fake academic paper written as a joke, that was somehow published in a leading postmodernist publication, to make a point. Sokal was attempting to make the postmodernist field better by exposing its flaws, but, as McIntyre points out, some of the voyeurs were on the right side of the political spectrum. They took from these theories what they liked and used them against the left.

He spends the last chapter discussing how to fight post-truth, to reassert the superiority of truth. “The issue for me is not learning how to adjust living in a world in which facts do not matter, but instead to stand up for the notion of truth and learn how to fight back.” It involves calling out lies and liars when we find them and providing a counternarrative to what the liar is saying. He admits this can be difficult, as people are less likely to listen when they are feeling insecure and threatened, so nuance and tact are required. He advocates we all diversify our news sources and our social media feeds. To vet our sources. And he’s right.

While McIntyre defines the start of “post-truth” as the ’50s, in his chapter on science denial, with tobacco companies conspiring to impeach a scientific study on the effects of cigarette tar on rats, I would remind you that science denial has always existed. Weren’t lies made up about Charles Darwin disavowing his life’s work on his deathbed? Was Galileo not convicted of heresy by the church for submitting that the Earth was not, in fact, the center of the universe? Science denial has always been a factor in human civilization, and skeptics of the truth have always obfuscated facts. We’ve always had politicians tell little white lies to get elected, and we’ve survived presidents that had adversarial relationships with the press. Lying, or bending the truth, has always existed in politics, though the book submits we are in an era that is particularly lousy with it, and perhaps these efforts have culminated in a period of post-truth. Those things existed, and they brought us to this point, but he doesn’t say that.

Collecting this data in one place has value and holds importance for the future, but you kind of know what to expect if you’ve read any think pieces in the last two years on Donald Trump’s relationship with the truth and efforts to distract people from facts. McIntyre does well to discuss media information silos, (where people are finding and reading news that already fits their confirmed biases, exacerbated by social media algorithms) but you begin to wonder if you are still inside while reading Post-Truth. McIntyre states in the preface that the tone of this book is maybe a little less dispassionately neutral than you might be used to, but concedes there was no way for him to be completely objective without resorting to manufacturing the same kind of false equivalencies he discusses later in the book. “Do we want to live in a world where policy is made based on how it makes us feel rather than how well it will work in reality?”

McIntyre’s prose is accessible, his information engaging, and his particular takes are worthy of our time. As I continued, it became easy for me to imagine the audience that McIntyre was writing for: an engaged, NPR listener who either works at a university or lives in a college town and wanted something to keep him or herself occupied while traveling. Or perhaps an undergraduate student taking a journalism class assigned the book by their TA. It starts to feel a little like the left is talking to itself. I can imagine those on the right writing it off as the same kind of smugness they’ve come to expect from the liberal East Coast elite. In a perfect world, people on the right end of the political spectrum would read this book and see the light, but in that endeavor McIntyre has his work cut out for him.