The post-truth era is here – what does it mean?

 

We’ve been hearing a lot recently about the ‘post-truth‘ era and what that means for the world. Generally, this is framed as meaning that the truth doesn’t matter any more; that it is becoming easier, and perhaps fully acceptable, for politicians to lie and get away with it. But I have started to wonder: what if it’s worse than that? What if the post-truth era means that people now deny the very existence of truth?

The roots of this lie in resentment towards politics as a whole. People have always dismissed politicians as ‘all a bunch of liars/crooks’, but it’s arguably become more commonplace to do so since the global recession hit. The natural progression from this is that you get to a point where the truth doesn’t matter. You start to draw a false equivalency between all politicians, painting them all as equally bad as each other, when in reality there are many good politicians as well as shades of grey within the bad ones. The US Presidential election is the obvious example here.

This folly of false equivalency pervades other areas of life outside of the political arena. I am reminded of the coverage following the death of Harambe, the gorilla who was shot after a child fell into his cage. A very sad story indeed, and one can debate the ethics of placing a human life above an animal life (for what it’s worth, I’m in the ‘child comes first’ camp), but that’s a separate discussion. What I am concerned with is the reporting of eye witness accounts. In one story, an eye witness claiming that the gorilla didn’t look threatening was placed in direct contrast to the views of animal experts, who said that he was displaying signs of danger and aggression. There is no comparison here. The eye witness account may be interesting in terms of the narrative of the event; it is, however, utterly irrelevant in terms of a scientific analysis of animal behaviour. Yet the impression the article gives is one of ‘I guess we’ll never know’.

Well…yes we do, actually. The truth here, or at least as close to the truth as we can possibly get, is the unanimous verdict of independent animal behaviour experts. Anything else is meaningless speculation.

Politics is following a similar path. We have recently seen an MP attacking an independent body of economic analysts because, in his opinion, they were not being positive enough: an opinion motivated entirely by emotion with not a single shred of factual evidence to back it up.

During election campaigns both here and across the pond we’ve had off-hand dismissals of experts and facts. It is tantamount to saying not just that the facts don’t matter, but that they don’t exist: everyone’s opinon is worth the same and it doesn’t matter how much knowledge you may have on a topic (because knowledge is worthless if you do not accept the existence of factual truths) – what matters is how people feel. It is a dangerous road to go down.

* David Gray is a musician, actor and writer based in Birmingham

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22 Comments

  • Richard Underhill 28th Nov '16 - 12:52pm

    Today is the right day for Nigel Farage to mean what he says by RESIGN.
    He is no longer interim leader of UKIP, but has he resigned as leader of the UKIP MEPs? There were fractious differences among them only recently, leading to hospitalisation and resignation.
    If the new UKIP leader wants to spend most, or all, of his time in the UK, he should also consider whether he should continue to be an MEP.

  • The renown academic Michael Shermer wrote a book “why people believe weird things”, it boiled down to because they want to. From the moon landings being a hoax, to the earth being flat – both of which are on a roll, nothing is too far from the truth for people to believe.

  • William Ross 28th Nov '16 - 5:27pm

    David

    I am afraid that you are rather selective about ” post-truth” politics. Michael Gove rightly objected to the campaigning of elite organisations who try to pretend that they know the future. Where is the self caused recession, the collapse in the FTSE, the collapse in foreign investment ( Nissan? Google?), the exit of the City banks, the punishment budget? The OECD and the IMF failed to predict the Great Recession. The head of the IMF is former French Finance Minister facing fraud charges. Is she credible? The great OBR in 2014 had a more bullish view of the value of North Sea oil than the SNP!

    We Brexiteers are not so easily mislead. We have been warning of the massive dangers of the elitist EU integrationist project for decades. Give me a prediction: what happens to Italy and the EU after Sunday?

  • Ed Shepherd 28th Nov '16 - 6:29pm

    I think we need to consider two different things: the existence of truth based on the opinions of experts in a relatively narrow field of study (the views of animal behaviourists about the gorilla) and the predictions about future world-events by experts/polititicians/organisations. I can accept that animal experts will be more right than most people about the demeanour of a simian. But many people are rightly sceptical about the predictions of experts/politicians/organisations when it comes to economics and politics. Consider: The failure to predict the 9/11 attacks, the failure to foresee what politics might develop in an impoverished, humiliated Russia, the failure to work out that a sanctioned Iraq could not build WMD, the failure to work out that neo-liberal economics and globalisation would lead to alienated populations with contempt for their traditional leaders, the failure to realise that overthrowing strongmen-leaders in the Middle East might lead to chaos, the failure to predict that an EU that seems to be ceaselessly growing might annoy many of it’s inhabitants, the failure to predict the dot-com boom-and-bust, the failure to predict that bad debts would lead to a recession….the list goes on. Oddly enough, all of those could be predicted by any reasonably intelligent person who reads a good newspaper and watches the news on TV. But our politicians, their advisers and the plethora of organisations that support them totally failed to predict these events. Perhaps the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus really is cleverer than them?

  • William – I believe the dangers of the EU falling apart are far higher than what you see as the dangers of the EU itself. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m scared about what will happen to Europe and Italy after Sunday because I fear Beppe Grillo and his ridiculously vacuous populism will win: vacuous populism unfortunately seems to be the way politics is going. But that doesn’t mean that the EU project was a bad one. It just means it’s currently not very popular: what will replace it if it does fall apart is a terrifying prospect in my opinion.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t buy the argument that all Brexit voters were misled/misinformed. I think many saw through the lies of the leave campaign and voted to leave despite that, rather than because of it (although perhaps my view is skewed as most of my Brexit-voting friends voted that way from more of a Bennite, left wing basis rather than taking Farage’s nonsense at face value). I hope the EU survives what can only be described as an existential crisis, and I fear a surge to the far right if it doesn’t.

    Ed: Of course I’m not suggesting that financial experts are always right. There were people who predicted the financial crisis (Vince cable being one), although I accept that many experts didn’t. An earlier draft of the article warned not to be blind to vested interests which can skew the view of organisations such as the IMF and the World Bank (of whom I am certainly no cheerleader for), but it lead to a slightly different discussion. My issue with Michael Gove’s comments is that he didn’t cite any reasonable facts to support his view – his recent comments that civil servants are trying to over-complicate Brexit are equally banal. What on earth does Michael Gove know that thousands of civil servants apparently don’t when it comes to these negotiations? He, like many others , are simply playing to the gallery and telling people what they want to hear; what they *feel* might be right. If he’s right, he should provide some sort of evidence to contradict that of the experts he so despises, rather than just political posturing.

  • Richard Underhill 28th Nov '16 - 7:14pm

    Sceptics could have a look at what MPs actually do. Channel 5 at 9pm.
    The Times comments “Half decent programmes are rare on Channel 5, so when something as worthwhile and watchable as this pops up it deserves a deafening round of applause. Generally speaking, MPs hold a surgery once a week to hear the views and concerns of their constituents. In this programme – dedicated to the murdered MP Jo Cox – the cameras were allowed to witness three high-profile MPs in action. They are Nick Clegg (Lib Dem), Jacob Rees-Mogg (Con) and Naz Shah (Lab).
    Anyone who thinks that MPs are in it for themselves should watch this programme because all three of them come across as hardworking, sincere and self-evidentially decent people who care about their constituents and are acutely aware of what they can – and can’t – do to help.
    Obviously the woman who was ashamed of being British post-Brexit and wanted to express her frustration to Rees-Mogg was never going to go anywhere.
    Neither could he do much to help the retired captain from the merchant navy who reckoned all HMRC employees spent all day on Twitter and a computer worm developed by the Israelis was taking over the world. (He had Rees-Mogg fiddling with his glasses in a concerned sort of way).
    On the other hand all three were willing to do their utmost to help their constituents who have fallen victim to gross injustice or bureaucratic insanity.
    “The majority of cases” says Shah, ” are people who come to an MP as a last resort. They’ve knocked on every other door”.
    As Rees-Mogg points out, every so often the letters they write change someone’s life for the better.

  • “The truth here, or at least as close to the truth as we can possibly get, is the unanimous verdict of independent animal behaviour experts.”

    If you Google “was Harambe a threat to child” you will have no difficulty at all finding many animal behaviour experts who believe he was not acting in a threatening way at all, for example :-

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-31/gorilla-harambe-protecting-boy-from-screaming-zoo-crowd:-expert/7462198

    http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/gorilla-trying-kill-protect-boy-8087981

    I say this not to catch you out, but to point out what I think the whole issue is with this idea of “post-truth”. It seems to me that it is a term often used by people who are trying to elevate their own subjective opinions to the status of objective truth – with the obvious corollary that those who disagree with them are not being truthful.

    Quite often I think this kind of attitude is not justified. An obvious example was the frequent complaining by Remain campaigners that the Leavers were all telling fibs – glossing over the fact that many of the Remain camp’s claims were pretty questionable as well. The same kind of thing happened during the AV referendum.

  • Thanks for this Stuart. I tried to find some opposing animal expert views and came up with nothing, so this is useful.

    I’d still stand by what I said about the article mentioned, simply because they did not quote any experts for the opposing view, just ignorant bystanders (I use ignorant here not as a pejorative, but a reasonable description of their knowledge of animal behaviour, in much the same way that I am competent ignorant of it!)

    With the referendum, I agree there were some whoppers on both sides. However, from an economic perspective, it was rare to see leave campaigners using any sort of evidence to back up their claims. It seemed to be primarily ‘We’re Britain! How dare people question our ability to make it on our own!’ which strikes me as a rather childish (if sadly successful) tactic. It’s possible that Brexit will benefit our economy. Highly unlikely, but possible. But if you’re going to make that argument, there needs to be some sort of substance to that claim.

  • I wonder whether the ‘post truth’ commentators are rather exaggerating the point. Both with the referendum and the US election the voters had to make a binary choice in very difficult circumstances: with the referendum because there was no informed opinion (because none was possible) of what the consequences of their vote might be; and in the US because of the failure of their political system to produce opposing candidates who did not induce strong antipathy from large sectors of the electorate. I fear for France, because their political system too is in essence a binary one. Perhaps Italy will confound my optimism, though it is a country fairly used to dealing with the consequences of uncertainty. The Austrian presidential election is binary, but Germany’s political system should be strong enough to cope with a surge in support for AfD later in the year. So the lesson is: don’t present people with binary choices in politics, especially second rate choices. Plural, diverse and devolved political systems tend to work more effectively. (Only tend to, though)

  • Paul Murray 29th Nov '16 - 8:22am

    It seems to me that the neologism “post-truth” simply means the exaggerations and calculated misrepresentations of one’s opponents. In that sense it is describing a behaviour as old as politics.

    A couple of days ago Wolfgang Münchau in the FT wrote an interesting piece about what he described as the liberal elite’s “Marie Antoinette moment”. He said:

    “The truth about the impact of Brexit is that it is uncertain, beyond the ability of any human being to know… “Don’t know” is the technically correct answer. Before the referendum, Project Fear was merely a monumental tactical miscalculation. Today it is stupidity. One of the debates was whether people should be listening to experts. We have moved beyond that. Because of a tendency to exaggerate, macroeconomists are no longer considered experts on the macroeconomy.”

    I agree with Münchau on this: forecasts are not facts. “Experts” whose trade is only marginally different from that of Mystic Meg should be challenged.

    My great concern is that the conflation of “expert” with “pundit” leaves genuine experts – climate scientists, public health experts etc – at risk of being tarred with the same brush.

  • John Peters 29th Nov '16 - 8:46am

    What we need is a new dictionary.

    Racist – someone in your own party who disagrees with your views.
    Fascist – someone in an opposing party who disagrees with your views.
    Post-truth – a fact promulgated by an opposing party.
    Truth – a fact promulgated by your own party.
    Populist – a successful politician in an opposing party.

  • William Ross 29th Nov '16 - 11:08am

    David Gray

    I strongly disagree with you on the economic implications of Brexit. Leave explained how Brexit could help us but Remain has never explained why Brexit would be so awful. They always just cite Project Fear, which is not going too well.
    No, no, no.

  • Sue Sutherland 29th Nov '16 - 6:38pm

    Discussions about truth have been happening for centuries. Jesus told Pontius Pilate He came to tell people the truth but Pilate turned away saying “what is truth?”. I think what is happening now is that emotion is taking over as the main reason for voters deciding who to support. This is something that western democracies have been wary of since World War II, since Hitler used oratory to stir up hatred, but it seems that now all the proponents of logical politics are wedded to the destructive policy of austerity, and much of the population has had enough of this, they can only choose extremists who tell them everything will be great and these foreign people are to blame for your misfortunes . The only way to fight this is by using emotion in turn not more and more logic.

  • @ John Peters 8.46am
    This made me laugh out loud – almost split me coffee this lunchtime – Thanks!

  • David Gray gives two examples of opinion being questioned. Truth and opinion are different. One of the problems is that the borderlines of opinion are not clear. Our news is full of opinion but this opinion is often stated as if it is fact.

    Michael Portillo on 3rd November on This Week stated that the Prime Minister could make the vote on Article 50 a vote of confidence. I complained to the BBC pointing out this is not possible because of the Fixed-term Parliament Act 2011. They replied that Michael Portillo was giving his opinion implying that it didn’t matter he was saying something that couldn’t happen!

    Even something like the number of unemployed people in the UK is not “truth” as it is based on the Labour Force Survey (about 40,000 households and 100,000 people).

    @ Sue Sutherland

    You are referring to John 18:37d and 18:38, but John was not an eye witness and the majority of New Testament scholars date it c 90-120. It is extremely likely that these verses were created either by John or his Christian community and are not historical. I don’t think you should take an example based on faith to link it to a discussion of truth.

  • However the lack of truth is more about lies. As children we learn to lie. We even think that “white lies” are a good thing. However our news can be full of lies and our politicians state things that are untrue. An answer is to ensure that both journalists and politicians pay a price if they lie. Elsewhere I have made suggestions about newspapers so here I will make some about politicians. The Conservatives had a saying “three strikes and you are out” to be applied to those claiming benefit, but we could apply it to politicians: first lie – a fine; second lie – banned from public office and standing for election for five years; third lie – banned from public office and standing for election for life. Also I would make it illegal for ministers not to answer the questions they are asked in Parliament, to end the political scoring of Prime Ministers Question Time and make it what it should be – a way of holding the executive to account.

  • Most of the people talking about “post-truth” do believe in truth and are using the term to highlight something that worries them. That’s something to hold on to. I find many people, some who you wouldn’t expect, saying that right and wrong are “just a matter of opinion”. OK, I say, so my belief that the Nazi death camps were evil and the opinion of someone else that they were a good thing is just a matter of opinion?

    At the most basic level, it is true that my bedroom window is to the left of the bed and the door is to the right. If I turned the bed round, the opposite would be true; but I haven’t. It is true that Hilary Clinton got more votes than Donald Trump. It is true that Brexit won the referendum. It is demonstrably true that Farage made various statements during that campaign, that he is now denying. For the BBC, for example, to feel it has to balance the demonstrable factual truth with a false statement is cowardly.

    The case of the gorilla is a bit different. If you quote an expert opinion and then an opposed bystander opinion, anyone can judge which opinion has more weight. After all, in any field, experts do disagree. But there are cases – such as the reality of human influence over climate change – where the opinion on one side is overwhelming and on the other side is a handful of mavericks and paid mouthpieces. Occasionally the handful of mavericks can be right and the massive majority can be wrong – but an honest appraisal will stress that the lone maverick scientist and the vast majority are not equivalent.

    Finally, people do get a huge amount of misleading stuff from the net (along with a lot of education), but I wonder how much it changes things. If US voters believed without checking a false story that Hilary Clinton had been arrested, were they going to vote for her anyway?

  • The new tool of communications called ‘spin’, used back in the days of Campbell and Mandelson, must have seemed to be a brilliant way of massaging ‘truths’, into a package to suit [a], [your], particular political outlook.

    But pretty soon, everyone was ‘at it’,.. spinning a bit of truth, with a spoonful of opinion and a pinch of political commentary, until two decades later, no one is quite sure what truth is anymore.

    Is the distrust of experts and their particular versions of ‘truth’, simply an own goal, born from the inevitable consequence of the decades of [not so clever after all], bending and spinning of truth, up to the point that ‘truth~iness’ has now become lost.?

    Are we reaping what ‘spinners’, collectively, have sown.?

  • Richard Underhill 10th Dec '16 - 6:39pm

    Tory MP Jacob Rees Mogg was on Have I Got News For You, ignoring Tim Farron’s advice to say NO unless you are Charles Kennedy. Moggy was taken through his forecasts for the Tory leadership (three wrongs before one right) and the results of recent by-elections, to the amusement of the studio audience. A palindrome in the House of Commons proves that he can talk backwards.
    He refused to wear a wig, not being a Whig, but made no mention of his father writing in The Times that he had been offered the leadership of the Whig Party.
    He reads the Financial Times but dislikes its Pro-Remain views. Most newspapers follow the views of their proprietors or their readerships. In the case of the FT they follow the money. Could it be that he is wrong and they are right?
    Digby Jones has the same problem.
    He was Trade Minister in Gordon Brown’s Government Of All the Talents, but is not a member of the Labour Party and now sits on the crossbenches as an Independent. As guest of the day on the Daily Politics he found his monopoly of wisdom challenged by an impressive female Liberal Democrat, who has also been on NHS boards for nine years.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Feb '17 - 6:16pm

    Paul Murray: “the neologism “post-truth” simply means the exaggerations and calculated misrepresentations of one’s opponents. In that sense it is describing a behaviour as old as politics.”
    Neologism is a new word tome, I needed to look it up. Please consider what Anita Roddick wrote in Body and Soul, Ebury Press, 1991. Page 108
    “In a society in which politicians no longer lead by example, ethical conduct in unfashionable, and the media does not give people real information on what is happening in the world, what fascinates me is the concept of turning our shops into centres of education”.
    She failed her 11+ exam and became a teacher in a secondary modern school. She had strong opinions about bank managers who were only interested in money and the cosmetics industry which was hiring advertising agencies to sell dreams to 80 year old women with wrinkled skin.
    I am trying to imagine her applying for money on Dragons Den. A Dragon might typically say “I give money to charity, but this is business” to the relief of the other Dragons, not accepting involvement with society as an integral part of business.
    This previously-owned book was £1.50 in a SCOPE charity shop. ISBN 0-7126–1719-8.
    I am trying to imagine her and/or her husband, as a Dragon talking about franchising, somehow it seems unlikely.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Mar '17 - 11:46am

    Anita Roddick wrote in Body and Soul that newspapers in the Body Shop are re-used as bedding for horses and then composted for gardens.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Mar '17 - 12:09pm

    As Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major persuaded the Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism, to our surprise. As Prime Minister he opted out of joining the Euro. We should be careful with hindsight. The euro would have been different if the UK had been a member. Italy has strengths we should respect, for instance someone who wants the latest Ferrari needs to be invited, male and female fashions sell for premium prices, the Italian lakes are beautiful and larger than others in neighbouring countries such as Slovenia.

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