Truth in a Post-Truth Age

Last week BBC Radio 4 broadcast a series of 15 minute podcasts over five days on the topic of Truth. It was noticeable that each of the five podcasts mentioned Donald Trump in one context or another, who seems to have become synonymous with the idea that the world is suffering from an epidemic of truth decay. In the first podcast we were told that an analysis of Trump’s tweets have shown that he misleads the public 7.6 times a day (this did make me wonder what counts as a 0.6 deception). However, having listened to the five podcasts (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bjz95t), it is clear that whilst Trump might be the current and most spectacular symptom of post-truth America, he is not the sole cause (Kurt Anderson, Episode 2).

The series was launched with a podcast by Dr Kathryn Murphy, Fellow in English at Oriel College, Oxford, who examined the striking contemporary parallels between Sir Francis Bacon’s 1620s essay ‘On Truth’ with today’s pressing issues. In his time, Bacon protested against ‘corrupt lovers of the lie’ and classified the intellectual fallacies of his time under four categories which he called idols:

  • Idols of the tribe – common tendencies of the human race to exaggeration, distortion and disproportion. Bacon diagnosed confirmation bias before the term existed.
  • Idols of the cave – within the mind of the individual. These are the blinkers and silos of our identities which blind us to different points of view.
  • Idols of the market place – errors arising from the false significance bestowed upon words, the imprecision of words and slippery terminology. Bacon thus anticipated the science of semantics.
  • Idols of the theatre – the human tendency to adopt authority uncritically.

Kathryn Murphy’s question was – doesn’t this all seem very familiar? In other words, this is not the first time in history that there has been confusion about the meaning of truth. But she also suggested that we might now need to add Idols of the algorithm to Bacon’s list, to name new confusions.

Bacon advocated writing in aphorisms to give us brief glimpses of possible truths which would demand active engagement, probing and testing what is read. In a post-truth world it is not that truth is dead, but that too many people refuse to engage critically with truth and test ideas. Could a tweet act like an aphorism?

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 1)

We live, we keep being told, in a “post-truth” world, suffering an epidemic of “truth decay”, but we are not the first to fear information overload, disinformation and fake news.

‘In the 1620s, the statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon opened the final edition of his Essayes, which had been the first book of their kind in English when first published in 1597, with an essay entitled  ‘Of Truth’.

He was driven by his own personal political woes but also by the preoccupations of his era: rapidly changing technology (the telescope and microscope made the world feel at once bigger and smaller); America and its inhabitants challenging European understanding and sense of identity; passionately opposing factions continuing the arguments of the Reformation; war in Europe forcing the question of just how far Britain should get involved in the Continent; and – to spread the news and unrest about it – the first organised distribution of newspapers in England had just begun.

In the second podcast in the series, Kurt Andersen, author of ‘Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History’, discusses America’s ‘iffy’ relationship with reason, rationality and empirical truth. This was an interesting podcast for a non-American, such as myself. Andersen suggested that America was created from scratch by dreamers, gold hunters and the promise of Eldorado. It was a blank slate new world for wishful thinking and fantasy, shaped by natural selection of those willing to believe in advertising eagerness and to credit the untrue because it was exciting.

In the mid 20th century America’s immersion in fantasy accelerated with the arrival of Disneyland and TV which enhanced the unreal and make-believe.  For three centuries America’s gatekeepers managed to relegate ‘nonsense’ to the fringes, but by the 1960s, they lost the will and ability to keep true and false separate. From the 1960s onwards, America (and from my perspective, not only America) has seen the growth of extreme individualism, the pursuit of happiness above all, and undiscriminating acceptance of all understanding of reality. During this time, large numbers of academics have moved away from reason and a scientific world view, to a social construction of reality in which all is equally true and false and the paradigm is one of anything goes. Factual reality is now just one option. Americans feel entitled to their own facts as well as their own opinions.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 2)

As he unpicks the fantastical beliefs that run through America’s past and present, the writer and broadcaster Kurt Andersen asks if the US is now entering a post-truth era.

The author of Fantasyland and co-founder of Spy magazine, Kurt has spent many decades separating fact and fiction and in this essay he explores the historical roots of America’s weakness for alternative realities.

From the religious visions of the Pilgrim Fathers and Joseph Smith, to the showbiz dreams of PT Barnum and Walt Disney, the proliferation of conspiracy theories and the new age of virtual reality and internet chat rooms, Kurt tells the story of a nation in which fantasy and reality have long been intertwined.

In Episode 3, Juliet Samuel discusses the role of markets in defining truth.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 3)

In the depths of the financial crisis of 2008, American bankers-turned-regulators met to discuss plans to restore market confidence by injecting vast quantities of cash into the failing system. “What about $1 trillion?” , Neel Kashkari is reported to have suggested. “We’ll get killed,” Hank Paulson is said to have replied. And so the figure of $700 billion was agreed, the biggest bailout in history calculated not on market truths but on political realities.

Juliet Samuel writes for The Daily Telegraph and in this essay she looks back at the recent history of financial markets to ask whether markets really are, as many economists believe, vast mechanisms geared towards discovering truth – the true price of assets, the true risks and rewards of investment and therefore the most efficient allocation of cash.

As she considers financial market failures such as the 2008 crash and the euro crisis, Juliet argues that, ultimately, there is still a compelling reason for believing that markets are as close to economic truth as we can get and it is almost impossible to beat them. Investors who try to do so, so-called “active managers” who are probably managing some of your pension fund right now, have consistently failed to get to the truth more accurately than the market. What we are learning is how and when markets can discover the truth – and when it’s simply undiscoverable.

The fourth podcast was presented by Pankaj Mishra, who discussed Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography – ‘The story of my experiments in truth’. Gandhi always kept an open mind and thought that there were at least seven points of view, but that they were not all correct at the same time and in the same circumstances.

The focus of this podcast was on the necessity, as expressed by both Ghandi and Nietzsche, to recognise that human beings can only know partial and contingent truths and perspectives; there are a multiplicity of truths and perspectives. Nietzsche thought rational truth an illusion.

In our post-truth age we agree to agree because we share the same perspective, not because of rational truth. We advance our own truth claims with our own biases and live in echo chambers which are amplified by social media. There has been ethical and epistemological breakdown, with people entrenched in different value systems and viciously hostile to each other’s truths. We rationalise and justify anything at the expense of ordinary reality. But we don’t have to remain imprisoned by our biases.

Gandhi’s message was that to see/find truth we must be prepared to hear the other side, but he rejected all claims of objective truths. Relative truth was his beacon and he thought relative truth was best found in action. We must hold fast to truth by exploring the attitudes and motives of our opponents. Man is not capable of knowing absolute truth and therefore not competent to punish. Truth in action does not admit a violence inflicted on one’s opponent. The golden rule is mutual toleration. We will never all think alike. It is openness of mind that strengthens truth in us.

Gandhi realised that an age of pluralism has the potential to degenerate into an age of nihilism.  For him truth is too important to be left to politicians, technocrats, journalists and the like. We must all strive for truth in our everyday practices of altruism, humility, compassion and self-evaluation.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 4)

Mahatma Gandhi wrote “Devotion to this Truth is the sole justification for our existence. All our activities should be centred in Truth. Truth should be the very breath of our life.”

The final podcast in this series was by Simon Blackburn, author of the ‘Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy’ and until his retirement Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University.

Simon Blackburn’s message was that even in a post-truth world we are pretty good at judging what is true. For example, we know when it is safe to cross the road and we know that not everyone should be trusted equally about everything. On the whole we grow into being good, practical epistemologists. But we find it difficult to settle doubt ourselves. We dismiss inconvenient facts and find conspiracy theories irresistible . Bewilderment about where truth lies can be quick to set in.

Blackburn claims that the issues are more verbal than substantive. We find ways of describing things difficult. All our terms can be controversial and contested. He quotes Charles Sanders Peirce as saying that we must not begin by talking of pure ideas, we must begin with men and their conversation. We shouldn’t lose ourselves in abstract thoughts about truth, thought and reason, but look at the actual uses of words to sift out descriptions that really matter. Some descriptions have consequences and some sources of information are more trustworthy.

So long as we have thoughts and beliefs at all, we have notions of truth and falsity.

Truth beckons but it does need careful wooing. If you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 5)

“In simple affairs of life we’re often pretty good at judging what’s true. We have designed, tested and trusted instruments to help detect whether an electrical circuit is live, whether there is petrol in the car or pressure in the tyres. Given this background of success, it is perhaps surprising to find how often scepticism about truth and about our capacities has reared its head in the history of human thought…”

So where does this series of podcasts leave us.

It seems that truth decay has happened before in history and is likely to re-occur in eras of information overload when there is a blizzard of information and disinformation and conspiracy theories can gain traction. Perhaps America’s history, in which fantasy and reality have long been intertwined, makes it particularly susceptible to truth decay, which given its position of power in the world, cannot be good for the rest of us. Financial markets can be equally irrational and unpredictable. According to Juliet Samuel, economic and financial truth is a constantly moving target and cannot remove the next crisis.

This all sounds like doom and gloom with no hope for finding truth. But as McGilchrist says (he would have been a good addition to the programme), this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to seek truth or a multiplicity of truths. For Gandhi this requires action in every day practices of altruism, humility, compassion and self-evaluation. For Simon Blackburn it requires sifting out descriptions that really matter and sources of information that are more trustworthy.

We shouldn’t give up on seeking truth. The word ‘true’ suggests a relationship between things and is related to the word trust.

McGilchrist tells us in his book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World)  that Heidegger related truth to ‘unconcealing’. It is come at by a process, a coming into being of something. It is an act, a journey, not a thing. It has degrees. It is found by removing things, rather than putting things together. Truth is process, not object.

From my perspective this means that we have work to do.  We must critically engage with it. This must surely have implications for how we live our lives in this post-truth age.