By: Rebecca Hill
Getting to the truth today takes more effort. Finding it with a barrage of information on social media and 24-hour news cycles, is exhausting. A recent poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 47% of those surveyed found it difficult to know whether the information they received could be trusted. The question for many: what is the truth, and how can they tell if it’s false or not.
According to Lee McIntyre, Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History, Boston University, we are now living in a post-truth society. McIntyre believes that post-truth is an attempt to compel someone to believe in something whether evidence exists for it or not. One memorable example: Donald Trump claiming his inauguration crowd was larger than Obama’s crowd even though photographic evidence indicated otherwise.
Recently, McIntyre published a book about post-truth for MIT Press’s Essential Knowledge series. It’s a short little book packed with lots of valuable information for those of us looking for truth in this post-truth society. I talked to McIntyre and here is what he shared with me.
RH: How is post-truth any different from lying?
LM: Lying is when you are trying to get someone to believe something untrue. I think that it shows, at least, a modicum of respect to the person who you are speaking with because you recognize their right for them to withhold their cognitive consent, i.e., to say you are lying, or I don’t believe you. But post-truth is much more insidious. It’s when what’s said is beyond lying. For instance, a person says I am going to tell you what is true, whether you believe it or not. It is a tactic that is used by authoritarians and wannabe authoritarians and is about dominance and power. It means that I can tell you what’s true and it becomes your reality.
RH: So, are we living in a post-truth society?
LM: I do believe we are in a post-truth society though there has been some real confusion on this point. For instance, if you have read Steven Pinker’s latest article in Skeptic that we can’t be in a PT era. Why? You just made a statement that you think is true, therefore, refuting that it is true. By making the claim that so many people care about the threat to truth, it is therefore inherent that it could not be a threat to the truth. But I disagree.
Clearly, a threat to the truth exists. When I state that we are living in a post-truth society, I am not saying that nobody cares about the truth. I’m saying that there are people who engage in this tactic, political subordination of reality, and pay no price whatsoever and are not accountable for doing this. Truth is under threat, and people who use it as a tactic for authoritarian exist and pay no price for using it.
RH: When you say that they are not paying the price for it, what do you mean?
LM: For instance, when Donald Trump When Trump sat in front of the National Weather Service map and marked it with a Sharpie, that was “post-truth 101.” Because what he was really saying was is “this is what is true- I don’t care about the evidence and what anyone else says-I took out my Sharpie and made it come true.” The same is true with his inauguration claims. He used a lie to create a reality that he wanted. That’s post-truth.
RH: How did we get to this point?
LM: There are five roots of PT. One is science denial, which for sixty years, the cigarette companies banded together to deny the truth about cigarettes and cancer. That denial provided the blueprint for the sixty years of science denial about evolution, climate change, etc.
Other factors like cognitive bias are exacerbated by the decline of traditional media and the rise of social media. Our brain pathways tell us to look or confirmation, we look for confirmation on the internet, not ABC News, and find someone who agrees with us-that’s all the confirmation we need.
Finally, I believe too that, although this is controversial with some people, the claim that objective truth doesn’t exist, and any truth claim is a grab for power. For instance, to say that there is no water crisis in Flint when, in fact, there is a water crisis. It’s the idea that everything is all narrative and that there is no truth.
RH: Are people confused about truth, or facts?
LM: No, I think that people know exactly what it means. I believe that it is wired into us. Cognitive bias is also wired into us, so sometimes we want to pretend something is false when deep down we know it is true. I think that common person has a very good understanding of what is the facts, truth, and reality. Philosophers have debated the appropriate theory of truth, but I don’t think that there are very many people who will claim that truth doesn’t matter. People have a radical misunderstanding of how we condition beliefs based on evidence or build justifications based on data or probability. They don’t understand their cognitive biases and end up believing what they want to believe because they are just so poor at reasoning. It is not that they have the wrong concept of truth, it’s just that they are not rigorous in how they form their beliefs.
RH: When you say most people understand the concept of the truth, what about people who are inclined to pick and choose the facts that represent their beliefs or ignore the facts?
LM: The problem is if most people start with ideology and know what they want to believe is true, then they gather facts to bolster it. Here the difficulty exists. People should gather facts, then form a conclusion. So, it is very easy in some cases for people who come to different conclusions because they started from different ideological beliefs and gathered a different set of facts. I can show you five studies that show immigration is a net drag on the economy and I can show you five studies that show immigration is a plus for the economy. They are not lying. They just started from different ideological positions and gathered data to bolster what they wanted to believe is true.
RH: Has our reliance on social media impact our ability to discern the truth?
LM: It has. If someone wants to believe something untrue, the less vetting, the better. Traditional journalism has had to up their game. Social media has caused traditional media to reflect on what values they have are important. I do think that traditional media has gotten better over the last few years.
Traditionally, journalists were concerned about being accused of political bias. They wanted to tell both sides. But if you give liar a forum, then you are doing a disservice to your audience.
With science coverage on climate change, the media would present opposing viewpoints on each side and never say what the truth was or even what the scientific consensus was, thus creating information bias in the audience’s mind. So, the audience was less informed than when they started.
RH: What’s the solution, then?
LM: Cognitive psychologist, George Lakoff proposes a truth sandwich, meaning when journalists report a lie, what they can’t do is just cover the lie. Giving the liar a forum for the lie only amplifies the lie. Lakoff says what they need to do is to sandwich the lie between two truth statements: speak the truth, report the lie then fact-check the lie to show why it is a lie. I wish journalists would catch on to this technique, but they are more afraid of being accused of political bias than information bias.
RH: Do librarians as information brokers have any value in a post-truth society?
LM: I think librarians are heroes. Librarians must gather and protect information. Preserving records, making them available and helping people find, interpret, and understand them is like medical care, librarians and journalists do for what we are going through right now.
RH: What do librarians need to do as a group in a post-truth society?
LM: I think the librarians could help to make people aware of the debate around post-truth. I love it when I go into a bookstore and see a display of books that include 1984, It Can’t Happen Here, The Handmaid’s Tale. People become aware that this is not the first time we are facing this, and here is some reading that should be done.
I also think that librarians should try to teach critical thinking and play a role in that debate. Critical thinking is eroded today because of people’s reliance on electronic materials. I think that one thing that librarians can help with that, even though that modern library is digitized, reminding people why paper records exist and how deep the background can go on these questions.
Rebecca Hill is a freelance writer who writes on libraries, literacy, science education and other topics for a variety of online and national magazines. Currently she writes a science education column for VOYA magazine. She holds a MLS from Indiana University Purdue University and JD from Valparaiso University. Her interest in intellectual freedom has been peaked by the increase in technology via artificial intelligence and social media. Currently she serves on the Indiana Library Federation Board of Directors and the Purdue University Libraries Dean’s Council. She is also on the Library Board of Trustees for her local library. A long time advocate of libraries, reading, writing and all things words are her passion.