Post-Truth Politics

On February 16th, I participated in a panel on Post-Truth Politics at Castleton University. The panel was part of a series organized by the Castleton University Library, and the session I participated on was titled, “Fake News and Truthiness.” The following post is a slightly revised version of my opening remarks from that panel session.

Facts hold a special place in political discourse. In his defense of British soldiers following the Boston Massacre, John Adams spoke, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Senator John McCain (R-AZ) reiterated these words in a Senate hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election. Both men assumed that facts were irrefutable and held a special place in our deliberations.

People may disagree about the meaning of facts, but the facts exist independent of individuals’ opinions. Still, it is important to draw a distinction between facts and truth. A fact is something that cannot be refuted through reasoning or observation, whereas truth is something which depends on a person’s perspective and experience.

In a New York Times Op Ed piece last August (Aug. 24, 2016), William Davies, a Professor of Political Economy at the University of London, wrote that, “We have entered an age of post-truth politics.” The presumption that follows is that the previous age was an age of truth politics—a dubious presumption for sure. Consider the verbal gymnastics of Donald Rumsfeld, the parsing of words by Bill Clinton, the enigmatic statements from Fed Chairmen, or other creative political communications that have stretched truth, often past the breaking point. I don’t know that the pre-“Post Truth World” was really a place of established truth.

In fact, I think that “truth” is too lofty a goal for political communication.

I tell the students in my Research Methods class that if they want “truth” they need to go to church … or maybe a museum or philosophy discussion. Science doesn’t provide truth. It provides a method for understanding our world that is limited to physical and/or behavioral phenomena – limited to that which can be measured.

That being said, science is very useful; it has improved the lives of nearly everyone on the planet in some measurable way. At the same time it has also created weapons so horrific they could terminate our existence as a species.

Science is a method; it’s not the outcome. It is not a moral system. It is a process for understanding our world.

We who sell science as a means for understanding, however, too often simply convey results or findings of our research. In so doing, we’ve failed to propagate our methods, which are the essence of scientific understanding. By failing to instill the methods of scientific understanding—instead, focusing on findings—we failed to bring the general public along to scientific reasoning. If all that matters is the findings—and the means for obtaining those findings are irrelevant—then the public is left with little criteria for judging among conflicting findings.

And that’s where we are.
Truth may be too high a bar for the sciences—the natural and social sciences. But we should be able to agree upon a set of facts—agree about testable observations corresponding to the observable world.

Our news and political debate should be based upon fact, as Adams and McCain suggest. Yet too often facts are distorted or ignored. We live in a world of slanted news and now even the oxymoronic “FAKE news.”

I want to draw a distinction between slanted news and fake news; the former has an element of truth but may suggest motives or imply a nefarious agenda, while the latter is completely fabricated from thin air. An example of fake news is the story that claimed John Podesta and Hillary Clinton were running a child prostitution ring from a Washington Pizzeria. The story sounds preposterous, but one individual believing it to be true went to the pizzeria, armed, to liberate the victims.

The proliferation of slanted news allowed an environment where someone could believe the fabricated news. If your diet of news constantly tells you that Hillary Clinton is corrupt, without morals, and so power hungry that she will do anything, the fabricated story becomes plausible.

A Los Angeles Times reporter met with the man who went to the pizzeria to intervene on behalf of the children—a noble cause if there ever was one. He was not a bad man, looking to harm people. He went with the best of intentions. Yet a situation was created where people’s lives were endangered.

Fake news has real consequences.

Our political discourse is eroded by neglecting facts with impunity. When the public distrusts the media nearly as much as they distrust a leader who has on many occasions shown no regard for facts, we lack a firm foundation for rational political discourse.

If we aspire to reach some truth or greater understanding, it is imperative that we pave that path with universally recognized facts.