It’s now official, Truth is dead.
Oxford Dictionaries has selected “post-truth” as 2016’s international word of the year, after seeing a spike in frequency this year in the context of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States.*
Many of us are neither surprised nor dismayed by the realization that Big-T Truth—in relation to politics, the media, and much else—is being called into question. We’re not surprised because telling the truth was never a mainstay of political discourse or newspaper reporting. Remember the lies that served as the basis for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 order to launch retaliatory air strikes on North Vietnam and his request for a joint resolution of Congress—the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—which gave him authorization, without a formal declaration of war by Congress, for the use of conventional military force in Southeast Asia? Or the New York Times in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, especially Judith Miller’s now thoroughly discredited reporting about Iraq’s supposedly brimming stockpile of weapons of mass destruction?
Nor are we dismayed, since we’ve long understood that different sets of “facts” and “truths” are produced within different theoretical frameworks and that there’s no Archimedean standpoint—independent and outside of those frameworks—to decide that one or another corresponds to reality. The idea that there’s a set of bedrock facts or a single truth about reality is a holdover from positivism and other foundationalist theories of knowledge that have long been contested.
What we do need to be aware of is how those different facts and truths are constructed (the discursive and social conditions under which they are produced), and of course how they lead to different consequences (on the theories and the wider society). It’s a stance concerning knowledge that is often referred to as “partisan relativism”—relativist in the sense that validity criteria are diverse and internal to theoretical frameworks, partisan because producing knowledges always involves taking a stance, in favor of one set of facts and truths and against others.
To be clear, then, “post-truth”doesn’t mean (as if often presumed) that theoretical and empirical analysis grinds to a halt or that analysts—in whatever field, humanities, social sciences, or natural sciences—are unable to make pronouncements about the world. On the contrary. It makes discussion and debate, amongst and between those who use different theoretical frameworks, even more important—because, of course, the stakes for the world in which we live are so high.
Julia Shaw, a forensic psychologist, adopts much the same perspective
They say that we have found ourselves in a world lost to emotion, irrationality, and a weakening grasp on reality. That lies don’t faze us, and knowledge doesn’t impress us. That we are post-truth, post-fact. But, is this actually a bad thing?
I’m a factual relativist. I abandoned the idea of facts and “the truth” some time last year. I wrote a whole science book, The Memory Illusion, almost never mentioning the terms fact and truth. Why? Because much like Santa Claus and unicorns, facts don’t actually exist. At least not in the way we commonly think of them.
We think of a fact as an irrefutable truth. According to the Oxford dictionary, a fact is “a thing that is known or proved to be true.” And where does proof come from? Science?
Well, let me tell you a secret about science; scientists don’t prove anything. What we do is collect evidence that supports or does not support our predictions. Sometimes we do things over and over again, in meaningfully different ways, and we get the same results, and then we call these findings facts. And, when we have lots and lots of replications and variations that all say the same thing, then we talk about theories or laws. Like evolution. Or gravity. But at no point have we proved anything.
Still, we need to contend with the fact that so many liberals—especially liberal politicians, pundits, and political economists—are bemoaning what they consider to be the descent into a post-truth world. They’re worried that non-liberal political candidates and voters increasingly deny facts, manipulate the truth, and prefer emotion to expertise. And so they rush to defend “the facts” and Truth.
Rune Møller Stahl and Bue Rübner Hansen, I think, get it right:
liberals’ nostalgia for factual politics seems designed to mask their own fraught relationship with the truth. The supposedly honest technocrats and managers—who enacted neoliberal measures with the same ferocity as their right-wing counterparts—relied on a certain set of facts to displace the material truths they refused to acknowledge. . .
As liberals took over facts, they pushed social conflict to the non-factual realm, to the domain of values. Instead of struggles over domination and exploitation, we got the culture wars. There, progressive values held no sway; they were sold with a sense of moral superiority then betrayed by the spinelessness of triangulation and by policies that undermined the welfare state and organized labor.
As I see it, the defeats mainstream liberals suffered under the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election don’t prove that voters hate facts or truths. Those events (and we can expect more to come in the years ahead) merely show that enough regular citizens are fed-up with business as usual—with increasingly unconvincing liberal facts and truths, which deny the severe losses and dislocations under the existing rules and institutions—to revoke their trust in the so-called experts and, swayed by a different set of facts and truths, to throw in their lot with the only available alternatives.
The battle over facts, truths, and expertise hasn’t ended. But the idea that there’s only one—one set of facts, one truth, one group of experts—has. Which means the critique of the existing order After Truth has only just begun.
*According to Oxford Dictionaries, the first time the term post-truth was used was in a 1992 essay by the late playwright Steve Tesich in the Nation magazine. Tesich, writing about the Iran-Contra scandal and the Persian Gulf war, said that “we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.” The term “post-truth politics” was coined by David Roberts in a blog post for Grist on 1 April 2010, where it was defined as “a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation).”
Note: yes, that is Schrödinger’s cat at the top of the post.