Thriving in the post-truth era
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Oxford Dictionaries just declared “post-truth” the word of the year for 2016. Perplexity over American and British voters’ choices led the adjective’s charge to the front, but it had significant back-up support from the kaleidoscopic coverage on events from Aleppo to Standing Rock, demonetisation to climate change, J. Jayalalithaa to Donald Trump.
The choice of the adjective, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, was greeted with little disagreement, much dismay, and many fervent wishes that 2016 would be a temporary deviation from rational, evidence-based, reasoned discourse. Nobody seems especially optimistic. The zeitgeist on the zeitgeist is a sense of nihilism, a deep-seated doubt about the life-expectancy and influence of “the truth” on our species’ evolution.
“Post-truth” is nothing new, however. We may be working our way through a new combination of fact, belief and interactions between the two, but the basic social condition is not a recent invention.
Reviewing a cherry-picked, all-Western set of books that rarely grace the pages of business newspapers constitutes its own form of post-truth column-writing, but it is still the first week of 2017 and, therefore, within the grace period for arbitrary New Year’s lists. So here goes—a short collection context for starting to make sense of, gain perspective on, and ideally navigate a bit through this (not the) post-truth era.
First, don’t pine for unicorns. Objectivity itself is not as simple or universally attainable as it seems. Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison in 2007’s Objectivity (Zone Books) trace the history of “knowledge that bears no trace of the knower,” loosely centering their analysis around production of the scientific atlases that are supposed to record the evidence for posterity.
They argue that objectivity is a relatively recent and by now somewhat outdated concept; its rise and fall shaped by the ability to collect and store information. In an era of low information and high costs of committing that information to paper (or other sharable media), “truth to nature”, or the collection and recording of idealized specimens prevailed.
“Objectivity” emerged as mechanical capture without human (artistic) intermediation became possible to do and share quickly and cheaply. The era of objectivity—the facts, nothing but the facts—fairly quickly gave way to the rise of “trained judgment” in the 20th century. There were just too many objective facts to handle, and somebody needed to sift through them. Personal and subjective interventions to smooth data, classify observations, and even explicitly decide what were “real” and “not real” features in particular records were openly discussed in 20th century scientific records of objects from stars to skulls.
Second, don’t assume the worst. Emotion and personal beliefs can be benign and even positive social forces. In fact, one might say that we were better at dealing with the rest of the natural environment when we were not so focused on objective facts and open to a bit more emotion about nature.
Donald Worster (1977)’s Nature’s Economy (Cambridge University Press) traces the history of ecological thought from the 18th century, highlighting the zig-zags, and meanders in the transition from a spiritually inflected sense of coexistence with nature to the more imperial view of humans as distinct from a set of surroundings to be organized and harnessed.
Robert Macfarlane (2003) Mountains Of The Mind (Vintage Books), offers a lighter tour of how our feelings about the peaks have evolved alongside the modern scientific study of geology.
And Science, 13 May 2016, has picked up the post-truth thread with an editorial by a climate scientist (Professor V. Ramanathan) and a bishop (Chancellor Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo) calling for a return to “integral ecology”. “The resolution of major environmental problems facing society requires a fundamental reorientation in our behaviour and attitude toward nature and toward each other,” they note.
Third, take responsibility and participate. We are all in some ways responsible for and increasingly able to contribute to versions of the post-truth world that we can live with. The arc of recent literature on classification and its social power illustrates the evolution of possibilities. In the older versions, sovereign authority was an essential ingredient for injecting belief and perspective into what passed for objective evidence.
William Alonso and Paul Starr, editors of The Politics Of Numbers (Russell Sage Foundation), James Scott (1998)’s Seeing Like A State (Yale University Press), or Yoshiko Herrera’s Imagined Economies (Cambridge University Press) all give the state a central role in deciding how to organize the information that generates the received “truth” about economies, societies, and individuals within them.
Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Star (1999)’s Sorting Things Out: Classification And Its Consequences (MIT Press) and David Weinberger (2011)’s Everything Is Miscellaneous (Holt Paperbacks), on the other hand, highlight the power of individuals to shape the way that information is organized and evidence that spurs action emerges.
Bowker and Star, in particular, note the moral imperative to recognize and revise the invisible and often arbitrary—belief or judgement-driven—scaffolding behind the truths we now seem to pine for.
Post-truth, pre-what? It is up to us to decide.
Jessica Seddon is managing director of Okapi Research & Advisory and writes fortnightly on patterns in public affairs.