Was there ever really an era of truth for us to be in this so-called “era of post-truth”?
We often talk about truth as those statements we call facts, but facts are easily taken out of context, so there is more to truth than just facts. I think before we can ever ask what is true and not true, we must have a unifying concept of truth itself. I think that unifying concept of truth should be something of the lines of how I define truth in my dissertation:
“[Truth is a] property of a statement in relationship to a statement producing system of rules that define that system and it’s properties. If a statement is true in that system, it is a fact of that system.”
In other words, truth can be described as a property of a claim, and the truth of some claim is made in relationship to a system that produces claims of such type. If the claim is produced in such a way that some system attaches the property of truth to that claim, then such claim is true in relationship to such system which applies truth to the system that produces claims.
The definition is a mouthful, but it is congruent with the observation that there are many different systems that can produce what we call truth, and that we might not all agree on which system is best to apply, or even assume that the person we are talking to uses the same truth system we do. My definition is also different from colloquial use of “truth” in that it separates the statement as a claim from the property of truth which may or may not be assigned to such claim. Generally, we often think of facts which are statements that are true, without considering that the property of truth only applies to the statement if the statement is produced as true under the rules of some truth generating system. As soon as the basis for the fact is removed from rules of a truth generating system, it becomes out of context and the property of truth no longer applies to the statement, even if we still call it a “fact.” This is how facts can mislead. And it is misleading through facts that gives post-truth it’s power.
Emotions and personal appeals become more true than facts themselves, because facts are removed from the context or system which applies the property of truth to the statements in question. We no longer trust the basis of fact because it is not the fact which holds any credence, it is the effect using the fact out of context has on the reader which has merit. Sometimes, the effect is so base as to only drive clicks to a website or to purchase products or follow some tech or spirit guru on Twitter; it doesn’t matter the truth of a message so long as one can monetize their follower list.
Where we as a society just don’t get it, is in how to choose the system which is necessary to give us the best understanding for knowledge as a claim relates to the system chosen such that is conveys a property of truth on a particular claim. Instead, our choices of truth generating systems is not on understanding for knowledge, but for appealing to a narrative which supports some competitive agenda.
It is almost always hailed as an impossible task to choose a truth system because it is “obviously” circular reasoning to apply a claim of truth for a system which claims truths. However, there is reason to believe that some systems for making truth claims are superior to others when it comes to relating value judgements (such as predictability, accountability and standards of living) that individuals and society generally hold in high esteem. For this reason, we actually can apply competing systems of discovering truth to certain systems to discovering truth and not be held in a circular loop. There just has to be some agreement on the standards of evidence and the rules of logic which support a particular claim to the truth of a statement.
Deductive logic and inference, is the “strongest” kind of truth. It is also, in some cases, the weakest. This is because deduction, when it’s rules are strictly followed, is true so long as the base assumptions are themselves are also true. However, sometimes there is no real means to determine the truth of the assumptions themselves, so we must make a claim of self-evidence. The assumptions are true because we accept them to be true. Without these assumptions, we wouldn’t have math, and there doesn’t exist a sane person who can legitimately argue that 1+1=3 in any scientific or mathematical context given 1 < 2 < 3.
But even this very simple math we all understand has some deep assumption built into it. I assumed you understood + is addition, and that it is the kind of addition we know from grade school, and not some abstract algebraic addition in some non-Euclidian space giving us fractional dimensions and skewed operands. So here we have entered into “post-truth” without ever leaving that which is true. This kind of truthiness was the first step towards the media’s missteps out of reality. We found very smart people, like statistician Nate Silver, creating FALSE PARADIGMS, and then skewing the media narrative towards the understanding of truth as within the false paradigm. This was the tactic of the left.
The political right had been manipulating notions of truth far before this, but in a far less sinister way. Rather than backing up the falsehoods with claims of science and evidence, the right used testimony and the utility of the statements to back up the notion of truth when applying it to something that may or may not have happened. This kind of political maneuvering has been going on for a very long time. It was not difficult to piece things back together after this kind of narrative manipulation.
For example, WMDs were certain to be in Iraq because America sold the weapons to Hussein in the 80s, and there was no intelligence that would indicate he used ALL of the WMDs on the Kurds, so just having the testimony from someone in the intelligence network was enough. But we should see things clearly here. The objectives of the Iraq war, which were territorial and business objectives, were what justified the intelligence that there were WMDs, not the other way around. It was, classic manufacturing of consent. In this way, American justification for war jumped the shark on the notion of truth from testimony and utility.
After such a huge media failure on the notion of the justification for war, new tactics in truth had to be devised. Enter scientism.
During the Obama administration, the administration’s concerted effort to expand science in both the classroom and in media had it’s own externality of expanding scientism, which is not science, but a cult of science. Debates on evolution vs. creationism sparked up. Secular humanists and atheists began to organize and grow numbers, taking matters important to secular culture to court. Even local cable access call-in programs turned some outspoken atheists into international celebrities. This was a “return to reason” after the blatant falsehoods of the Bush era.
By the 2016 election, the masses had been completely sold the concept of scientific paradigm under the cult of scientism as barely disputable truth. That the fact that there was the very notion that, “hey, our models could be wrong, we’re just 99% sure they aren’t wrong” was itself a self understood perception of superiority over the old ways of media distortion from testimony and practical utility.
The problem was that the assumptions that underlie the models were what was wrong. Not the data. Not the math. It was the assumptions. Of course, the election assumptions were wrong. The media bubbles placed us into this complacency of inaction. Perhaps it was because the truth of the models on the election were so accepted, that the people who believed them didn’t bother to show up to the polls, while the people who didn’t believe them showed up just to SPITE the polls. Or maybe it was Trump’s key media pushes and get out the vote efforts in key areas that did it. Clinton spent all her money in places like California and spread herself too thin in battleground states. Whatever it was that overturned the assumptions of the models, what is clear is that what we thought was ‘truth’, never really was truth in the first place. So we can not really be in an era of post-truth if there was no era of truth to come from. Really, the last 6 to 8 years was an era of paradigm and narrative manipulation by scientism. The “mostly correct” (Democrats) set up straw men who represented the “certainly wrong” Republicans. When Trump won the election, the paradigm broke down.
We’re really in the aftermath of post-narrative news, not post-truth. Adam Curtis’ recent documentary on hypernormalization summarizes quite well the power struggle between competing narratives in politics through the media. And it seems that the media is fighting to keep it’s own status quo as simplified narrative based organizations which propagate the agendas of certain political and business interests, not the interest of truth or reporting itself.
My guess is that this era of post-narrative will be relatively short lived as the narrative of post-truth is integrated into the post-narrative as a means to normalize this narrative as the media wishes to report its understanding of narrative as truth again. The people will fall asleep in front of the TV again and everything will be as it was before “Network” ever came to theaters.
Optimists, there is another, less likely, but better possibility. That there will be news organizations that imposes better standards of truth in reporting that go beyond the narrative itself and allows for competing narratives and paradigms within the confines of the acceptance of facts without the debate of lies. Perhaps the news agencies can be held accountable to each other more and calling each other out on their BS. Also, instead of competing to be first with a new story, the news could go back to investigating stories and then reporting on them. What if the standard was to be the most accurate and insightful rather than first and sensational? The news media needs to hold itself to higher standards of integrity, not just in the truth it reports, but in the context from which it is reporting.
In the last week, the Wall Street Journal accused YouTube star PewDiePie of being anti-Semitic despite the absurdity of the rhetoric in proper context. Going so far as to, completely out of context, reference a video of PewDiePie, watching Adolf Hitler when the context of the original video itself was how such a clip could be taken out of context to mislabel him as anti-Semitic. This isn’t journalism, it’s pandering to a narrative of perceived justice at the expense of truth. WSJ is supposed to be one of the best, not fake news. Say it isn’t so!
The world is falling to itself. Accountability is being lost to the unaccountable. Who can check if every decontextualized statement has any merit when the editor’s goals are to sustain the “integrity” of it’s predisposed false and simplified narratives by exploiting a lack of context to get clicks and tweets? Most just float on by in the zeitgeist we now call post-truth. Will we, as a society even be able to recover? Trust at the highest of levels of public communication has been decimated. This seems to mark the end of representative democracy and the beginning of something else. But will we even be able to piece together what that something else is if we can’t even determine truths within the reality of society itself?