If we are living in a post-truth era, it must have started a very long time ago. The British Library recently reproduced the title page of a 1614 newsbook reporting that “a strange and monstrous Serpent (or Dragon)” was living in the woods near Horsham, in Sussex, “to the great annoyance and divers slaughters both of Men and Cattell, by his strong and violent poyson”. The very phrase “fake news” dates from more than a century ago, and “false news” existed in the 16th century. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a 20th-century fake news meme that did far more historical damage than anything on Twitter today.
Nor was political lying invented by Donald Trump or Tony Blair, or even Richard Nixon. This is demonstrated by The Art of Political Lying, John Arbuthnot’s splendidly sarcastic pamphlet published in 1712: “The People may as well all pretend to be Lords of Manors, and possess great Estates, as to have
Truth told them in matters of Government.”
So what, if anything, is new? Part of the reason it may seem we are living through an extraordinary crisis of truth is that we have a news culture in which everything must be described as a crisis. So the cynical misinformation ploys of Brexit and Trump, in particular, are thought to have ushered in an era of “post-truth”, given the flagrancy of bogus claims such as that Brexit would release an extra £350m a week for the NHS, and that Trump’s inaugural crowd was the biggest in history (the defence of this lie by his adviser Kellyanne Conway led to her infamous use of the phrase “alternative facts”).
“Post-truth” was coined in 1992 to describe the Iran-Contra scandal and the Gulf War but the popularity of the expression has rocketed more recently, leading to its being chosen by Oxford Dictionaries as the 2016 “word of the year”. The prefix “post”, Oxford explains, means “belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant”. And yet everywhere the intelligentsia and the tech industry are loudly worrying about truth and how to save it. It’s as if truth, far from having become irrelevant, has shot to the top of the cultural agenda.
Of the two books called Post-Truth under review, Evan Davis’s is the more subtle and wide-ranging, written with the generous intelligence and wry humour that admirers of his broadcasting will recognise. There is a celebrated definition of “bullshit” by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, which is basically a disregard for whether what one is saying is true or not, as opposed to lying, when one knows it isn’t true and is deliberately recounting a falsehood. Yet Davis wants to define bullshit much more broadly, as “any form of communication – verbal or non-verbal – that is not the clearest or most succinct statement of the sincere and reasonably held beliefs of the communicator”. In that case, we all traffic in bullshit most of the time, and for very good reasons.
“Genuine frankness is not the norm but the exception,” Davis points out, defending the circumlocutory speech of diplomats or doctors, of people offering sympathy or encouragement, and even of politicians in some circumstances. At one point, amusingly, he even defends a piece of flowery wine writing. “This is good gibberish,” he judges, “because I think for the intended readers the material is well devised.”
On the other hand, he perceives a real issue in the popularity of a classic Frankfurtian bullshitter such as Donald Trump (whose recent “post-truths” include claims that millions voted illegally in the 2016 election and that Barack Obama wiretapped his Trump Tower office). How should a “fact-conscious person” handle the “afactual” phenomenon? Rather than attempt to reason anyone out of a false position, Davis argues, we should try to understand why they hold it. People choose to believe things for reasons of group belonging and it is not necessarily irrational for them to do so.
He also points out, cleverly, that voters are rational to judge prospective leaders on their perceived character rather than their policies – because “most of what their elected representatives have to do in office is react to things that haven’t come up yet”. So the best thing politicians can do is “relax”, “be genuine”, and “present themselves in a more natural way”. I guess if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
Similarly, Davis takes a nuanced line on political spin. It is often a rational strategy because the media will hysterically overreact to any “gaffe” – but it can’t in the end lead people to believe things that are manifestly untrue. He recounts being asked by financiers to recommend a PR strategy to solve the City of London’s image problem. He demurred, saying their poor reputation was thoroughly well deserved, given that they had caused a global financial crisis and depression while continuing to pay themselves millions: “If you are regarded as bad and you are bad, you don’t have an image problem, you have a badness problem.”
The banks, indeed, have probably contributed in large measure to one undeniable aspect of our modern version of post-truth, which is the erosion of popular trust in institutions. Matthew d’Ancona’s book also correctly identifies the contribution to this phenomenon of the decades of effort by corporate lobbyists for the big tobacco and oil companies, which wage war on science through obfuscation and manufactured dissent. But he also blames a more surprising third cadre: postmodernists. While acknowledging that in the 19th century Nietzsche and William James cast a shady side-eye on the concept of truth in their different ways, d’Ancona thinks the downgrading of truth in our time has trickled down from the French and American academies, in the work of Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida, Baudrillard and Rorty – “to name but five”, he writes, as though they were a homogeneous crew of conspirators.
Yes, the “often incomprehensible” work of the postmodernists, he thinks, is where the rot set in. For “if everything is a ‘social construct’, then who is to say what is false”? D’Ancona asks this plaintively, as though there can be no answer and so the premise must be false. But of course there is an answer: the people who are to say what is false are the people who have acquired the generally acknowledged and demonstrated expertise in judging which social constructs are more or less accurate in making predictions about, say, the operation of machinery. And this has always been how things have worked. It does not entail that we are doomed to a chaotic free-for-all.
The underlying difficulty of today’s polemics about post-truth is that many well-meaning residents of the reality-based community are talking as though it is always obvious and uncontroversial what is a “fact” and what isn’t. And yet the very idea of a fact is a social construct with an origin. (As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has written: “Facts, like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen, were a 17th-century invention.”) Facts are fuzzy and changeable; in scientific practice, matters of truth and evidence are always at issue. The best scientific theories are social constructs. Whether they should be taken as accurately describing reality is still an unresolved debate in quantum physics; and, as the biologist Stuart Firestein has written: “All scientists know that it is facts that are unreliable. No datum is safe from the next generation of scientists with the next generation of tools.”
Some of our most eminent scientists argue that too great an obsession with facts can obstruct progress. The Nobel laureate in physics Frank Wilczek has wittily adapted Stephen Colbert’s comic coinage “truthiness” for his own concept of “truthifiability”. We should worry not so much about whether an idea is true, Wilczek advises, but whether it is “truthifiable” – whether it can inspire further creative research that would otherwise be shut down by overly aggressive and hasty fact-checking.
By contrast, we should not be surprised if the naive positivism espoused by aggrieved liberals who insist on a simplistic portrayal of “the facts” and “the science” does nothing but reinforce the lines of tribal warfare. As Davis rightly observes, “judgement almost always plays a part in our decisions as to what is a fact and what is true”. Trump voters are surely as well aware as anyone else that we all must take most facts on trust – I, for one, have not experimentally verified the idea of anthropogenic global warming – and understandably feel patronised by opponents who deny this is the case. Indeed, to the extent that experts are telling them to shut up and prostrate themselves before an immutable version of the “facts”, they are right to have had enough of experts.
None of this is to deny that the spread of deliberate misinformation and lies is a grave problem. But what should be done about it? A few weeks ago, Facebook took out advertisements in the British newspapers offering advice for users on how to spot fake news: “Be sceptical of headlines”, “Investigate the source”, “Check the evidence”, and so forth. This might look rather like a buck-passing cop-out from a giant corporate vehicle of fake news that has always denied it is a publisher, but news consumers do have the power to distinguish good from bad, if they are minded to do so.
In any case, fact-check websites aren’t going to be trusted any more than the “mainstream media” by the suspicious or conspiracy-minded, and any attempt by industry or government to establish a kind of institutional truth police will soon fall foul of the reality that truth often comes in shades of grey – quite apart from the idea’s rather unflattering totalitarian aura.
Both Evan Davis and Matthew d’Ancona agree that it is we, the audience, who have the greatest power to push back the tide of fake news. Davis ends his book with the sunny prediction that this peak in the historical graph of public bullshit will pass, as others have done before it, and d’Ancona makes the sensible suggestion that children should be taught methods of source evaluation and sceptical analysis, or what is sometimes seen as coming under the umbrella of “critical thinking”.
I would add that you could even go so far as to make philosophy compulsory in schools, as it is in Brazil. After all, philosophy actually has a branch of study that specialises in issues of truth and knowledge, called epistemology – which is why New Scientist magazine rather sweetly called a few weeks ago for more epistemologists to wade into the public debates.
Whichever tools they choose to employ, it is up to readers, in the end, to decide what they are going to believe. And it has always been thus. The same principle applies both for the news of the horrible dragon in 17th-century Sussex and for the latest unsourced meme on social media: caveat lector (“reader beware”). There never was a golden age of truth, and it’s a good thing, too.
Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It
Little, Brown, 368pp, £20
Post-Truth: the New War on Truth and How to Fight Back
Ebury Press, 176pp, £6.99
This article appears in the 17 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies