Q&A  | 

Post-truth and the danger of disbelief, by Lee McIntyre

"Post-truth has followed the blueprint of science denial, but it is much more dangerous. Belief motivates action."

Tags: 'Lee McIntyre' 'post-truth' 'science denial' 'Trump'

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Lee McIntyre has been a scholar in the philosophy of science for over twenty years. His main area of interest is science denial. "I have always been curious about what leads people to deny factual matters like whether evolution is true or whether the world is round. In my view, 70 years of unchecked science denial is what led to post-truth".

He is also a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and the author of several books published by the MIT Press among which Post-Truth (2018) and How to Talk to a Science Denier (2021).

"People think of science denial as being ridiculous, but it has been wildly successful -in the USA and other countries- in getting people to believe things that are not true", he warns.

What is post truth?

I think of post-truth as the “political subordination of reality.”

It is what happens when a political partisan doesn’t want some fact to be true, so they decide to say that it just isn’t. This isn’t just denial, it can lead to a sort of fascism.

If these kinds of statements are made by political leaders, they can lead to authoritarian rule. This is because control over the information flow is a precursor to control over the population.

If Donald Trump, for instance, can say that the 2020 election was stolen from him (when there is absolutely no evidence that this is true) then he can use this narrative to motivate his supporters to commit political violence, as occurred at the US Capitol on January 6th.

Post-truth has followed the blueprint of science denial, but it is much more dangerous. Belief motivates action.

The absorbing of US television by leisure industry giants such as Disney, Viacom and Time Warner played a dominant role in the packaging of information and coverage of news and scandals. Do you believe the new system of continuous information favored an anecdotal version of events, a black and white representation of current affairs, and led to a hitherto unprecedented blurring of reality and fiction?

I believe the media’s role in this is due to the rise of partisan opinion-based “news” coverage.

Cable news outlets these days do not just report the facts, but give their spin on it. This can lead to difficulties, up to and including false reporting, lies, and fake news.

The type of political difficulties that arose in the USA during the Trump era were not due just to mistakes or misreporting. They were due to a coordinated disinformation campaign by partisan media outlets that were pursuing an “alternative narrative” to the actual facts on many topics such as: the “stolen” 2020 election, whether COVID-19 was a hoax, whether there was widespread violence and law breaking at Black Lives Matter rallies, etc.

Also, how did politicians before Trump profit from this phenomenon and did politics help post-truth thrive somehow?

Post-truth is worse than lying. With lying you are at least respecting your audience enough to try to convince them that a false thing is true. With post-truth, you don’t really care whether they actually believe it. You are MAKING it true for them, through political control.

But yes there are surely examples of this before Trump (though they weren’t called post-truth). In Hannah Arendt’s book THE ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM, we see lots of examples of societies in the 20th century, where political lies were used to control the population. Arendt discusses Nazi Germany and the USSR.

According to Arendt, the political subordination of reality is intended to make people cynical and doubt that they can ever really know the truth, so they give up. Then they are easier to control. I believe that this is what Trump was trying to do in the USA. 

Which economic and social factors have fostered the emergence of post-truth?

Probably the biggest factor in the rise of post-truth has been the rise of social media. There are other precursors. As I’ve said, 70 years of unchecked science denial was one. The presence of cognitive bias is another.

But then the question is why post-truth happened when it did? I think the answer is that disinformation became so much more prevalent through the internet. There have always been lies and fringe theories.

Conspiracy theories started in Ancient Rome with Nero. But what social media allows is for lies and propaganda to be spread much faster, and to more people, than ever before in human society. I believe that this is why post-truth occurred when it did. And we are still not out of the woods yet. Democracies are dying all over the world.

Evgeny Morozov states that “an economy ruled by online advertising has produced its own theory of truth: truth is whatever produces most eyeballs”. Is post-truth one of the pillars of the social media business model?

I think it is the other way around. I think social media is one of the pillars of post-truth.

Advertisers have known for years how to manipulate human beliefs. When the American tobacco companies wanted to subvert the scientific finding that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer in the 1950s, who did they hire? An expert in public relations! An advertising person! When we do not engage our critical thinking faculties, truth is in danger.

I think that one of the dangers of the internet is that it presents us with too much information. Yes, it can lead us to truth, but falsehood is right beside it. Most humans find it very difficult to sort that out, in the same way that they can’t tell from an advertising campaign which brand of soap will really work and which one won’t.

Was it only natural that a society based in consumerism, truth would also become a commodity? Is post-truth just the information marketers' realization of how good an asset tailored reality is and is there a way out of this?

I hope not. Just as we have skeptical consumers, we can do better with discerning truth and reality from lies and fiction. I don’t think it is just consumerism. Some people have succumbed to believing what they want to believe, which is giving in to cognitive bias.

Should information be a state run public service or somehow regulated (more than it is now)?

There is an obvious danger to having state run media. I myself believe in a free media, but I also do not think that the truth will necessarily rise to the top in a clash of ideas. This is because some of the folks out there are not reporting in good faith.

The rise of partisan news has shown that in an environment where truth must compete with propaganda, it is not obvious that truth will win.

I therefore think that it is not a bad thing for media aggregators on the internet (like Facebook) to be subject to some of the same rules as other media outlets (like newspapers). They should be responsible for false content on their platforms.

I also decry the loss of the “fairness doctrine” in American media from many decades ago. Some outlets aren’t even trying to be even handed now. They already know what they want to be true so they either selectively report or just outright lie.

That is dangerous and I believe they must pay a price for that. It is one thing to be a partisan about stimulus spending or monetary policy; it is another to report (for instance) that Covid-19 is no more dangerous than the flu.