“Post-truth” and the social sciences

Truth and Falsehood, by Albert Stevens.

Truth and Falsehood, by Albert Stevens.

By Felix Stein

The term “post-truth” has recently been difficult to avoid in Anglophone media outlets. In the US, mostly liberal political commentators are currently calling much of the rhetoric of far-right politicians and their news sources “post-truth”, while leading American government officials have responded with accusations that the mainstream media deals in “fake news” and that they themselves are entitled to the presentation of “alternative facts”. In Britain, key political assertions of the run-up to the Brexit referendum have also been labelled "post truth", and commentators now argue that the term may equally apply to government rhetoric in Russia, India and Turkey for example[1]. So far, the concept of “post-truth” mostly refers to the realms of politics and journalism, yet in the medium term, accepting that we live in some kind of “post-truth” era risks undermining the work of teachers, researchers, doctors, engineers and really anyone who is in the business of factual accuracy. In the light of this, it may be worth thinking further about what this notion is supposed to mean, and how it relates to the social sciences.

In “post-truth” statements, the relationship that speakers have to truth matters. Thus, “post-truth” claims do not necessarily amount to lies, since lying presupposes a general interest in the truth value of one's own statements in the first place. Lies can be seen as an occasional strategic deviance from a basically accepted standard of truthfulness with an intent to deceive[2]. However, “post-truth” statements, such as those of the current American president or the more fantastical Brexit promises display a stronger detachment from factual accuracy. They exemplify a staggering overall indifference to how things may really be. This feature, combined with a willingness to exert influence over others, in line with personal or political prerogatives, means that much of what currently counts as “post-truth” falls - conceptually speaking - into the realm of what the philosopher Frankfurt has described as “BS”[3]. Moreover, from a historical perspective, “alternative facts” may simply be the latest, most unashamed instantiation of old-fashioned government propaganda[4].

Social scientists may feel tempted to respond to this striking indifference to factual accuracy by parts of the political class and by an increasing number of online publishers with an insistence on the objective nature of knowledge and facts. However, this response is insufficient, as most of the facts of social life are not as clear cut as they seem. To provide just one example from global health, in his recent book The Pandemic Perhaps[5] the anthropologist Carlo Caduff asks how a public culture of danger and fear has been created in the United States around health pandemics, a climate that increasingly serves business interests and fuels the work of prophetic scientists, health entrepreneurs and emergency consultants. His work shows that the category of “pandemic influenza” is in fact strongly contested. WHO declarations of whether or not a rise in people with influenza symptoms should be considered a mild seasonal flu or an exceptional pandemic of potentially global proportions are often far from straightforward. Apart from a host of socio-cultural factors, definitions of pandemics also rely on the understandings of micro-biologists as to which virus is spreading a disease. Their analyses of whether or not the virus held responsible for an outbreak is new and whether it is likely to change over time co-determine if we face a pandemic. Yet, since viruses cannot be easily observed and since even the most reliable tests concerning their nature do at times lead to ambivalent results, uncertainty turns out to be built into socio-scientific fact production from the start.

So if claims about the objectivity of facts may not be as effective as many of us might want, what else can the social sciences provide? Rather than uncritically upholding one authoritative discourse in place of another, one way out of the current conundrum may be to recognise publicly that perfect objectivity is impossible, but that this does not mean that we should abandon concerns with factual accuracy altogether. Instead, we may want to enable pupils, students and readers of our work to develop standards of judgement, that allow them to distinguish largely credible accounts, from far less credible ones. These standards of judgement may be specific to different times and socio-cultural settings[6] as well as academic disciplines[7], but they are never fully arbitrary or subjective. They may be grounded in pattern recognition[8] or in valuing coherence and consistency, in knowing which source of information to trust or in distinguishing between argument and its author (an ideal that is frequently practiced in anonymised peer review), in recognizing how arguments are historically or morally embedded, and in developing the curiosity and self-confidence necessary to assess our fact providers. To take the example of health pandemics again, Caduff’s work does not simply argue that we should slash or increase budgets for pandemic preparedness. Instead he shows us why and how uncertainty comes about and warns us to be weary of scientists and pundits who trade in fear, prophecy and exaggerated certitude.

Insisting on the skills of critical assessment may eventually show us that anxieties regarding a new era of “post-truth” may be overblown. Even if the toxic prevailing political rhetoric and our swiftly changing publishing landscape make it harder for all of us to distinguish truth from falsehood, the widespread fascination with big data, growing desires for evidence-based policy making and the rising culture of fact-checking[9] all indicate that large parts of the public have not in fact stopped valuing truthfulness as such. As long as this remains the case, social scientists need to further refine and disseminate the standards by which we distinguish fact from fiction.

 

Upcoming conference:          

Anthropological Reflections in a ‘Post-Truth’ World

 

References

[1] Bannerjee, Mukulika (2017). "LSE Night of Ideas, Session 2, Citizens of Nowhere, Post-Truth Politics." [accessed 11/03/2017].

[2] Frankfurt, Harry G. (2005). On Bullshit. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, p.7, p.33.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lasswell, Harold D. (1927). "The Theory of Political Propaganda." The American Political Science Review 21, no. 3: 627-31.

[5] Caduff, Carlo (2015). The Pandemic Perhaps: Dramatic Events in a Public Culture of Danger.  Oakland California: University of California Press.

[6] Daston, Lorraine (1991). "Marvelous Facts and Miraculous Evidence in Early Modern Europe." Critical Inquiry 18, no. 1: 93-124.

[7] Engelke, Matthew (2008). "The Objects of Evidence." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14: S1-S21.

[8] Ibid, p. S9 ff.

[9] Graves, Lucas, and Tom Glaisyer (2012). "The Fact-checking Universe in Spring 2012: An Overview."  [accessed 10/03/2017]

 

Picture credits:

This photo was taken as part of Britain Loves Wikipedia in February 2010 by Iza Bella