Philosopher’s thoughts on the post-truth world

What does the post-truth world mean for academics and scientists whose whole purpose is trying to establish objective facts? That’s a really important question and one being tackled by philosopher AC Grayling.

Grayling (in a BBC article) attributes the post-truth world to the growth in income inequality after the GFC. A combination of the gap between rich and poor and deep grievances from a stagnating middle class has created an environment where it is “not difficult to ‘inflame’ emotions over issues such as immigration and to cast doubt on mainstream politicians”.

The other key ingredient, and it’s this I found particularly interesting, is the rise of social media where a strong opinion can shout down evidence.

It’s terribly narcissistic. It’s been empowered by the fact that you can publish your opinion. You used to need a pot of paint and a balaclava to publish your opinion, if you couldn’t get a publisher.

But all you need now is an iPhone. Everyone can publish their opinion – and if you disagree with me, it’s an attack on me and not my ideas.

We’re creating an online culture that can’t see the difference between fact and fiction. Grayling does point out that this, has to some degree, always been so:

Prof Grayling tells the story of Adlai Stevenson, the unsuccessful liberal contender in the 1952 US presidential election, who was told: “Mr Stevenson, every thinking person in America is going to vote for you. And he said: ‘Great, but I need a majority.'”

It is tempting to characterise the post-truth world around economic, social, or educational divides. And there’s certainly increasing truth in such characterisations when major Western democracies, including Australia, are fostering social inequality in education. Without education it is very hard to understand or debate a complex world or to feel other than lost within it. Add in the reinforcing element of social media – it’s not just, as Grayling says, that you get to publish your opinions, you also get simplistic support in the forms of likes or re-tweets. That’s something you never really got with graffiti or shouting at the car radio.

None of this provides any hint on how to navigate a post-turth world. But the first step has to be understanding it. And speaking as someone who does still believe in experts and objective facts, it’s good to see people like Professor Grayling engaging with the issues.

The BBC article is here.

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