Review of Lee McIntyre’s Post-Truth

In 2016, the Oxford dictionary chose the term “post-truth” as its word of the year. It defined it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

In Post-Truth Lee McIntyre, a Research Fellow at the Boston University Center for Philosophy and History of Science, explores the phenomenon of “post-truth,” analytically discussing it, outlining its genesis, and suggesting some ways to counter it. The book does an excellent job of pulling together arguments about how skepticism toward science has led to a questioning of objective truth generally (ch. 2) and how the decline of traditional media (ch. 4) and the rise of social media and fake news (ch. 5) have contributed to the rise of a “post-truth” culture. It provides an overview discussion of how postmodernism has contributed to the “post-truth” condition (ch. 6). It also provides a helpful discussion about how cognitive biases contribute to the condition of post-truth and are used by masters of deception in the post-truth context (ch. 3). The book opens with a discussion what post-truth is (ch. 1) and closes with one on how to fight post-truth (ch. 7).

McIntyre discusses how “post-truth” can be understood against a background of distinctions such as misspeaking, being willfully ignorant, lying, and bullshitting. It differs from bullshitting in that it clearly aims to sway public opinion. It isn’t merely shooting shit. Generally, McIntyre does not think the “post-truth” condition can be adequately equated with any of the above noted concepts. In the post-truth condition what is at question is not just whether we can know reality but whether there is a reality (10). In the purest kind of “post-truth” condition, in McIntyre’s view, the crowds reaction is thought to change reality. According to the masters of the post-truth context, a lie can become a fact (9). Nonetheless, McIntyre often speaks of “post-truth” in a less pure sense. Quite generally, aligned with the Oxford definition, those involved in the post-truth ruse highlight that emotions at times matter more than facts (13). Under the conditions of “post-truth,” truth is not viewed as being as important as ideology: “‘post-truth amounts to a form of ideological supremacy, whereby its practitioners are trying to compel someone to believe in something whether there is good evidence for it or not” (13). In our current post-truth political landscape, as McIntyre often highlights, Donald Trump is shown as a fundamental manipulator of opinion who is able to benefit from this post-truth condition. McIntyre quotes Lawrence Douglas to convey a sense of the relationship between individuals and truth in our “post-truth” culture, especially as embodied by Trump: “Trumpspeak is transactional. It places no independent value on truth. The value of speech is to be measured exclusively in terms of its effects. If a statement gets me closer to my goal, then it is valuable” (qtd. on p. 168).

In Chapter two, McIntyre traces the road from science denial to the post-truth denial of reality. Part of the narrative here focuses on how monetary interests played a role in spreading a culture that undermined objectivity. Starting with tobacco, industry planted seeds of doubt about scientific research linking tobacco use to illness. The Tobacco Industry Research Committee was founded by industry to undermine scientific research linking tobacco use to health problems. With a concerted, well-funded effort, news outlets and the general public proved to be easy to manipulate. Partially, as McIntire points out, the problem was a lack of clear understanding among the public and journalists of how science works. Science does not definitely prove claims, but develops theories based on evidence. The tobacco industry proved able to manipulate opinion not by having counter-evidence that stood up to scrutiny but by maintaining that further research was necessary since links between tobacco and illness were not definitively proven. What worked for tobacco also has worked for climate change. There have been industry based efforts to undermine claims of climate scientists; and as we all know, these have proven effective. Despite a 2012 finding that among climate researchers, the human contribution to climate change was disputed is fewer than not 2 percent but .2 percent of peer reviewed papers in the area, the public and its politicians were of quite divided mind. Even now, recent polls have found that only 27 percent of the American public think “almost all climate scientists agree that human behavior is mostly responsible for climate change” (see John Kushman, qtd. 30). Organizations like the Heartland Institute and lobbyists from oil companies have effectively sown seeds of doubt. Their undermining of scientific objectivity has played a role in creating the conditions for a post-truth society, in which objectivity more generally is questioned. News outlets have played a role in this process. Rather than recognizing that there is scientific consensus and reporting that, they proved all too willing to report as if there were debate on the scientific issues in question, creating “false equivalencies” (77). They failed to recognize, as McIntire, nicely puts it, that “the halfway point between truth and error is still error” (62). As facts have been continually undermined, one result has been that, for many, the question is not so much what the facts say as which side you are on. In such a world “where ideology trumps science,” as McIntire sees it, “post-truth is the inevitable next step” (34).

In chapter three, McIntyre examines recent work from social pyschology, behavioral economics and behavioral psychology, which unveils some of the prevalent reasoning biases that are exploited by proponents of a post-truth society. He outlines some of the research on the role of social pressure on decision-making, confirmation bias, the backfire effect, and so on. The long and short of it is that we are more easy to manipulate than many had suspected and that non-rational criteria routinely affect our belief formation and decision-making. “Whether we are liberal or conservative, cognitive bias is a part of our human inheritance” (56). This makes us ripe for manipulation.

In chapters four and five, McIntyre shows how the decline of traditional media and the rise of social networks have played upon this inherent condition, paving the way for post-truth conditions. The general narrative here is quite clear to many. Some details are interesting: Rush Limbaugh and other radio hosts served to undermine dialogue aimed at truth and to substitute instead a sense of participation in a community of like-minded individuals. The rise of all-news stations, like CNN, and later MSNBC and Fox, also lead to a focus on media spectacle. With the need to fill 24 hour news channels, a strong place emerged for sensationalism. And the media noticed, people were more interested in conflict more than truth. Increasingly, too, the view that absolute objectivity wasn’t possible gave way to news that did not attempt objectivity at all. Those news outlets that did retain a focus on objectivity often engaged in the false equivalencies, presenting two sides of every issue, even when objectively one of those sides was clearly in error. Issues on which there was no scientific dissensus were presented as if there was such dissensus. And this led to the public being increasingly confused on various issues of importance. In addition to all of this, the reliance on traditional media simply waned, and the significance of social media increased.

A recent poll shows that 62 percent of adults in America now get their news from social media (94). Many of the media outlets that are doing well are benefiting from sensationalism. So we are witnessing a reemergence of yellow journalism. Editorial filters are increasingly rare: in social media articles of the New York Times and the Washington Post appear alongside those from fake news sources. This is a context where many people have not yet gotten good at deciphering legitimate from illegitimate news sources. And in the highly partisan driven environment we are in president Trump has used this confusion to sow the seeds of greater doubt about media objectivity, condemning news critical of him as fake news. McIntyre shares the concerns that this creates conditions rife for propaganda and for authoritarian forms of government. As Hannah Arendt noted: “the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction..true and false…no longer exist” (qtd. on 114). As this feeds into authoritarian rule, and propaganda is used, the point becomes not truth or falsity but which side we are on (ff. 112).

In chapter six, McIntyre takes up the question of the contribution of postmodernism to the post-truth condition. He provides an overview of debates in sociology of knowledge, highlights the science wars, and takes up explicit statements of some postmodern critics and some right-wing pundits on this issue. His main arguments are that some right-wing thinkers in fact quote Derrida and other postmodern thinkers. Besides that, “even if right-wing politicians and other science deniers were not reading Derrida and Foucault, the germ of the idea made its way to them” (140). His conclusion is that “postmodernism is the godfather of post-truth” (150). While that conclusion seems justified, McIntyre’s analysis of postmodernism will strike many as overly facile. He does not examine concrete views of postmodern theoreticians in any detail or offer a very specific set of objections. Here Habermas’ long-standing critique of the neo-conservative threat of postmodernism precisely for it’s lack of clear criteria for decyphering good from bad ideas would have been helpful to him. Some reflection on the fact that various postmoderns, like Richard Rorty, took a pragmatic turn, while others, like late Michel Foucault, went the route similar to Habermas’ discourse theory would have also given a fairer depiction of what postmodernism is. That said, it does not seem to me to be objectionable that the widespread view among postmoderns that all stances as mere interpretations played into the hands of later right-wing thinkers who were dissatisfied with the epistemological dominance of science.

McIntyre is not concerned with “post-truth” because he thinks that we have arrived at any real “post-truth” world. We never can. As he notes: “We may be able to bullshit others (or ourselves) for a while and get away with it, but eventually we will pay a price for thinking we can create our own reality” (169). His final chapter on “fighting post-truth” actually is quite short on ways to counter it. His main point is that we should counter lies when we hear them. He suggests that media can play a part by refusing to feature lies or refusing to pretend that there are always two rational sides to every debate (say climate change, for example). These kinds of things can mitigate how far the lies spread and reduce the possibility of confirmation bias and the effectiveness of other cognitive biases upon which those in power thrive in the “post-truth” context. His summarizing point is that “post-truth is not about reality; it’s about the way that humans react to reality” (172). As he notes in closing: “It is our decision how we will react to a world where someone is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Truth still matters, and it always has. Whether we realize this in time is up to us” (172).

McIntyre’s Post-Truth is an excellent read. Nonetheless, I will finish with two minor reservations about the book, both rather “academic” in nature. One is that McIntyre neither quite consistently discusses what “post-truth” is nor uses the term consistently. He speaks of its “most pure” form, but then goes on to explicate it as something other than that. Is it the view that there is no reality except the agreed upon one? Or is it simply the view that in many cases emotions trump facts? Or is it the view that ideology often trumps facts? Or is a term we can apply to all three of these things? His discussion of these differences is not as clear as it might have been; and he tends to use the term with all of these meanings at different times. For the type of book that this is and the intended audience, this is not a serious issue. The other reservation, also not particularly serious, is the final chapter doesn’t actually deliver on its promise. It’s title is “fighting post-truth.” Yet precious little is offered on how to do this. There is no list of to-dos, such we find in Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny. There is largely just a discussion of the need to object to post-truth individually and in the media. In fact, some of his best suggestions for countering “post-truth” come not in McIntyre’s final chapter but in chapter five. There he notes the value of doing research on one’s own, learning to differentiate fake news from real news, but also the importance of engaging in truth telling and the spreading of true views. This last reservation is not particularly troubling. Points made in the last chapter of the book are interesting enough, even if they don’t provide clear steps on how to fight post-truth.

In general Post-Truth is excellent read, and evidence that philosophers can make an important clarifying contribution to current affairs in ways of general relevance.

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