Beyond ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’

After the recent inauguration of Donald Trump, a row broke out about the number of people who actually attended the inauguration, in which Trump’s spokesperson was derided for using the phrase ‘alternative facts’. The evidence, as illustrated by the photos, seems pretty clearly not in support of the ‘alternative facts’ offered by the Trump administration, but I’m not interested in discussing the details of that (which have been much debated) here – rather I’m interested in the outrage attached to the idea of ‘alternative facts’. After all, the thinking seems to go, we have the facts here, so how can there possibly be alternative facts? A similar line of thinking seems to be behind the burgeoning phrase ‘post -truth’ – as if we used to know the truth, but now people aren’t accepting that truth any more. My  view is that people who pay attention to evidence and try to develop personal objectivity are not doing their cause any favours by talking in terms of ‘post-truth’, but rather reinforcing the kind of confused thinking out of which the Trump phenomenon has been born.Inauguration_crowd_size_comparison_between_Trump_2017_and_Obama_2009

Let’s first reflect on some basic features of the human condition, that we can all probably find in our own experience. We all have beliefs about the world, but those beliefs have also often turned out to be wrong, even if we held them along with lots of other people. This applies not just to ‘values’ such s the past belief that slavery is OK, but also to past ‘facts’ such as that the world is flat. As an individual, I can confess that I used to believe a number of ‘facts’ that I now no longer accept, such as that sisters are always older than you, that I would never be able to find a girlfriend, or that it’s safe to drive at 60mph over a moor with loose livestock on it. There are also the limitations of our senses, perspective, and most of all our language, which depends for its meaning on our bodies and metaphorical constructions, not some kind of correspondence with potential truth (for more on these sceptical themes, see this article). On the whole then, we must admit that we have no access to facts. It’s not just Trump who is deluded if he claims to know ‘the facts’ or ‘the truth’, but you and me too. Post-truth politics, along with post-truth philosophy and post-truth everything else, thus seems to have begun with homo sapiens as a whole, and our emergence of a capacity to hold and express any kind of belief that we might assume to be true. The first post-truth politician was the Serpent tempting Eve.

If we finger populist politicians for a fault that it can easily be seen that we all share, then, it is hardly surprising if we’re seen as hypocritical. Though I don’t see a lot of the often unpleasant social media output by Trump supporters, one thing that has struck me about a lot of what I have seen is the predominance of accusations of ‘liberal hypocrisy’. If liberals claim to have ‘the facts’ and respond to Trump’s excesses with blustering counter-assertions in a similar style, that accusation doesn’t seem to me wholly unjust. I think there are far more effective ways of responding that identify much more clearly what Trump and his henchmen are doing wrong and which avoid this ‘post-truth’ shortcut. It’s not whther they have or don’t have the facts, or don’t share your view of them, that matters here: but that they don’t offer those facts with provisionality, are not open to correction, are not interested in examining evidence or justification, are not even concerned about gross inconsistencies in their beliefs, and are not at all interested in improving on their beliefs or making them more adequate. In terms of values, they do not respect the truth or the facts. In relation to all these points, I agree very much with Trump’s critics that the new administration’s attitudes are extremely alarming.

If you genuinely respect the truth, you don’t claim to have it, just as if you respect the power of electricity, you don’t stick your finger in a live socket. Truth is a meaningful concept to us, because we use it in all sorts of ways in all sorts of practical contexts – for example, in science, in law, and in everyday conversation. We have set up an abstract model in which ‘truth’ stands for an idealisation – a fabled position in which we could really know what is going on, not just more than we did before, but totally, as in a God’s eye view. But nevertheless that abstract idealisation is just an extrapolation of our much more limited experience: the experience of recognising things we didn’t ‘know’ before, and of confidently interacting with the world around us in a consistent way. Most of the time, our confidence about how the world works turns out to be justified, so we apply this idealised concept of ‘truth’ to that experience, in the process completely failing to take into account the limitations of our view. So it’s very important that ‘truth’ is recognised as meaningful, and not relativised in its meaning, but at the same time recognised as beyond our reach.

Let’s take an example. A child brought up in a household with a  friendly dog, confidently playing with it and interacting with it, thinks it’s ‘true’ that dogs are friendly. When he encounters the first unfriendly dog, though, his whole model of the world is briefly shaken, the ‘truth’ is shattered. There may be denial – the unfriendly dog doesn’t really count as a dog. There will certainly be initial stress, followed by suspicion and unease in a new uncertain relationship with dogs. But we don’t all have to be as fragile as that child, if we stop thinking in terms of ‘truth’ but rather cultivate the awareness that our beliefs are only justified for the moment on the basis of the evidence so far. If we can be aware of other possibilities to begin with, we will be less overwhelmed by the nasty surprise when it happens.

In the realm of politics, that means concentrating on the qualities that actually matter in making our judgements adequate, the ones that involve a larger respect for truth, rather than railing about others offering ‘alternative facts’: namely the personal qualities of provisionality, awareness, imagination and observation. It means setting the example to those who don’t understand this, and teaching children not to ‘tell the truth’, but rather to reflect upon and justify what they say. It means holding Trump to account, not for ‘lying’, but for being grossly inconsistent and failing to offer evidence or respond to criticism.

It may well be that most of those who complain about lack of truth, when pressed, would actually agree that what they value in practice are these ways of justifying and adjusting our beliefs. But while they continue to use ‘truth’ and ‘post-truth’ as a lazy shortcut, I think they will play straight into the hands of people like Trump. All that such populists have to then do when challenged is to turn back to their unsophisticated supporters, deny the criticism, and offer their own ‘alternative facts’. The discussion will then stay at the completely unfruitful level of mere claim and counter-claim. As our beliefs about the world are wrapped up with our goals, our ontological obsession with what is or is not ‘really’ the case is our biggest weakness, the absolutizing vulnerable spot in our cognitive abilities. It’s only by putting ourselves in the messy middle zone of neither accepting nor denying these ‘realities’ that we can make progress, whether in politics or any other area of human dispute.

 

Picture: Comparison between inauguration crowd sizes for Donald Trump in 2017 (left) and Barack Obama in 2009 (right). Images copyright to 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee (left) and ewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images (right), and are used at low resolution under fair use criteria. 

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

6 thoughts on “Beyond ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’

  1. The English language likes nouns, it likes to name things. This can often lead to a tendency to reify those things. Your post seems to be concerned with a reification of “truth.” That is most valid, but I think there can be another aspect to the term truth. Not the aspect that is concerned with whether truths exist or not, but the aspect of whether someone is telling me the truth. Right now it is snowing outside my home. That is the truth. Donald Trump states that a million or a million and a half people attended his inauguration, that is blatantly untrue. He knows this, yet repeats the lie. He has a habit of this kind of behavior. He get’s information from some fringe source, and it becomes his alternative facts, used to refute numerous other sources of information that are contrary. It is important to be able to frame this behavior in simple and direct terms. I feel that “alternative facts” and “post-truth” are fairly effective frames, though it’s not hard to quibble about them. I doubt that many of those who voted for Trump would be swayed in the slightest but your deconstruction of truth, regardless of the reasonableness of your argument. The voices in opposition to Trump may do well to consider what you have said, it is after all the “truth,” but I have doubts of it’s effectiveness in countering the duplicity of Trump and his team.

  2. Hi Carl,
    Our judgement about whether someone is telling the truth or not has an intuitive aspect to it, and seems to be tied up with trust and our bodily response to others. So I can see that qualities like truthfulness and honesty in people is another important dimension of the matter – and one I neglected to discuss. I’m not sure of the usefulness of framing things in simple terms though. If you give people a simple alternative rather than a path of investigation, they tend to just flip between different ‘truths’ rather than making progress in objectivity. The only way forward I can see, however difficult, seems to lie in helping people become more genuinely objective.

    1. Hi Robert,
      Did you see the recent interview with Lakoff at Salon? What kind of language is useful in getting a substantial portion of the people who voted for Trump (or Brexit) to consider that the past arguments, and those now, coming out of team Trump are egregiously illegitimate, and against their own interest. Trump is a highly skilled and deeply duplicitous salesman. The truth was never required to make a sale.

  3. Hi Carl,
    No, I didn’t. Can you give a link?

    I think his opponents have to wait for Trump to fail and destroy his own position, as he surely must do. It takes some suffering or frustration to break a positive feedback loop. The news of Trump’s behaviour is getting daily more astonishing. However, when he fails is the moment to suggest ways forward for his supporters.

  4. Hi Robert,

    If the terms ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ are meant in a way that ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ become absolute, then I agree with your criticisms of them. However, I’m not sure that this is how they are always used. Doubtless, some people will use them in this way, but many don’t. For me, the so called ‘post-truth’ era is defined by peoples changing expectations. Not so long ago, if a political group claimed that the NHS would receive ¬£350 Million a week once the UK had left Europe, and this was then found to be inaccurate, and it was also apparent that those making the claim also knew this to be so, then people would have reacted in opposition – perhaps doubting the integrity of other arguments made by this group. Instead, this claim, and many others made by groups wanting to leave the EU (such as Turkey is going to join in the near future) were not thought to be important. For many of those, who wanted to vote to leave, it did not matter what evidence, or arguments were presented. Rather, people were encouraged to vote with gut feelings and base emotions such as fear and, even, hatred. The same seems to be the case with Donald Trump. It seems he can say anything. He can be shown as being wilfully dishonest. He can be shown to contradict himself. He can be shown to be ill informed. Yet, it doesn’t seem to matter to those that support him – they seem to be appealing to base emotions and certainties. Trump can say that torture works, there has been election fraud (but not by ANY of his voters) or that the attendance of his inauguration was the highest in history, and his supporters require no reasonable evidence. The truth in ‘post-truth’ is not, for me, a requirement for absolute certainties but rather for reasonable attempts at honesty and accuracy in claims made by media and politicians. The same is so for ‘alternative facts’. A reasonable fact is one that is presented by a source that has honestly made attempts to maximise its accuracy. One can, of course, challenge any fact with alternative evidence and analysis, but a fact that we hold with a high degree of confidence should be challenged by an alternative that is supported by honest, compelling and robust evidence. ‘Alternative Facts’ do not refer to this process, rather it describes dishonest alternatives which offer no compelling evidence in support of the challenge being made. And in a ‘post-truth’ world such dishonesty is ignored (by those supporting the claimant) and even celebrated.

    As has happened with climate change science for some time, the uncertainties of science and ‘experts’ are being used against them. We seem to have crossed a new paradigm and it is one in which large swathes of the population gleefully ignore reason, logic and critical thinking, in favour of reactionary and accusatory bigotry, fuelled by fear, anger and hate. I can’t help feeling that some people should use a little more (not less) of their left brain. I fear what will happen if the far right parties are electorally successful across Europe, and I feel ashamed that the UK has led the way by voting for Brexit amidst a fear-mongering, xenophobic campaign.

    Rich

  5. Hi Rich, Thanks for your comment, and I very much agree with all of it. ‘Truth’ and ‘facts’ can be used, in a particular context, to draw attention to evidence, consistency, or other helpful methods of judging. But there I think they are being used as values or ideals, and I still think it would help if people were aware of this, so as not to slide into contradictory ding-dongs as to what is or is not actually the case. I also agree that people need to use their left brains more rather than less – in the sense that a basic requirement for consistency often precedes the importance of recognising alternative assumptions.

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