“Facts just twist the truth around/Facts are living turned inside out” – so sang David Byrne of Talking Heads in 1980’s “Crosseyed and Painless”, but it’s a refrain that could just as easily apply to “post-truth politics” – a climate whereby facts are ignored (or in some cases, fabricated) in favour of spurious claims and appeals to emotion. Statistics, figures and expert opinions are seemingly no longer valid, and a lie announced loudly and repeatedly will drown out the truth – as with the claim by Brexiteers that EU membership cost Britain £350m a week, which was repeatedly debunked by fiscal authorities yet saw continued use at the forefront of the Vote Leave campaign.
Add to that an American election campaign marred by many and varied false accusations - ranging from tweets claiming global warming was invented by the Chinese to tinfoil-hatted conspiracy-talk that Barack Obama was not an American citizen – and it seems hard to deny that politics is no longer about what can be proven or validated.
What exactly has led people to disregard the data? Four philosophers, writers and scientists give their opinions on why truth is being left by the wayside.
‘Scepticism of truth stems from disenchantment with context-less facts’ – Andrew Bowie | Author, musician and Professor of Philosophy and German at Royal Holloway. His most recent book is Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy
"The root of scepticism is not the problem of whether we really know anything, which modern science puts in question by the sheer force of its problem-solving capacity, even if it does not refute epistemological scepticism by a philosophical theory, but rather a wider series of problems regarding how we inhabit the world in modernity. In Romantic terms the failure of the attempt to ground knowledge in a positive theory is seen as part of a more general groundlessness that Novalis and others sometimes refer to as ‘homelessness’. The advance of science and the organisation of modern societies depend on types of objectification that prioritise universal forms over the particularity of things and people.
Mathematically based natural science, and modern bureaucracy and law enable huge advances in civilisation, but the price is what Max Weber calls ‘disenchantment’. Values which were previously embedded in complex interpersonal forms of exchange and interaction increasingly become an essentially numerical quantity. The transformation in question enables all sorts of new possibilities for improving the quality of human existence, and it is vital not to underestimate this. At the same time the transformation also gives rise to a concern with qualitative relations between subject and world that can be obscured and eroded by objectification, and this concern points, for example, to the destructive effects of objectification on the environment and on peoples’ lives."
‘…And a disconnect between what’s said, and what seems to be reality’ – Emma Borg | Professor of Philosophy at Reading University and Director of the Reading Centre for Cognition Research
“One thing that might prompt us towards a less realist view is the recognition that language is a human construct: the connection between any linguistic sign and some aspect of the world is a contingent one, and it comes about because of the kinds of creatures we are and the kinds of practices we engage in with that sign. It is unarguable that the word ‘cat’ in English only refers to cats (if it does at all) because we have a practice of using the word in that way. Furthermore, it’s also a truism to note that in language we can and do adopt many different perspectives: the glass of water can be described in the language of chemistry (H2O), via its affordances for action (something drinkable), in terms of its aesthetic or emotional appeal, etc.
"Political decisions should be taken, as far as possible, on the basis of accurate information"
If it is, in a fundamental sense, ‘up to us’ what our words mean and which aspects of a scene we will talk about, and if we can never stand outside ourselves to assess how language and reality hook up, we might well be tempted to think that, on reflection, there is little or no reason to believe language and reality are connected at all. We use words we invent to talk about things as they seem to us. And this seems pretty close to an anti-realist view, whereby language isn’t in the business of describing reality, and indeed that perhaps there is no objective reality in existence for our language to describe even if we wanted it to.”
‘We’ve lost faith in statistics…’ – Matthew Parris | Writer, broadcaster and former Conservative MP; columnist for The Times and The Spectator, presenter of Radio 4’s Great Lives.
"Statistics are much more driven by ideas than people think. Most statistics are capable of a range of interpretations, and those interpretations are formed unconsciously by ideas and beliefs that we may have. As everybody knows, statistics can mislead – the public is particularly ill-equipped to understand statistics, journalists are ill-equipped to use statistics, and so statistics can be wilfully misused or unwittingly misunderstood.
I would like to see the interpretation of statistics made part of the core education curriculum: children in schools should be taught these things, because we have statistics thrown at us all the time and we don’t know what to make of them. In the end, there are statistics, evidence and facts, but there are also values, arguments and ideological systems. Those things are outside the realm of the experts, and they matter."
‘...leading to a worrying hostility towards facts’
“[Anti-intellectualism] is quite dangerous. That kind of populist hostility to any kind of professional expertise – “I know a woman who lived to 94 and she chain-smoked since she was 16” etc – is dangerous, and I’m not encouraging that. Academics and experts of any field should always be listened to with respect and attention, but always in our minds should be the possibility that they might just be wrong.
It would be possible to go too far and just develop a kind of generalised hostility to knowledge, and that obviously wouldn’t be a good thing. Climate change is a good example: among those who are part of the consensus on climate change there is quite a strong sense of the conventional wisdom and peer group pressure pushing them not to challenge those conclusions. But on the other side, the anti-climate change scientists, one senses that very often they’re being paid for by vested interests who are hostile to the measures you might have to take to combat climate change. If we aren’t careful, we might end up feeling that they’re all as bad as each other so it’s not even worth listening to the science on climate change, because they’re all in somebody’s pocket. That isn’t true, and to reach that conclusion would be just as damaging.”
‘But we should still be listening to experts, even if we trust them less’ – Edward Mortimer | Former Times and Financial Times journalist and UN Director of Communications. Now a Distinguished Fellow of All Souls, Oxford.
"Political decisions should be taken, as far as possible, on the basis of accurate information. Experts may be able to tell us how to get what we want, or what results a given course of action is most likely to produce. Yes, they do often disagree among themselves, but that is not a reason for ignoring them. We have to decide which of them are more credible, or deserving of trust. We can do that partly by looking at their track record, and partly by noting what they think of each other. If a scientist is elected to the Royal Society, or to a chair in a major university, that means that other scientists think highly of her and her views are worth taking seriously.
Of course the Royal Society and universities are institutions, and those who achieve leadership positions in them may have a disproportionate say in deciding which other experts should be taken seriously. That, presumably, is what is meant by “institutional power”. So we should also keep an eye on these institutions, and make sure they are doing their job of being open to new facts and ready to re-examine their preconceptions. But again, that doesn’t mean we’d be better off without them.
Human knowledge can never be completely objective, because human beings will always interpret data, often unconsciously, in the light of preconceptions. But over time preconceptions are revised in the light of new findings, and experts are at least aware of the latest state of play. They know where there is a consensus, and what facts are still disputed.
So should we be more sceptical? That depends how sceptical we already are. We should not have blind, uncritical faith in any human being or human institution. But we cannot hope to understand all the world’s complexities by our own unaided efforts – there is just too much detail for even the greatest minds, let alone our smaller ones, to master."
Want more on post-truth politics? Then try the debates below:
Join the conversation