As the kindling of 2017 takes hold, a new concept is slowly rolling across the land. The compound word that best captures it is “post-truth”, which was declared by Oxford Dictionaries to be the “Word of the Year, 2016“. It refers to the nascent contemporary period in which self-evident or provable truth is no longer the generally accepted truth by a growing proportion of society.
Why is this? What would make seemingly intelligent people say or do things that are more in keeping with Alice’s “up is down” Wonderland?
Let’s suppose that most intelligent people will accept the following: “if we are informed that A is true and we know that A being true implies that B is true, then we must accept that B is true.” This is just basic modus ponens from the study of propositional logic, more succinctly expressed as “A implies B; A; therefore B”. Each step in the logical argument is true. Yet we increasingly find that people don’t accept the third step. Indeed, many seem to reach “Not B” as their conclusion, completely contrary to any logical argument!
Similarly, people presented with contrary evidence (e.g. “Not B”) while knowing that “A implies B” still adhere to the belief that A remains true, in defiance of modus tollens. In other words, they maintain their beliefs despite contrary evidence.
You can apply this to many things, such as the arguments surrounding climate change, the origins of life, the causes of conflict, support for political positions, attendances at events, consequences of economic decisions and more. It has become so prevalent that many stories circulating in the various media merely state the conclusion of an argument without exploring the actual argument itself. Then, since what is written in black and white is often taken as fact, any subsequent arguments become disastrously off-track since they start from falsehoods and work ever downwards.
So what has gone wrong?
At first I believed the problem rests with a failure to properly affirm the antecedent property (A), or incorrectly identify A so that any conclusion regarding B is perceived as flawed. Since the argument is being presented to prove B and the argument fails then the – naturally human – response is to assume the opposite must be true. (This of course is another logical fallacy, as the failure of one argument does not mean that all other arguments must fail.)
This is what leads to one group claiming only a quarter of a million people attended an event while the organiser claims six times that number (or more) because if you have a photo showing people all the way to the back and you know the capacity of the auditorium then surely you know how many attended. A full picture means numbers were at capacity, here’s a picture, therefore we had full capacity. Then someone else comes along with a photograph from a different angle showing something different and suddenly the facts and arguments get muddied. In the end, people come away believing whatever they want to believe, regardless of the facts.
That was my first thought. But on reflection I think there may be something more serious going on. We are awash with facts, or things that look like facts, so we are hard pressed to determine what’s real and what’s not real. Of course, we could be presented with dozens of photographs from many angles in the auditorium and many of these photos would be packed with people, but all it takes is one photo from the right angle to give the right perspective. The film industry has long known about using camera angles to make a place look full. Our national sporting agencies have often only taken photos of the stadia where the spectators have been compressed to give the impression of full attendance, despite 80% of the seats being unoccupied. So why then does a counter-image not destroy the argument? Scientists know that all it takes is one failure to destroy a theory, but they are guided by logic. They call it the scientific method. The general public, however, are swayed by rhetoric and the volume of “facts”. The one photograph showing a mostly empty auditorium from a good vantage point does not destroy the argument backed by many ground-level photographs and the oratory of a person who declares any counter-argument to be “false news”.
So, it is not just that people are convinced by the volume of “facts” and the volume of the orator, while suppressing any contrary information or sources, it appears also to be the case that logical reasoning has suffered. Rational thinking is falling by the wayside. Indeed, those who are ill-equipped to think rationally are doing their best to demonize anyone who does not share their world-view. There is a battle going on between logic and emotion, and it looks like emotion is starting to win. Belief is replacing proof, and even if the consequences of this madness result in disaster, those who are responsible will not accept that responsibility because it does not fit the narrative they want to hear.
Welcome to the post-truth world, where facts and rational thinking are optional.
Categorised as: LUE