Monday, January 08, 2018

Post-truth might be another artifact of a particular moment

Here's a fascinating longread for anyone who had begun to feel that political persuasion was hopeless. Some of those social science studies that have been telling us that offering to counter inaccuracies only created an anti-truth backlash may themselves be a product of the journalistic impulse to promote flashy results based on flimsy data and weak statistical tests.

Yes, people do engage in motivated reasoning. Yes, it’s true that we prefer to cling to our beliefs. Yes, we do give extra credence to the facts we’ve heard repeated. But each of these ideas has also spawned a more extreme (and more disturbing) corollary—that facts can force the human mind to switch into reverse, that facts can drive us even further from the truth. It’s those latter theories, of boomerangs and backfires, that have grown in prominence in recent years, and it’s those latter theories that have lately had to be revised.

... Why, then, has the end-of-facts idea gained so much purchase in both academia and the public mind? It could be an example of what the World War II–era misinformation experts referred to as a “bogie” rumor—a false belief that gives expression to our deepest fears and offers some catharsis. It’s the kind of story that we tell one another even as we hope it isn’t true. Back then, there were bogie rumors that the Japanese had sunk America’s entire fleet of ships or that thousands of our soldiers’ bodies had washed ashore in France. Now, perhaps, we blurt out the bogie rumor that a rumor can’t be scotched—that debunking only makes things worse.

Or it could be that our declarations of a post-truth age are more akin to another form of rumor catalogued during the 1940s: the “pipe dream” tale. These are the stories—the Japanese are out of oil; Adolf Hitler is about to be deposed—we tell to make ourselves feel better. Today’s proclamations about the end of facts could reflect some wishful thinking, too. They let us off the hook for failing to arrive at common ground and say it’s not our fault when people think there really is a war on Christmas or a plague of voter fraud. In this twisted pipe-dream vision of democracy, we needn’t bother with the hard and heavy work of changing people’s minds, since disagreement is a product of our very nature or an unpleasant but irresolvable feature of our age.

Daniel Engber, Slate

As is often the case for me, putting what we are urged to believe in an historical context clarifies. We're living in times that encourage us to doubt the existence of hard realities -- at least until we fall on our faces and bust our noses. This corrective essay is well worth the time to read.

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