I've been around a long time. In my lifetime I've been exposed to many truth claims, not all of which are true - some by my contemporaries, some by those considered experts in their field, some by political leaders. Truth telling seems most difficult for those in the political arena, even, especially for those with political power. We as Americans, as Christians are often forced to distinguish between genuine facts and propaganda.
And we've heard some doozies from our leaders, even our Presidents and their spokesmen, many of them outright lies, intended to deceive: justifications for wars, break-ins, sexual scandals.But our present situation surpasses them all. We have a President who tells us in the face of contradictory evidence, that three million people voted illegally for his adversary, that the crowds at his inauguration were the greatest ever, that his predecessor was not born in the USA (wait - he took that one back and blamed its spread on his opponent). And those are just the laughable ones. There are many more instances that are much more serious, designed to promote his agenda.
However, this battle against the truth did not begin with Donald Trump.Friends who know I'm a reader, often recommend books to me, sometimes telling me, "You've got to read ______!" Somehow those words raise resistance in me, so I seldom use them myself. But this book is different. To any and every Christian leader or thinker I'd say, "You've got to read this book: Post Truth!"
We are in a battle for truth today. Of course, one could assert that we have always been engaged in this battle - ever since the serpent asked Eve, "Yea, hath God said ....?" However, I believe that we have entered a period in America - and the world - where we are no longer attempting to ascertain facts, but are simply selecting assertions that confirm our own prejudices. Truth has become that which we choose it to be.The little (172 pages) book Post-Truth by Lee McIntyre is an attempt to explain "How we arrived in a post-truth era, when 'alternative facts' replace actual facts, and feelings have more weight than evidence.'" (back cover blurb) McIntyre, we are told, "is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and an Instructor in Ethics at Harvard Extension School." The book is a volume in The MIT Essential Knowledge Series. The author informs us, however, that this book is unique in its topic. It "was born from a sense of regret by those who worry that truth is being eclipsed" and that it is "impossible to achieve the kind of dispassionate neutrality that one might expect in an academic book." (Preface p. XIII)
He lets the reader know right at the beginning that he is not seeking a balanced view, which is clearly not possible. "To do so would engage in a kind of false equivalence that is the hallmark of post-truth itself." He goes on to explain that this challenge to truth is used "as a mechanism for asserting political dominance," and thus this book will not "shy away from politics." (p.xiii)McIntyre gives us The Oxford English Dictionary's definition of post-truth as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief."(page 5) To understand post-truth we must, of course, know what truth is. He gives us Aristotle's as his minimum definition ... "to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true." (page 7)
Post-truth is a subversion of truth and it can take many forms - simple "falsehood," "willful ignorance" and "lying" which involves the "intent to deceive." Post-truth, however, goes beyond this to "self-deception and delusion" where one actually believes one's falsehoods and that this belief somehow changes the facts. One has created one's own reality simply by believing. The challenge of post-truth is not just to the knowledge of reality "but to the existence of reality itself." (p. 9, 10) Facts have become subordinate to one's opinions, especially political opinions.Though denial of truth has been around since the beginning, McIntyre sees its recent uptick in the denial of science in recent years - climate change, vaccine and evolution. He presents the work of the tobacco industry in casting doubt on science with alternative views as being the pioneering work in science denial. He speaks of "a straight line .... from the 'tobacco strategy' of the 1950's to today's "controversy over global warning." (p.27) The strategy is not to disprove scientific data but simply to raise doubts about their accuracy. And of course, the media have willingly cooperated by presenting "'both sides of the story' on any 'controversial scientific issue.'" (p. 33) Thus are implicated in this trend not only the industries who have a financial stake, but the news media as well.
The author devotes a chapter to "cognitive bias," its roots and its branches. Cognitive bias is our tendency to accept as true those data which confirm our preexisting views. He describes our tendency to "social conformity;" to "motivated reasoning" - "what we hope to be true may color our perception of what actually is true;" "the backfire effect" - doubling down when confronted with contradicting data; the "Dunning-Kruger effect" - the inability to recognize one's own ineptitude.Another chapter is devoted to "the Decline of Traditional Media." Not only are traditional news - sources losing their readership, but biased sources are arising to take their place. Talk radio's Rush Limbaugh "set himself up as a source of truth in opposition to the rest of American media," (p. 68) exploiting confirmation bias. But even the traditional media have been complicit by attempting to "tell both sides of the story" and thus "creating false equivalence" between two sides of an issue even when there were not really two credible sides." (p. 72)
Chapter 5 is devoted to "Social Media" and "Fake News." It would seem that the intelligent reader would be aware of the use of social media to spread deception, but many users simply click "share" and pass on anything without critical examination. McIntyre devotes much material to the need for critical thinking in this area.Though throughout most of the book, it is those of the political right, and especially Donald Trump who are given as examples, the left is not without excuse. Academia is also to blame, especially the concept of postmodernism. It is in this school of thought that "the notion of truth itself was now under scrutiny," (p. 125) Truth claims are treated as merely expressions of ideology. In postmodernism, "there is no such thing as objective truth." (p. 126) Though the political right in the past was involved in battling postmodernism, they have evolved into its greatest users. They have turned an abstract philosophical concept into a weapon. Even Intelligent Design creationists have been guilty of utilizing its thinking.
The final chapter, "Fighting Post-Truth" was not very encouraging to me. Though some strategies are given, most boil down to simply stating the truth in the face of its enemies.So how do I, how do you the reader, react to the warnings in this book? How do we who claim to be followers of the One who claimed to be "The Truth" react to the data presented here?
First of all we need to beware of "confirmation bias" on our part. I am afraid that many Evangelicals are guilty of rejecting any truth claims simply because they appear to contradict our own rigid set of beliefs. As has been said many times "all truth is God's truth." We have nothing to fear. Most of the assertions in this book are easily verifiable simply by observation of what's happening around us.We need to get out of our bubble. There's more out there for us than "Christian Radio" and/or Fox News. Expose yourself to other thinking. Read news magazines. Watch the News. Learn to distinguish facts from opinions. Don't be afraid to seek to know the facts about matters even though they may be threatening.
Become biblically and theologically astute. What are the real moral issues on which we stand? I have found that many Christians are guilty of opposing scientific knowledge, not because it contradicts the Bible, but because it doesn't agree with their political prejudices. [Do you know that there is not one passage in the Bible that says manmade global warning cannot occur?]As I said earlier, this is a must read book for the Christian leader or thinker. It is however, not a "Christian" book. But if secular thinkers actually believe that we are engaged in a battle for the truth, then we who are followers of the Truth should be careful which side we are on.