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Post-Truth, with Lee C. McIntyre

August 14, 2018

Detail from book cover

JOANNE MYERS: Welcome to this podcast, which is coming to you from the Carnegie Council in New York City. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs here at the Council.

Our guest is Lee McIntyre. He is the author of Post-Truth, which is part of MIT's Essential Knowledge series. In it he looks at one of the most disturbing trends of our time, which is to say a world where alternative facts replace actual facts and feelings have more weight than evidence.

Lee is a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and a lecturer in ethics at Harvard Extension School. His previous books include Respecting Truth, and his philosophical and popular essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Times Higher Education Supplement, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The New Statesman.

Thank you for joining us.

In tracing the development of the post-truth phenomena—from science denial, to the Brexit vote, to Donald Trump's victory, the rejection of climate change, to the vilification of immigrants—you argue that post-truth is a problem that before it can be addressed must be understood.

So, before we begin to talk about what this means for our society, for our politics, for our culture, could you define post-truth?

LEE MCINTYRE: Yes. Thank you very much for having me on your program. This is an honor.

The best definition of post-truth, I think, is the one that was given by the Oxford Dictionary. I talk in my book about how this was the Word of the Year. In November 2016 the Oxford Dictionary named post-truth as their Word of the Year, and they defined it in the following way: "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." That's the dictionary definition.

I think that another way to think of it, just practically, is to know it when you see it. When someone is pretending that something is true that you can see right in front of your face is not true, that's an example of post-truth.

One early example that I use in the book is when Sean Spicer came out to the podium to claim that Trump's inauguration was the largest ever, when photographic evidence clearly showed that it was not, when the records from the Washington Metro system showed that ridership was down compared to four years earlier.

When you're talking about an empirical question, a factual question, and it's just obvious that the facts are not with you but you reject them and you believe what you want to believe anyway, that's really the best way, I think, to think of post-truth.

JOANNE MYERS: What do you think happened to bring us to this moment?

LEE MCINTYRE: Several things. One problem with post-truth is that people hear the term and they think that it was just invented. It was not. The word has been around for a while. Really, the idea of post-truth has been around for decades. In my book I talk about how I think post-truth really started with science denial. Science denial, too, has been around for a long time. I mean science denial goes back to Galileo.  

But if you think about the coordinated campaign of science denial, where science started to become a part of an issue, you maybe look at the 1950s. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have done some work in their book Merchants of Doubt where they talk about how the cigarette companies got together in the 1950s because scientists were just about to release a fairly conclusive study which showed that cigarette smoking was linked to lung cancer. This was obviously going to be a disaster for their business. So they decided to fight the science. They opened their own research institute, they hired their own scientists, they took our full-page ads in American newspapers, and they created doubt where there wasn't any on a factual question.

What people don't realize is that that was hugely successful. I mean it wasn't just successful for the cigarette companies that rode that wave of doubt for the next 40 or 50 years, but it was the same blueprint that was used for science denial over acid rain, the ozone hole, Reagan's Star Wars defense initiative, and today for climate change.

I think what happened is—you know, it's easy for people to say, "Oh well that's all nonsense, they're the fringe groups," like the people who think that the moon landing was faked. But if you look at public opinion polls, there are quite a number of people who deny science because they believe the disinformation.

For post-truth I think it's quite simple. That campaign of science denial was so effective that it led partisans in Washington and elsewhere to say, "Well, you know what? If they can deny the truth about climate change, if they can deny the truth about cigarettes, and get away with it, maybe we can deny the truth about anything—maybe about whether the crime rate is going up when it's really going down, how many people are at an inauguration, whether it was raining versus sunny during Trump's inauguration speech. If you can convince people that the truth is not true about science, why not anything?"

JOANNE MYERS: At what point do you think that it actually entered the political mainstream? Was it just with Donald Trump or has it been there all along?

LEE MCINTYRE: It's hard to say. One thing that I say in the book that I think actually is a good way to think of it: I don't think that Trump was the beginning of post-truth, I think he was the result. I think that decades of growing partisanship in Washington and the spin doctoring that we all see in Washington certainly created a climate in which this happened.

There have always been people—I mean go back to the cigarette example—there have always been people or corporations who have profited from people believing their lies. But I think what happened was, through increased partisanship, it made a more willing audience to hear the lies and to line up. People were no longer so likely to say, "Well, I need to find out for myself whether climate change is true." If the party that they voted with or the people that they watched on a partisan network said that it wasn't true, then they were more likely to go with that crowd.

I think the decline of mainstream media, newspaper media, the rise of social media—there were a number of things that happened that really exacerbated some existing trends—cognitive bias, all these things that have been with us for a long time, all of a sudden in the hyper-partisan environment that happened in Washington I think made it worse.

But I have to say post-truth is a worldwide phenomenon. It may be particularly bad in the United States right now, but there are also examples of it occurring in other countries.

JOANNE MYERS: Well, certainly in England Brexit is a prime example.

LEE MCINTYRE: Yes.

JOANNE MYERS: Could you point out other countries where you have seen this phenomenon taking root and growing?

LEE MCINTYRE: Yes. I think that the United States and Britain are the easiest examples to hand.

The ones that are the most disturbing are when you see authoritarian governments that are picking up on some of the language that's now being used in Washington, talking about fake news, which really enables the authoritarians to say that things that they don't want to be true aren't actually true.

I'll give you probably the best example. It's not a recent example, but it's quite salient. Many years ago, Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa after Nelson Mandela, made the claim that the antiretroviral work was part of a Western plot and that it was actually dangerous and that people should not take antiretroviral drugs because HIV and AIDS could be treated with garlic and lemon juice. This was a disaster. Hundreds of thousands of people died.

So here was an example of an objective question, a factual question, where they had run clinical trials to find out whether these drugs worked, but it was all swamped by political ideology that had no basis in fact, which was quite top-down. So here's a good example where when you had an authoritarian government, when you had a democratically elected president, but he was able to make policy for millions of people who perhaps didn't agree with him, all of a sudden the population was in peril and HIV rates skyrocketed. That's just one example of how post-truth, I think, is a worldwide phenomenon.

Post-truth doesn't mean that no one cares about truth, it doesn't mean that there isn't any such thing as truth, it just means that there's a critical mass of people who no longer think that they have to form their beliefs based on what's true. This is where alternative facts come in. This is where the whole idea that ideology and opinion and belief and tribe make more of a difference than objective, scientific facts.

JOANNE MYERS: Isn't it true, though, that facts have always been hard to separate from falsehoods and political partisans have always made it harder? But today there seems to be something different. There's almost a crisis in the very concept of truth and that truth doesn't seem to matter anymore. So the question is: Is truth dead?

LEE MCINTYRE: Well, Time had a magazine cover last year called "Is Truth Dead?" I don't think it is. It better not be. I believe in it very strongly.

I think that one problem is that philosophers care a lot about truth. We talk about truth. There's a whole division of philosophy called epistemology where we're concerned with truth. There are very many different theories of truth. But I think that the important thing to remember is that, even though philosophers will argue with one another about which theory of truth is correct, by and large we think that truth matters.

That message, however, has been diluted in the academy, and it has been very difficult for philosophers to stand up in the media and get the word out about truth mattering because there is a price to be paid any time an academic puts his or her work out for a popular audience and maybe you don't have a chance to put forth the sort of nuance that you'd like to, the sort of explanation, all of the "what if's." I think that that has created the impression in the eyes of the general public that there is no such thing as truth.

I know a number of philosophers who want to fight back against that. But, once again, one thing that I talk about in the book is how I think that postmodernism is one of the roots of post-truth, which is to say that I don't think that folks who were involved with postmodernism in the universities in the 1970s and 1980s and up until today really intended that.

In fact, I think that one of the political motivations behind postmodernism was to free people from political oppression. But what happened is that by questioning the idea of whether there was such a thing as objective truth, by questioning whether there were any statements that you could make, even scientific statements, that were not shot through with political assumptions of the people who were making them, this created the impression that not only maybe that all truth was relative, but that there was no such thing as truth.

Now, that got picked up by folks on the right. If you go back not that many years, the right-wingers were excoriating postmodernism. Now I think that a number of them have quietly adopted that philosophy—not overtly, and they're not maybe reading Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, but some of the thought leaders in the Republican Party and the conservative movement worldwide are now using some of the same tactics of postmodernism. It's kind of like the weapons were manufactured for one side of the war and now they're being used on the other side—I have to say to the horror of a number of people in postmodernism, who are just shocked at the idea that postmodernism is used to—it was bad enough when it was used to deny climate change, now I think it is being used for other purposes.

JOANNE MYERS: So you think that this new political strategy of "lying" is more prevalent among conservatives than liberals?

LEE MCINTYRE: Well, it's a good question. I have taken some good questions on this.

I have to say that I think the sort of cognitive bias that exists in the human mind affects all of us, conservatives or liberals. That's not a partisan issue. We're all subject to tribalism; we're all subject to confirmation bias, public pressure, peer pressure on our opinions. So that's true no matter what our political stripe.

On the very first page of my book Post-Truth, in the preface, I talk about how it seems important to me not to draw false equivalents.  I do think that most of the recent examples of post-truth have been on the right, and I refused in the book to pretend to draw false equivalency, to pretend to be "objective" about it, where I was going to find examples on both sides. I think that there are examples of post-truth on the left, but I think to pretend that there is some sort of equivalency here is just ridiculous.

It reminds me of when the networks were having these debates on climate change or over vaccines. Whether vaccines caused autism is a factual matter. I would often see split-screen debates on TV where they would have somebody from the National Institutes of Health and then a skeptic about vaccines, and they would have them equal time, split screen, both the same size picture, and let them talk. It was a farce because there weren't really two sides of that debate.

That said, again I think that there could be examples of science denial on the left, examples of post-truth on the left, and I point some out in Respecting Truth and in Post-Truth. But I do think that the primary examples of the sorts of things that I talk about in the book and examples that I could give you are for the most part today coming from the right.

JOANNE MYERS: How do you think this will affect us going forward? And is there an effective tipping point?

LEE MCINTYRE: I'm quite worried because my book—I turned in the draft for my book in mid-2017, and I was a little worried at that point was this all still going to be relevant when the book came out in February 2018. But of course it was.

But one thing that happened since the book was published is that many more people are worried about the effect that post-truth might have on facilitating autocracy and authoritarianism. This was a thesis in the book. This was something that I talked about.

I didn't come up with it. Tim Snyder, who wrote his book On Tyranny, said that post-truth is pre-fascism. I think he's right. [Editor's note: For more from Snyder, check out his February 2018 Carnegie Council talk on On Tyranny.]

Masha Gessen—I can't remember the name of her book, but she's a Russian dissident—has said in many places that she thought that Trump or Putin lying was an example of him asserting power, that he wasn't lying to try to convince you, he was lying to show you who was boss.

I have to say Jason Stanley did some terrific work on this in How Propaganda Works, as well.

So the seeds of this idea were out there, this worry about creeping authoritarianism. That has gone mainstream. You hear David Gergen, James Clapper, John Kasich, other prominent folks, who are either Republicans or have worked for Republicans, now saying that they're worried about post-truth. Michael Hayden is another one, who worked for Republicans, who just wrote a book where he talks about post-truth.

The concern that I have is that if you look at how authoritarian governments come to power, they start with post-truth, they start with attacks on reality, and it's because if people become cynical, if the populace becomes cynical, about what's true and false, it becomes much easier for the ruler to present them with something that isn't true and to make their ideas prevalent because you can't fight against it.

I could just say a little bit more about it. There are historical examples of this. The great Holocaust historian Hannah Arendt said, "The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists."

JOANNE MYERS: Exactly. It's very hard to argue facts when people have opinions.

LEE MCINTYRE: It is. I don't know what to do about that.

I'm thinking about this for my next book, which is the number one question that I get on the road when I'm talking about Post-Truth is: "What do we do now? If we're all just in our silos, if we're all just watching different networks, reading different newspapers, and we're not talking to one another, what can we do?"

There's empirical work, there's experimental work, by psychologists which shows that the most effective way to convince someone is to engage them, to continue to talk to them, to present them with factual information over and over, definitely not to just leave the field and let somebody who's lying or presenting alternative facts just have sway, because every lie has an audience, and if you don't challenge the lie, then people begin to wonder, just like what happened with the cigarette campaign back in the 1950s. If there's a false narrative out there and it's not challenged, then people begin to say, "Huh, I guess there are two sides to the story."

JOANNE MYERS: But isn't it also, besides a post-truth era, a post-trust era? I mean do we really trust in the same way we once did?

LEE MCINTYRE: I love the way that you just put that, post-trust. Where do people expect to hear the truth? Where do they get objective information?

If they're doubting scientists, if they're doubting journalists, if they're doubting people in the intelligence community, these are all professions that make some effort to care about facts, make some effort to care about evidence. If we're not trusting them, I'm really not sure. I mean trust is a difficult thing because once it's eroded, it's hard to get it back.

I don't know what to do other than to continue to talk to people who disagree. I think that eventually that sort of thing has to make a difference.

JOANNE MYERS: I think you're right.

I have one last question, and I've been puzzling over this. Donald Trump has what he calls a "base of supporters," but when do supporters become followers and he becomes a cult?

LEE MCINTYRE: It's hard. I've studied [this]. If you look back in history, there have been several times when people know that there is a truth but they want to ignore it, something called willful ignorance, and it can become very seductive to follow a charismatic leader. I worry about that.

I think that there is probably actually more dissent over some of the factual matters that Trump talks about within his base. But the question is, what are people prepared to do about it? If they think that he's lying but they don't care, if they maybe disagree with some of his policies or they disagree with some of the factual things that he's saying, but they say, "Well, but at least he's on our side and we can go ahead"—it's hard.

I think of a cult as when you've got a mindless group of people who it doesn't even occur to them to question what somebody else says. I don't think that we're there yet. What I see now is people who are quite dug in because they don't like the other side and they don't want to give an inch of aid and comfort to what they perceive as the enemy.

I guess I'd have to be convinced. Now, I've been shocked before when I look at some of the opinion polls on how many people think that the Earth is at the center of the universe or how many people believe in ghosts or things like this. I mean there is a shockingly high number of people who believe false things and really don't care about it.

You bring up a really good worry, though, because 50 years of social psychology have shown that the human brain is susceptible to being convinced by charismatic leaders who espouse falsehoods and people get uncomfortable when they're not agreeing with the things that other people who are in their tribe are agreeing with. So I wish I had an answer to that. I wish I knew how to get us out of this.

One thing that I'm doing myself is I'm making an effort to speak in red states. I'm making an effort to engage people who disagree with me, to try to sound a little bit of a warning about what it means not commit to the idea that there are alternative facts, no reality.

Unfortunately, I think that what wakes people up from this sometimes is a crisis, something terrible. You can only deny reality for so long and then a crisis happens.

JOANNE MYERS: I can't thank you enough for talking to us today. Given our current political climate with alternative facts and fake news, I can't imagine a more timely book than Post-Truth.

Lee, thank you again for taking the time.

LEE MCINTYRE: This is an honor. I admire the work of the Carnegie Council. I like the "Ethics Matter" slogan and what you've been doing.

Thank you so much. I really enjoyed our conversation. This was terrific.

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