Fighting Post-Truth

Excerpted from Post-Truth by Lee McIntyre, published by The MIT Press, March 2018. Copyright: 2018 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All rights reserved.  

“We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”

—George Orwell

On April 3, 2017, Time magazine released an issue with a cover story that asked “Is Truth Dead?” It is a striking piece of art, reminiscent of another they did in a previous time of turmoil—the 1960s—that asked the same question about God. By April 1966, President Kennedy had been assassinated, America’s commitment to the Vietnam War had escalated sharply, crime back home was rising, and Americans were at the dawn of an era in which they would begin to lose faith in their institutions. It was a moment of national reflection about the path we were heading down. The occasion for Time’s most recent announcement of a moment of national reflection was the Trump presidency itself.

In the opening essay, editor Nancy Gibbs asks some momentous questions about our commitment to the idea of truth “in the face of a president who treats it like a toy.” These are strong words, but they are followed by some observations that are even more shocking:

For Donald Trump, shamelessness is not just a strength, it’s a strategy… Whether it’s the size of his inaugural crowds or voter fraud or NATO funding or the claim that he was wiretapped, Trump says a great many things that are demonstrably false. But indicting Trump as a serial liar risks missing a more disturbing question: What does he actually believe? Does it count as lying if he believes what he says?… Where is the line between lie, spin and delusion? Or, as his adviser Kellyanne Conway memorably put it, between facts and alternative facts, the conclusions that he wants the audience to reach vs. the conclusions warranted by the evidence at hand?

Noting that 70 percent of Trump’s campaign statements were judged by PolitiFact to be false, that nearly two-thirds of voters polled during the campaign said that Trump was not trustworthy, but he won the election anyway, one cannot help but wonder whether the threat to truth far outstrips the actions of any one man. If so, the question on the cover of Time is not just hyperbole but frighteningly pertinent: Is truth dead?

Throughout this book we have explored the roots of post-truth, on the assumption that one cannot really do anything about a problem unless one understands what caused it. But now it is time to ask the payoff question: can anything be done about post-truth? In 2008, Farhad Manjoo published a book (that he wrote in 2006) called True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. It is amazing that someone got out so far ahead of the curve to more or less see what was coming at the level of national politics. Manjoo’s book was written before the smartphone had been invented. Barack Obama wasn’t even a blip on the national radar screen. In fact, one of the salient examples Manjoo explores is the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” campaign that was cooked up against John Kerry when he ran against George W. Bush in 2004. Here the manipulation of cognitive bias and presentation of a “counternarrative” for the media on a national stage came into focus. With hindsight, it is easy to connect the dots to what came later in 2016, but Manjoo foresaw the ideas of media fragmentation, information bias, the decline of objectivity, and the threat not just to knowing the truth but to the idea of truth itself.

What does he offer to help us combat it? Unfortunately, not much. Despite a late chapter titled “Living in a World without Trust,” Manjoo does not offer much practical advice beyond saying that we should “choose wisely” what we are going to believe. Perhaps it is too much to ask that someone who saw so far ahead would also provide us with the tools to fight what was coming (for if we had listened, maybe it wouldn’t have happened). Here I will try to push things further. We don’t need to see what is coming anymore; we are living through it. We may now understand a little better why post-truth happened, but how can this help us to contend with it? As Manjoo’s subtitle asks: can we learn to live in a post-fact society?

I, for one, do not want to. The issue for me is not to learn how to adjust to living in a world in which facts do not matter, but instead to stand up for the notion of truth and learn how to fight back. Indeed, here is the first bit of practical advice we should come to terms with, which John Kerry brutally learned during the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” campaign, when a few right-wing veterans were spinning tales intended to undermine Kerry’s stellar war record. Only one of the Swift Boat Veterans, George Elliot, had actually served with Kerry in Vietnam, and he publicly recanted his story of Kerry’s alleged war-time cowardice soon after the first Swift Boat ads started to appear on TV. But by then it was too late. Money was pouring in from Texas millionaires and others who were sympathetic to the cause. Elliot’s recantation was dismissed because of a fake news story that said that the Boston Globe reporter who had broken the story of Elliot’s recantation had been commissioned to write the foreword to the Kerry–Edwards campaign book. That was a lie, but it hardly mattered. The tribes had chosen their sides. But then Kerry made a fatal error by choosing not to “dignify” the Swift Boat Veterans’ claims with a response for two solid weeks while they pummeled him on national TV. He lost the election by a few thousand votes in Ohio. Kerry had no idea we were entering the post-truth era.

The lesson here is that one must always fight back against lies. We should never assume that any claim is “too outrageous to be believed.” A lie is told because the person telling it thinks there is a chance that someone will believe it. We might hope that the listener has enough common sense not to believe it, but in an age of partisan manipulation and fragmentation of our information sources, keyed to play on our motivated reasoning, we are no longer entitled to that assumption. The point of challenging a lie is not to convince the liar, who is likely too far gone in his or her dark purpose to be rehabilitated. But because every lie has an audience, there may still be time to do some good for others. If we do not confront a liar, will those who have not yet moved from ignorance to “willful ignorance” just slip further down the rabbit hole toward full-blown denialism, where they may not even listen to facts or reason anymore? Without a “counternarrative” from us, will they have any reason to doubt what the liar is saying? At the very least it is important to witness a lie and call it out for what it is. In an era of post-truth, we must challenge each and every attempt to obfuscate a factual matter and challenge falsehoods before they are allowed to fester.

Although the voices on the other side may be loud, it is a powerful thing to have the facts. This is to say that even in an era of partisan bloviating and noisy “skepticism,” the facts about reality can only be denied for so long. The media stopped telling “both sides of the story” about vaccines and autism once there was a measles outbreak in fourteen states in 2015. All of a sudden, the facts of [Andrew] Wakefield’s fraud made better copy. One could almost see the TV hosts’ anxiety over their earlier complicity. Overnight, there were no more split-screen TV debates between experts and skeptics. False equivalence no longer seemed like such a good idea once people started getting hurt.

Can the same thing now happen on other topics, such as climate change? To a certain extent it already has. As of July 2014, the BBC decided to stop giving equal airtime to climate change deniers. The Huffington Post made the same decision in April 2012, when its founder Arianna Huffington said:

In all our stories, especially matters of controversy, we strive to consider the strongest arguments we can find on all sides, seeking to deliver both nuance and clarity. Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth… If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports. We strive to give our audience confidence that all sides have been considered and represented fairly.

But what good will this do? If we are truly living in a post-truth era, it is unclear whether any policy change by the media will matter. If our beliefs about something like climate change are already determined by our cognitive biases and political ideology, how would we ever break out of our worldview? For one thing, why wouldn’t we just change the channel? Even if we hear the truth, won’t we reject it?

As a matter of fact, no. Not always. Although the forces of motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and some of the other influences we have talked about in this book are strong, remember that empirical evidence suggests that the repetition of true facts does eventually have an effect. Recall here the research of David Redlawsk et al., which we briefly discussed in chapter 3. In the subtitle of their paper, they ask the pertinent question, “do motivated reasoners ever get it?” They acknowledge the work of Nyhan, Reifler, and others who have shown that those in the grips of partisan bias are strongly motivated to reject evidence that is dissonant with their beliefs, sometimes even leading to a “backfire effect.” But are there any limits to this? In their paper, Redlawsk et al. observe that:

It seems unlikely that voters do this ad infinitum. To do so would suggest continued motivated reasoning even in the face of extensive disconfirming information. In this study we consider whether motivated reasoning processes can be overcome simply by continuing to encounter information incongruent with their expectations. If so, voters must reach a tipping point after which they begin more accurately updating their evaluations.

And this is exactly what was found. Redlawsk and colleagues discovered experimental evidence that “an affective tipping point does in fact exist,” which suggests that “voters are not immune to disconfirming information after all, even when initially acting as motivated reasoners.” James Kuklinski and colleagues learned in another study that although misinformed beliefs can be quite stubborn, it is possible to change partisans’ minds when one “hits them between the eyes” over and over with factually correct information. It may not be easy to convince people with inconvenient facts, but it is apparently possible.

And this makes sense, doesn’t it? We have all heard examples of people who won the “Darwin Award” by denying reality until they met their demise. It just doesn’t compute that evolution would allow us to resist truth forever. Eventually, when it makes a difference to us, we are capable of resolving our cognitive dissonance by rejecting our ideological beliefs rather than the facts. Indeed, there is good evidence that this can occur not just in the lab but in the real world as well.

The city of Coral Gables, Florida, sits at nine feet above sea level. Scientists project that in a few decades it will be under water. Soon after the new mayor James Cason, a Republican, was elected he heard a lecture about climate change and its effect on South Florida. And he was flabbergasted. “You know, I’d read some articles here and there, but I didn’t realize how impactful it would be on the city that I’m now the leader of.” Since then, Cason has tried to raise a warning cry, but he hasn’t had much luck:

Some say, “I don’t believe it.” Some say, “Well, tell me what I can do about it, and I’ll get concerned.” Others say, “I’ve got other things I’m worried about now, and I’ll put that off.” And others say, “I’ll leave that to my grandkids to figure out.”

Cason is beginning to look into the question of legal liability. And he’s continuing to sound the alarm, hoping that his fellow Republicans at the national level will begin to take global warming seriously before it’s too late. On the eve of one of the 2016 Republican debates, Cason published an op-ed in the Miami Herald, along with his Republican counterpart Mayor Tomas Regaldo of Miami. They wrote:

As staunch Republicans, we share our party’s suspicion of government overreach and unreasonable regulations. But for us and most other public officials in South Florida, climate change is not a partisan talking point. It’s a looming crisis that we must deal with—and soon.

If the word “schadenfreude” did not already exist, it is at this point that progressives probably would have had to invent it … except for the fact that we are all in the same boat—or soon will be—and cannot afford to indulge in the feeling of self-righteousness. Even if you are prepared to deny the facts, they have a way of asserting themselves. When the water creeps up on their $5 million houses or their businesses are affected, people will eventually listen. But does this mean that in the meantime we just have to wait? No. One can support critical thinking and investigative reporting. One can call out liars. Even before the water rises, we should try to figure out some way to “hit people between the eyes” with facts.