The folks who publish Oxford Dictionary have decided to introduce a new term in the world’s American/English vocabulary: post-truth. To be specific:
After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.
There are two things that must be noted about this new term. To begin with, the reduction of truth to “emotion and personal belief” is not new. Hardly. It has been around ever since humans started worrying about what is and what is not the case. Even the brightest among us find ourselves accepting as true those statements that fit nicely with our belief-set. If it is comfortable, it must be true. The only thing new here is that this reduction has become commonplace to the point where a great many people now dismiss as false even those claims for which there is a mountain of evidence — such things as global warming, for example. But the notion is rejected because it makes people feel uncomfortable, not because it is false. After all, should we have to alter our life-style just because a bunch of scientists tell us the earth is slowly being destroyed by our ignorance and neglect? The answer is, of course, “yes.” But not for those who reduce truth to personal belief.
But it behooves us to consider what truth is before we reject it out of hand. It pertains to statements, or claims. And those statements are true if, and only if, there is a fact “out there” that corresponds with that statement. If there is, in fact a blue chair in my living room I can make the statement that it is so and anyone who chooses to do so can go into the living room and corroborate the claim for himself or herself. Moreover, even if a claim cannot be immediately verified by me, if it is coherent and fits logically with a set of facts known to be true, independently of my own particular wishes or desires, then that claim can be regarded as itself true. That’s the point: truth claims can be verified, or corroborated by anyone at any time. They are not private claims; they are not a personal set of statements that I find comforting. Truth is universal, it is not subjective and relative. Beliefs are relative and personal, but beliefs may or may not have anything whatever to do with truth.
Science deals in truth, because the claims of the scientist can be verified by any other scientist at any time. If the claims cannot be verified, such as claims regarding cold fusion, for example, then the scientific community rejects those claims as false. It matters not how much I want to believe in cold fusion, the evidence suggests that it is not possible. And until it can be verified by the scientific community — and anyone else who might be interested — it must remain merely a hope.
But we should all be concerned about the truth or falsity of the things we say and not just the scientists among us. The recent phenomenon involving major politicians standing before huge crowds and spouting innumerable untruths has become commonplace — to the point where we now talk about “post-truth.” But the concept is absurd and we must insist that there are claims that are true and claims that are not true regardless of how much we may want to believe or to disbelieve those claims. To reduce all claims to mere subjective belief is to turn our backs on features of our common world that we might find uncomfortable, but which may make our lives richer in the long run. Like it or not, we must accept as true those claims for which there is a body of evidence that cannot be dismissed in all intellectual honesty, and not just because the person who said it did so with conviction or what he said fits nicely into my personal belief-set. A world consisting merely of personal beliefs is a shrunken world. It lacks dimension, color, and life.
Nicely written, Hugh! This is a line worthy of Bartlett’s: “A world consisting merely of personal beliefs is a shrunken world.”
Please let them know!! (Thanks, Dana)
This piece smells a bit of the Lamp, I must say. You will pardon my frankness, I am sure.
I am not a bit confident that Truth and Fact are equivalent terms as proposed here. True enough, objective Facts of Science can be called Indubitable, to the degree that they are not singular or ‘unique’ but can be replicated under the same circumstances to which they were first subjected for Observation. It’s a matter of Test, methinks, as to whether it is Objective…NOT an issue of Truth at all. So, the Fact of any Assertion depends upon Evidence. Evidence that can be independently gathered and verified by ANY other under the same circumstances.
However, Truth is a Horse of a Different Color, and it really is a matter of Semantics here, so far as Tradition is concerned here. No small thing.
If you ask me what Color my eyes are (they are Hazel) and I tell you with feigned confidence that they are Blue, I am Evidently NOT telling you the Truth, even if I’ve never looked into a mirror. If I have NOT and will NOT look in the Mirror, can you Prove that they are one color or another, IF I am in doubt as to your Objective veracity and Perception? Absolutely NOT. There is NO dispute about this.
I may even condescend to look into the mirror and say that they are Green (proving myself a liar), and you may well disagree and say that they are Brown. But If I say that I do no KNOW what color my eyes are because I have never looked into a mirror, but I have Heard that they are severally Brown and/or Green under different lighting conditions, I have spoken the Truth and await your Observation to clarify the Fact. You may well tell me that they are Green; and I will answer that another has told me that they are Brown. Whom am I to believe? Such is the nature of our perceived Objectivity, and such is the nature of Science. One might segue here into the Double-Slit Experiment, as to Wave and Particle Theory. But the Point is simpler.
The Truth of any Matter IS Subjective. The Fact of any Matter IS Objective. The two realms cannot be either made the same, nor perfectly distinct. They are Aspects of Perspective and Perception, which ultimately are not grounded in anything like an absolute Reality. There is, in Fact…NO such thing. And if Today the Laws of ‘science’ aver the constancy of its system/s, there is nothing saying that such system is either Necessary or Absolute. In Fact, the Truth of the Matter may merely be that the Cause of one’s Perceptions, ESPECIALLY where Replicable by others of our kind, is NOT an issue of Reality or Objectivity but of the nature-quality of mankind’s very Perceptive Faculties as Determined by his Existential Continuum and evolution…wholly necessitated.
This idea of Rational Objectivity is delusional. Besides which, this Continuum may well NOT be applicable across all species and all times, and may just as well be a quirk of nature, relative to mankind’s own evolution. As such, mankind’s Perceptions, whatever the Application or Circumstance, are very likely ONLY the Experience of mankind peering into its own Mind, then forming Awareness to fit the objects of experience in order to make sense of them according to the same Model and instinctual need to understand said Experience. Sheer Awareness, with no necessary final cause except to arrive at the first cause…circling upon the gyre of Mind. A weird obsession. Nothing more. Orobus.
Kind of a waste of Time, if one were to ask me (nobody is); except that it’s Interesting, for reasons I truly cannot explain, no matter how much I try. And in the End, maybe THAT’s what’s at the bottom of all we think, feel or act upon: trying to Be or Seem or Prove how Smart we are by what we can both Learn from or Persuade in OTHERs. Adventurers of Hundred Eyed Argos.
I hope we may eventually find Port in the Storm, but I think that the Oars of Truth and Fact will NOT get us there, whatever their distinction. We will likely need to raise an entirely OTHER sail to bridge the gulf from Today’s old world to Tomorrow’s new world. A New Creation, perhaps…something entirely left, as yet, unguessed. But that’s just me, having fun.
It’s a fact that you made a lengthy comment. I would say, therefore, that it is true that you made lengthy comment. Surely, there is a correlation here?
It’s a clever thing to be wisely insulting? You may have offered me an OTHER view upon your Intelligence, dear Professor, this day.
Hugh, I think the downhill trend accelerated leading Stephen Colbert to coin the phrase “truthiness” several years ago on his old show. Five biographers and a ghost writer noted that what we saw from Trump on the candidate circuit is the real person. They note he has always exhibited a propensity toward caring less about the truth.
From his desire to continue to communicate by Twitter in the post-election period, it is apparent the truth is less relevant. I shared with a person telling me what Trump said to ignore his words and focus on what he does. His words have little veracity. Yet, we still should be critical when he says inane or hateful things.
By the way, his desire not to sit for intelligence briefings reveal his wont to not be concerned with facts.
He doesn’t need to be briefed: he knows it all! I recall; Nixon talking about “inoperable truths.”
Some good thoughts here … sometimes I even question myself: though I do much research, I wonder if I push aside facts that may conflict with my pre-conceived conclusions. Good post, Hugh!
Yeah. It’s tough to really critique thoughts one feels comfortable with!
It may be added that: Science makes as Statement (Premise)
That kind of Assertion, per Science, that is claimed as Fact (Assumption)
Which HISTORICALLY has EVER proven to be DELUSIONAL.
i.e…every Major Advance in Science overturns the Assumptions of the previous, and sometimes Shatters the Paradigm of what Science and its Method itself means. Rare and uncommon, yes. But absolute confidence in such a System is foolhardy, methinks.