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.