OXFORD Dictionaries recently announced its 2016 word of the year and the winner was “post-truth”, as in “we are now living in a post-truth world”.
It’s not hard to see where they’re coming from.
The American voting public recently chose a president-elect who has suggested that climate change is a hoax dreamt up by the Chinese to destroy the US economy, and has repeatedly espoused the discredited link between childhood vaccination and autism, as in this tweet:
“Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!”
It’s hard to tell whether Mr Trump seriously believes what he tweets or is just saying what he thinks will appeal to his supporters at the time.
As for any implications for future US policy on public health or climate change, that’s anyone’s guess.
In any case, he is hardly the only political figure in recent times to make extravagant claims with little regard for evidence and then shrug off challenges, as though the truth is just an inconvenient barrier in the way of a good soundbite.
One of the foundations of the pro-Brexit campaign in the UK in 2016 was the claim that European Union membership was costing Britain £350 million a week, money that campaigners said could be redirected to the National Health Service.
The day after their win at the polls, leaders of the Vote Leave campaign casually, and without apparent shame, acknowledged that there would not in fact be an additional £350 million to spend on the NHS after Britain left the EU.
Did anybody care?
In democracies around the world, including our own, the public attitude seems increasingly to be: “They’re politicians. They all lie. What do you expect?”
Manipulation of information by politicians or other vested interests is not new: that prototype of the political strategist, Niccolò Machiavelli, acknowledged nearly 500 years ago that people admired princes who kept their word, who acted with integrity rather than cunning.
“Nevertheless,” he went on to write, “our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word.”
A number of our contemporary princes would no doubt agree that, if you want to get anything done, you shouldn’t bother too much about promises or bothersome ideas about truth and evidence.
In the post-truth world we apparently now inhabit, the Machiavellian approach has received a boost from the growing suspicion in some quarters of anybody who claims specialist knowledge in a particular area.
People who’ve spent their working lives studying and developing their expertise in a field seem to be increasingly seen as compromised by that very effort.
The climate scientist is portrayed as having a vested interest, not the lobby group funded by the coal industry.
Doctors advocating for vaccination are portrayed as corrupt, while those spruiking homeopathic “vaccines” are somehow seen as untainted by commercial motivations.
Part of the problem is that, while our information age brings us great riches, it also increasingly allows us to live in a world of our own making, an echo chamber where we only encounter views we already agree with.
Social media delivers us the information shared by our like-minded friends. Search engine algorithms provide personalised results, based on our previous browsing history.
If you spend your time on anti-vaccination sites, a Google search for “vaccines autism” will take you straight to the conspiracy theorists, not the US National Institutes of Health or the Medical Journal of Australia.
Internet activist Eli Pariser calls it the “filter bubble”, and it allows each of us to stay snug within our own personal “truth”, immune from external challenge.
That’s dangerous for public health, for a tolerant and open society and for democracy.
Truth has always been a slippery concept, as anyone who’s grappled with post-modern theory would know. One generation’s truth can easily become the laughing stock of the next.
Phrenology. I’m just saying.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. The pursuit of truth has been one of humanity’s greatest quests. Let’s not surrender it to the demands of a post-truth world.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and health writer, editor and publisher.
Latest news from doctorportal:
- Autism diagnoses leap 10 percent in a year
- A sugary drinks tax could recoup some of the costs of obesity while preventing it
- Sugar tax report met with sour opposition
- Four dead in Victoria asthma crisis after storm