We live in a world where facts compete with alternatives, where the truth is up for debate, where world leaders are informed by fake news. We live in a world where how you feel matters more than what experts know.
We live in a world where only 42 per cent of Americans believe in evolution, and only 48 per cent believe in human induced climate change.
We live in a Post-Truth world, where truth is whatever you want it to be, and it is a very scary place.
In this world, a significant number of people fundamentally do not care about the truth. They wrap themselves in safe-spaces, and refuse to acknowledge or engage with any ideas that do not fall in line with their world view. Emotion comes before evidence, and rationality is left at the door.
Above all, this is an attitude that is extremely dangerous for humanity. If we cannot come to a common consensus on what is real, and what is not, we will not be able to face the most dire problems facing us today — those that demand a collective response. We are hopelessly unable to even agree as to what these problems are, let alone engage with and understand each other without a common understanding of what constitutes ‘the facts’.
The symptoms are everywhere. The biggest offender is Humanity’s failure to act collectively against our most pressing threat, climate change. The Earth is now one degree Celsius warmer than it was pre-industrialization, and experts believe that a rise of just one more degree, to two degrees above pre-industrial temperatures, would be disastrous. Sea levels will rise, and coastlines will disappear. In many places, such as Florida, they have already begun to.
Our single greatest achievement in this regard is the Paris Agreement, where the world’s biggest polluters, China, The U.S., and India, agreed to limit their emissions in order to keep the average temperature less than 1.5C above the pre-industrial average. Of course, this is not good enough. But it is the best we have right now.
Yet the Paris Agreement, and with it the world’s best hope of responding to the climate change crisis, are on thin ice. U.S. President Donald Trump has promised to drop out of the agreement, believing climate change is a “hoax” not to be taken seriously. Scott Pruitt, who Trump appointed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, says carbon dioxide emissions do not contribute to climate change, rebuking decades of climate science and thousands of scientists, without providing even a shred of evidence. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, recently said climate change initiatives are a “waste of money.”
Because climate change runs against the agenda of these people, and their counterparts across the world, they simply choose to believe it does not exists. Facts, evidence, and expertise earn nothing from them but contempt.
Trump himself is a symptom of the post-truth world. From his campaign to his administration, Trump has been a constant peddler of misdirection, misconstrued truths, and outright lies. Politifact reported that during his campaign, only four per cent of the statements he made were true.
The lies have continued right through his presidency, starting with his inauguration and the relatively few number of people who attended. While in 2009 former president Barack Obama’s inauguration attracted an estimated 1.8 million people, Trump’s inauguration drew an estimated crowd of only 600,000.
Burdened by the weight of his fragile ego, the president simply could not believe that so few people chose to witness his inauguration. So he didn’t. Instead, he concocted a fantasy where “a million, a million and a half people” were at his inauguration. Anyone saying otherwise was peddling ‘fake news’.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has been Trump’s right-hand man in his war against reality. He argued Trump’s inauguration had the “largest audience ever.” Immediately before saying this, Spicer argued it is impossible to estimate inauguration attendance. You can’t make this up.
Trump also claimed his electoral college victory of 304 votes was the biggest since Ronald Reagan’s. When a reporter confronted him about this, reminding him Obama won 365 votes in 2008 and 332 votes in 2012, Trump responded by saying he was only talking about Republicans. But when the reporter pointed out he was still beat by George H. W. Bush, Trump rebutted with, “I was given that information. I don’t know. I was just given it.”
As a candidate, Trump regularly decried Obama’s Department of Labour job creation reports as fabricated. Now, only a month after assuming the presidency, the reports are real. As if any president could so radically influence the economy during the first few months of their term, let alone within weeks. Spicer so eloquently captured this post-truth attitude when he commented that the reports “may have been phony in the past but [are] very real now.”
More recently, Trump has claimed that Obama wiretapped him during the campaign. He asserted this without any evidence, and it was promptly rebuked by Democrats, Republicans, and intelligence officials alike. Yet Trump doesn’t care. He likely heard about it from a Brietbart News article that made the same claim just a day before he did, and has since decided it to be true, regardless of whether or not it actually is.
Obviously, this behaviour from a person in a position of such power is extremely worrisome. Trump, as the president of the United States, does not care about reality. The worst part is, many of his supporters are fully behind him in this regard.
The president is often critical of mainstream media, labelling anything critical of him or his administration as ‘fake news’. He has gone as far as to call the media the “enemy of the American people.”
While it is easy to believe Trump’s complete disregard for truth is driven by his own emotions and biases, there is reason to believe his continued rejection of reality is actually a tactical decision.
In liberal democracies, the media has always served as a check on government power. Journalists and reporters keep a close eye on politicians, and ensure they don’t abuse their privilege of power. Of course, this does not always function so perfectly. There is still corruption in government, while the media, and those who own it, often have their own agenda.
A free media is an integral part of a healthy democracy, and an important balance to the power of government. At the same time, it has the power to greatly influence public perception on virtually any topic, making it a very powerful tool. Someone who understands this dichotomy very well is Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Since becoming president, Putin has continued to erode the capacity of the media to inform the Russian people, and thus serve as an effective balance on government power. Meanwhile, he has also been expanding the influence the Kremlin has over the media to better push his agenda. To him, the media is another power, to wield in any way he sees fit.
Through this, Putin has cultivated a deep distrust of the media, especially foreign media, in the Russian people. Nearly half of all Russians believe the internet is used by foreign elements as a tool against Russia, and should therefore be censored. Additionally, over half of Russians have little to no trust in state media.
This contempt of information makes it hard for people to know what is really happening, which in turn makes it easier for Putin to exercise absolute power and authority as he sees fit. Without the media, state power is left unchecked, the people at its mercy.
It is this same contempt that Trump and many of his supporters share for the mainstream media. Because of this, they are pushed further and further into ideological bubbles, where the only information they receive is what reverberates within the walls of the echo chamber.
This may very well be Trump’s strategy. By continuing to discredit the mainstream media as ‘fake news’, he hopes to seal off a significant segment of Americans from reality. In this ‘safe-space’, only ‘alternative facts’ and narratives that support their pre-existing assumptions are allowed to exist. Anything to the contrary of their narrow world view is simply untrue.
In many ways, the post-truth world is an extension of humanity’s natural tendency towards confirmation bias, enabled by the technological advances of the information age. Confirmation bias is a well documented psychological phenomenon in which people deliberately seek out evidence that confirms the beliefs they already hold. Instead remaining agnostic until they have enough evidence to come to an informed decision, people quickly decide which side of the fence they stand on, then seek evidence that re-affirms they made the right choice.
The internet exaggerates this issue. The likes of Google, Twitter, and Facebook place all of us within online ‘filter-bubbles’, exposing us only to information it thinks we will approve of. If Facebook has determined you’re left leaning, you are much less likely to have posts from your right leaning friends appear on your feed, and vice-versa. The information we think we are searching for and finding impartially is anything but. In reality, what we are exposed to online is heavily curated.
This makes each of us less likely to come across information that challenges our world views, further polarizing and detaching us from reality. We already don’t like confronting our own biases, and thanks to the internet, we never have to again.
Overcoming the post-truth world is not going to be easy. We must first understand just how susceptible to these errors or reasoning each of us are. We all want to believe that we are right, and our minds are filled with cognitive biases that shield our existing beliefs.
We also have to come to terms with the facts. Reality is the baseline from which we build our world views, and we must never discard it, regardless of how uncomfortable it may be. The facts, are the facts, are the facts. They are the best thing we have, and we need to stick to them.
We also have to do our best to remain impartial in the face of the unknown. We don’t need to have all the answers all the time. It’s alright for us to admit that we don’t know, and wait until we have enough evidence before committing to a belief.
Another important aspect is maintaining a healthy news diet. A wide variety of diverse sources helps keep our beliefs grounded in reality, and stops us from ending up in the echo chamber. Personally, I try to balance my news by reading The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, and RT. Still, when I consume these news sources, I make a concentrated effort to understand what their biases are and factor that into what I take away.
Ultimately, the post-truth world is one that threatens all of us. Humanity faces incredible threats, and only by responding to them as a collective can we overcome them. To do this, we need to agree on reality, on the ways by which we experience the world in common. We can all do our own part in this by making a concentrated effort to overcome our biases, think critically, and consume information intelligently.