The Problem with Truth and Reason in a Post-Truth Society

This is a transcript of Helen Pluckrose’s statement at the Post-Truth Initiative which was hosted by the University of Sydney. Her statement was delivered on Novemember 20th, 2017 and deviates slightly from this transcript. 

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The Oxford definition of a post-truth society is one in which objective facts matter less than appeals to emotion. This is not primarily a problem with facts. It is mostly a problem with the way we select or ignore certain facts, the way we discern between fact and opinion and the way we frame the combination of these and use them to make sense of our world. It is a problem with reason

We see this problem in Kelly Anne Conway’s alternative facts and in postmodernism’s alternative ways of knowing. We see it in the claim that the average American will be $4000 better off under Trump tax policies and that Brexit will provide £350 million to the NHS a week. We see it in the religious right’s denial of evolution and in the social justice left’s denial that it results in gender differences. We see it every time any politically significant event occurs, and the different factions of society immediately produce their own widely diverging narratives, when accusations of sexual assault are utterly believable and heinous when aimed at a member of the opposite team but clearly false or blown out of all proportion when applied to our own. It is apparent when poisoned candy analogies — only 5% of X group are bad. Take a handful — are perfectly reasonable when made about men or about Muslims but almost never both. We see it when we can’t keep useful terms and concepts stable for more than five minutes and they don’t creep so much as race away from us and communication breaks down utterly.

Many people have argued this to be a product of the internet in general and of social media in particular. These enable us to indulge our confirmation bias and form echo chambers. This is undeniably an aggravating factor but what it is aggravating is our own motivated reasoning.

Reason is often considered to be the defining feature of humanity. Humans have been qualifying reason, categorizing forms of it, criticizing failures of it and comparing it with other epistemologies like faith and other capacities like emotion seemingly forever. 

We have divided reason into logical, deductive, inductive, abductive, intuitive and verbal. We’ve discovered, named and delineated dozens of formal and informal fallacies which plague our reasoning and identified a myriad of cognitive biases. We’ve elevated reason to the highest human faculty like Plato or wondered if we can even do it at all like Descartes. We’ve asked whether reason is really the best way to establish truth, whether our senses and emotions serve it or hinder it and whether it can make us happy or good.

Humans have been obsessed with our faculty of reason seemingly forever and underlying this is the awareness that we’re just not very good at it. Even the most intelligent, conscientious and logical of us, with the best will in the world, is going to get it wrong regularly. Solutions to this have been suggested in the form of extensive training in formal logic, the dictatorship of philosopher kings or simply giving up and going with the word of God or succumbing to solipsism.

In recent years, neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have confirmed our suspicions that we’re not very good at reasoning and shown that, in fact, we are driven primarily by emotions and intuitions. As the social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt points out, our intuitions were here first and as the language which enabled our reasoning evolved, the brain did not simply hand over the controls (p53). In fact, it seems it can’t. The neuroscientist Antonio Demasio’s studies of people with damage to their prefrontal cortex who lose their emotionality show that they make terrible decisions even though their rationality tests as absolutely normal. We need our intuitions to have the will and the ability to reason but they do not necessarily steer us to truth.

Reasoning evolved to help us maximize the benefits of our intuitions but most often this means rationalizing and justifying what the intuitions make us want to do. Haidt uses the symbolism of an elephant to depict the intuitions and the rider to depict the reasoning. The elephant decides the direction whilst the rider thinks of socially acceptable and seemingly reasonable narratives for why it did that. The higher the IQ of the rider, the more sophisticated and convincing the story but it still serves its own elephant. It is likely that maintaining our reputation within our own tribe has been more likely to aid survival than truth-seeking. What we have, Haidt tells us, is not an inner scientist but an inner lawyer.

It is particularly difficult to change our minds. The psychiatrist, Karl Menninger showed that primitive parts of our brains reward us when we have our existing beliefs confirmed and react to new ideas as if they are dangers. He said “The powerful dorsolateral prefrontal cortex can override these more primitive brain centers and assert reason and logic, but it is slow to act and requires a great deal of determination and effort to do so. Hence, it is fundamentally unnatural and uncomfortable to change our minds, and this is reflected in the way our brains work.”(In d’Ancona)

Modernity marks a unique time for humanity. It was one in which systems and expectations began to be set up to overcome this. Expressing ideas contrary to one’s society’s core narrative began not to drastically reduce one’s chances of survival and in which reasoned arguments became not only tolerated but required in the realms of knowledge production. Its secret was in finding a way to reduce the impact of our emotionally-driven motivated reasoning by the emergence of what Jonathan Rauch dubbed “liberal science.” “Diversity, of belief, thought, opinion, experience, is a fact, like it or not,” he said. “Harness it, and you have the engine that generates knowledge” (p38). Rauch identified a skeptical rule and and an empirical rule within liberal science. The skeptical rule: No one gets the final say: you may claim that a statement is established as knowledge only if it can be debunked, in principle, and only insofar as it withstands attempts to debunk it. The empirical rule: No one has personal authority: you may claim that a statement has been established as knowledge only insofar as the method used to check it gives the same result regardless of the identity of the checker, and regardless of the source of the statement.

jonathan rauch
Jonathan Rauch

The research of Jonathan Haidt would reach the same conclusion. “Each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds…But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity.” In this way, the good ideas win out and the bad get marginalized.

There is a tendency now to see this account of the Enlightenment, the emergence of secular liberal democracy and the market-place of ideas as embarrassingly naïve. We are meant to be cynical and scoff at “the myth of enlightenment progress’” even though by almost any measure we can possibly imagine — poverty, disease, technology, human rights, life expectancy, infant mortality — society has progressed considerably and has done so using this process of knowledge production.

The postmodernists got this wrong. For Foucault, “It is meaningless to speak in the name of — or against — Reason, Truth, or Knowledge.” For Lyotard, a paralogy of legitimation was needed — a wide variety of irrational epistemologies. Robert Eaglestone in his recent defense of postmodernism argued that we use as default the metaphysics of correspondence — by which he means we believe things if there is physical evidence for them. Postmodernists will often tell us that our thinking is too reliant on science, expertise and facts and that close ourselves off to other ways of knowing, other perspectives, other narratives. A postmodern approach, they assure us, can help us open our mind and learn to break down these boundaries between objective truth and subjective/cultural meaning that we uphold uncritically.

They are precisely backwards. Science and rationality are not the accepted default for Westerners from which we  need to be freed. We do not automatically distinguish between fact and fiction, knowledge and opinion, factual accounts and myths. We blur them constantly, naturally, automatically. Conscientious attempts at objectively distinguishing between these is hard, goes against our nature and takes work to maintain. The postmodern left seeks to blur the boundaries but the pre-modern right does too. Whether it’s the Christian right citing religious narratives which are to be regarded more highly than evidence or reason or the fundamentalist Muslim right formulating prophetic-apocalyptic narratives. We also have an extreme version of the libertarian right and left taking Hayek’s distrust of rationality to an extreme where expertise is rejected on principle and the more sophisticated Jordan Peterson approach which, nevertheless, elevates the “affective reality of the mythic world” and pragmatism above what can be established to be true.

We have ended up with something like Lyotard’s paralogy of legitimation but rather than opening up our world, they have closed us all off in enclaves of tribal narratives and the divides are getting ever harder to cross. This is instrumental to our post-truth culture where objective facts are not the common standard but group-based narratives dominate. It was all too easy to get here because this is what humans do when the expectation that truth claims will make sense and have evidence is lifted.

What is the solution to this? On the most fundamental level, we need to restore an expectation that truth claims will have evidence and a reasoned argument to be taken seriously. Some people have suggested the solution is to teach critical thinking, logic and formal reason in schools and universities and consistently evaluate work by this measure. Critics of this idea have dismissed this as an attempt to return to a naïve modernism or an idealized liberalism. This was an accusation James A. Lindsay and I faced when we wrote “A Manifesto Against the Enemies of Modernity” in which we urged people to stop polarizing around the left and the right and internalizing the faulty narratives of their own side in order to defend against that of the other which they perceive as an existential threat. We asked them instead to unify around the values of modernity — science, reason, liberty and strong institutions. For this we were accused of wanting to go backwards or at least remain still and uphold the “status quo.”

The latter claim is not entirely unjustified. Preserving secular, liberal democracy is precisely what we want to do but in the most important sense, it misses the point. Liberalism in the Enlightenment sense — in Rauch’s sense of liberal science — far from being stagnant, is inherently progressive, not in the form of revolution but by being a self-correcting and refining system. And this system is demonstrably a success. To this claim, people usually point out that slavery and colonialism and patriarchy and the prosecution of homosexuality existed in the modern era but this is to overlook the fact that they existed in every other era too and this was the one in which the problems with them were recognized and overcome. Why would we abandon this system? 

And yet postmodernism and populism which both rejected modernist ideas of reason and progress did not arise in a vacuum. The reasoning of modernity has been naïve and it has been biased. Nevertheless, it is the system which best works to overcome this provided that the arena of debate is intellectually and ideologically inclusive and includes people who know what they are talking about. It is intellectual hegemony that is stultifying and we see this in the universities at the moment. As a leftist, I see some justification in accusations that the left became over-confident of having won the cultural war and stopped making arguments and trying to convince people. The surge to the right suggests they are not convinced. We need to do better.

Rather than give up on modernity, its critics should bring their best arguments to the table whether they are leftist ones about restructuring systems of privilege and foregrounding marginalized identities or rightist ones about the stabilizing strength of shared traditions and foregrounding individual responsibility. These can be argued for reasonably and used to provide balance. For this, we need Rauch’s liberal science and for that we need an understanding that it is OK to disagree.

Adam Grant’s wonderful piece “Kids, Can You Please Start Fighting?” looks at the value of heated argument for creativity. It also looks at understanding that strong disagreement is normal and productive and should be resolved with words rather than misrepresentation, attempts to silence or retreating into tribal camps to throw missiles at each other. The failure to understand this is a huge problem underlying our current groupthink and division. We cannot even argue for our own position reasonably let alone try to understand the reasoning of someone else’s if we don’t engage honestly on the level of ideas.

This is how freedom of speech is directly related to our current problem with reasoning. We need to renew the expectation that we respond to speech with speech and make that responding speech intellectually honest, charitable, rigorous and reasonable. And we need to try to reverse the trend of the post-truth ethos — make appeals to emotion worthy of no respect at all and evidence and reasoned argument everything. As Steven Pinker said, drawing on Haidt: Ideally, what we want is an arena in which the rules of the game make it so that no matter how emotionally tied you are to your belief, if it’s wrong, it’ll be shown to be wrong and it’ll just be too embarrassing to hold on to it or at least for other people to hold on to it indefinitely. That’s what I consider to be the ideal of what science is all about, and intellectual discourse in general.”

This doesn’t mean there is no room for empathy for others’ feelings or for appreciation of grand narratives. Postmodernism was to a large extent an attempt to appreciate a wider range of human experience particularly that of marginalized groups, something which modernism did not do sufficiently. However, it was cynical, fragmented, ambiguous and superficial. A common criticism of postmodernism is that it fails to appreciate the human need for metanarratives — large, overarching explanations that provide unity, purpose and satisfaction. To resolve both these problems, “metamodernism” has been suggested. Luke Turner, in his manifesto for metamodernism, called for an end to “the inertia resulting from a century of modernist ideological naivety and the cynical insincerity of its antonymous bastard child” — an approach that would appreciate metanarratives at the same time as remaining somewhat skeptical of them. However, his approach was to oscillate between the two like a pendulum. This seems a little chaotic.

Mathew d’Ancona, in his book Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back, argues for a more integrated combination of cold, hard reason based on evidence & rooted in facts and our love of grand narratives. “For most of human history” he tells us “shared mythologies and tribal stories have done more to explain human behavior than the cool assessment of verifiable evidence.”

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We see people acting on this need for cohesive narratives right now. D’Ancona himself looks at the energy & unifying power produced by this in the American Tea Party and Corbynite left. He refers to the work of Arlie Russell Hochschild who studied the “deep story” underlying the Make America Great Again narrative. “A deep story is a feels-as-if story — it’s the story feelings tell. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel.” For them, it is a story of injustice which closely mirrors that which we see in the far-left identitarian narratives of patriarchy and white supremacy and heteronormativity.

However, I would argue the best example can be found in the astounding influence of Jordan Peterson’s story-telling which combines biblical mythology and Jungian archetypes. This appeals not only to conservative Christians but also to centrists and liberals and to atheists and skeptics. It crosses boundaries because Peterson’s stories resonate with people sick of the dark, shame-filled ugliness of far-left narratives but also repulsed by the paranoid, conspiratorial ugliness of far-right narratives. It provides something that feels noble and powerful and simple and good. Peterson’s most ardent admirers message me a lot because they really, really want me to see that we are allies because we both criticize postmodernism and the word they use most often is “hope.” They have personal accounts of feeling strengthened and empowered by Peterson’s emotive stories and positive, inspiring archetypes. I get it but I don’t think this is the solution. People aren’t actually archetypes and emotionally-resonant narratives aren’t actually truth. I think that matters.

Nevertheless, the need for inspiring narratives is clear and d’Ancona points out that the search for truth itself has a mythic element and argues that we should wrap facts in stories that speak to normal human concerns and assert reality within narratives and do it well. This sounds like a form of metamodernism but rather than oscillating between evidence-based reasoning and the need for emotionally resonant narratives, it attempts to make truth and reason the inspiration for the narrative. Rationality plus imagination and innovation, d’Ancona tells us is the way forward and he describes it as a call to arms that could be defined by the slogan ‘”Tell us the truth”

This is very similar to what James Lindsay and I intended when we wrote our Manifesto. The very word “manifesto” is one of energy and purpose intended to promote unity and a common goal. We too argued against seeing the current situation in terms of left vs right but reframing the issue by its most pressing problem — the loss of reason, objective truth, democratic liberalism and respect for expertise. We urged all defenders of these values to defend them against those who would tear them down and replace them with their own Utopian narrative whether this is far-leftist revolution or far-rightest regression to an idyllic pre-modern state that never existed. We are the majority and we can do this if we agree that this is what we need to do. 

If we return to Haidt’s analogy of the elephant and the rider, we find this fully compatible. The elephant of intuition, Haidt tells us, may not listen to its rationalist rider if it attempts to object but is very easily steered by other friendly elephants. “If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants.”

As d’Ancona advocates, we need to wrap facts in narratives that speak to common concerns and we need to build energy and support for them. As Haidt and Pinker and Rauch and Grant advocate, we have to learn to argue with passion and persuasion but also with empathy and without enmity. We need to renormalize honest debate with an expectation that evidence will be given and reasoned arguments will be made. We have to be prepared to change our own minds even as we attempt to change others. We all have the power to contribute to this whether the platform we have is a lecture podium, a media publication or a social media account. We need to change the zeitgeist and we can.

The question I would put to everyone is “How can you inspire people to value truth and reason and how will you go about increasing the amount of civil, reasoned & productive debate in the world?”

Helen Pluckrose

Helen Pluckrose is an exile from the humanities with research interests in late medieval/early modern religious writing for and about women. She is critical of postmodernism and cultural constructivism which she sees as currently dominating the humanities.
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Helen Pluckrose

Helen Pluckrose is an exile from the humanities with research interests in late medieval/early modern religious writing for and about women. She is critical of postmodernism and cultural constructivism which she sees as currently dominating the humanities.

4 thoughts on “The Problem with Truth and Reason in a Post-Truth Society

  1. Thank you for your continued courageous writing on this topic, Helen. I am also Leftist, but I am a disillusioned one. I have distanced myself from Leftist political organizing that I once found very satisfying because I am disturbed by the ideological bents of the post-modern Left. I dealt with the pre-modern religious right thinking growing up and once thought that the postmodern Left provided me a sense of community. But now I realize how pernicious the ideology can truly be.

    You and Iona consistently publish some of the best Leftist critiques of the postmodern Left I have read anywhere on the Internet. Thank you so much.

  2. Thank you so much, Helen, for your ongoing writing on this topic and for having the courage to speak out publicly on it.

  3. Excellent article that points the issue in the right direction, but still overly complex in its explanation that could be far simpler. We live in two worlds, the subjective one in our heads, and the mathematically and physically absolute one out here. We can live in the subjective world in our heads just fine for a time, that is until we physically act on what we “believe” in our heads. From there, the objective mathematically absolute world takes over, and our intention and belief stays behind, and has no effect on the physical outcome or mathematical consequence of the any physical action, whether by human intention or not. It’s why socialism/communism fails every time its tried. It’s not by happenstance that it fails even greater, the greater it’s tried. There is a physical, mathematical and unarguable reason for it, that determines a universe to every degree to perfection, that’s beyond a personal belief system. The physical quality of our lives is determined solely by how accurately we “know” the facts (and not believe) and understand how physical nature works. Acting on belief that is “not true” will lead to physical decline or “physical failure” that will lead to bare survival that will lead to physical extinction. The world does not revolve around mankind…it’s quite the other way around. Seems we still have not learned that lesson and nature will need teach it to us again. It’s really quite simple.

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