The idea we are now living a “post truth” era has become something of an accepted truism itself, and D’Ancona’s book is one of several to explore this phenomenon.
Let’s start by saying this is a very good book and well worth a read. I haven’t read all of the other ‘post-truth’ books (yet) but this is certainly one I’d recommend.
As you may have guessed, there is a “but” coming, or to be more precise several “buts” which I hope will be seen as constructive criticisms.
The first ‘but’ is simply this – are we really living in a ‘post-truth’ era. The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote are seen by many as indicators that something fundamental has changed. But has it really?
Ironically, D’Acona himself quotes approvingly from Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 article “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in which the idea is critiqued through which some apocalyptic, existential, struggle is invoked to justify all sorts of excesses (at the time, McCarthyism). Isn’t there a danger that ‘Post Truth’ is built up into just such an apocalyptic struggle between ‘Enlightenment values’ and the purveyors of populist untruth?
Whilst I agree that something has certainly changed in recent years – and it predates Trump and Brexit (see for example David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped Modern History ) or Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World (2004) – just how far it has changed remains debateable?
Which brings us to the next question – what has changed to warrant the label “post truth” era?
For D’Acona the big change is the public’s willingness to accept ‘alternative facts’ if they agree with their own views and feelings. And it’s the latter – public feelings and emotions – that seem to be the main driving force behind ‘post-truth’.
Again, I find this hard to accept uncritically. The twentieth century saw two huge movements – fascism and communism – both mired in lies and appeals to raw emotions and that led millions into war and genocide which frankly dwarfs any impact of ‘post-truth’ (at least so far)?
D’Ancona provides a long list of ‘suspects’ for factors that have fuelled the rise of ‘post-truth’: erosion of trust in institutions and experts over the past few decades; uncertainties generated by globalisation and the financial crisis; rapidly changing technology; the rise of state (Russia) and non-state actors actively promoting disinformation; the echo-chambers of social media; etc. Some of these are new, but some have always been with us.
There is one factor he identifies which I want to focus on: post-modernism. D’Ancona rightly suggests that the assault on the very idea of ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ by the post-modernist vanguard has helped to undermine trust in experts and expertise. But I think he underestimates just how deeply post-modernist, social-constructionist, ideas have sunk into the body-politic and the media. There will be few people working in British media or politics today who have not been exposed to, and influenced by, the highly fashionable sort of ideas promoted by post-modernist thinkers.
D’Ancona suggests the post-modernist wave have receded – perhaps. In my three decades as an academic I have seen little sign of such a recession – there are still plenty of social scientists who would subscribe to at least some post-modern ideas and fashionably opine that truth is relative. Scientific realism is still alive and well, but in many academic departments there is a sort of ‘cold war’ still going on between (often closet) positivists and realists and the social constructionists.
Moreover the populist purveyors of post-truth are very well aware of this. They happily mine post-modernisms anti-science and anti-“truth” rhetoric to justify their own activities. Their “alternative facts” are straight out of the post-modernists cook-book – what is ‘truth’ anyway?
Despite some misgivings I’d certainly recommend this – its exceptionally well written and entertaining, as well as informative. And admirably short!