HotE Review: Lee McIntyre's "Post-Truth in the Internet Age"

Lee McIntyre came to Lincoln on a mission. While many scholars travel to give lectures on topics they are passionate about, few scholars deliver their message with the palpable sense of urgency that was apparent in McIntyre’s Humanities on the Edge lecture “Post-Truth in the Internet Age” at the Sheldon Museum of Art on the evening of October 25, 2018. McIntyre was not alone in his sense of urgency. This year’s Humanities on the Edge theme, “Post-Truth Futures,” is situated in an anxious national context that is brimming with alternative facts and fake news. Many audience members in attendance on Thursday evening were not only worried about a post-truth future, but also the possibility that truth has already been irretrievably lost. McIntyre’s goal was not necessarily to assuage the anxieties of his audience, but rather to equip his audience with the tools to combat the forces that are laying siege to truth and empirical fact. If society is able to effectively wield these tools, perhaps truth will find its place in the future as a pillar of human society.

Before McIntyre delved into how post-truth could be combated, he elaborated on the characteristics of post-truth and the conditions that gave rise to post-truth as it is currently understood. McIntyre argues that an effective remedy for post-truth can only emerge through understanding the forces contributing to post-truth. Firstly, what, exactly, is “post-truth”? McIntyre’s new book on the subject defines post-truth as “contention that feelings are more accurate than facts, for the purpose of the political subordination of reality” (Post-Truth, 174). This definition is extrapolated from Oxford Dictionary’s definition of post-truth, which was the dictionary’s 2016 international word of the year, which defines post-truth as, “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Note that neither definition posits post-truth as an era that comes after the epoch of truth. Post-truth is not “post” in a temporal sense; rather, it is the word that has gained the most cultural currency for denoting when emotional or ideological “truths” trump empirical truths or facts. One could also understand the phenomenon of post-truth through Stephen Colbert’s term “truthiness,” which is defined by Oxford Dictionary as, “the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.” Both post-truth and truthiness can be used to describe the same condition, and while neither term is perfect, they have both captured public attention with their explanatory power for the contemporary political landscape.

There are two important aspects of McIntyre’s definition of post-truth to consider. The first of these considerations is that post-truth is an umbrella term that describes both people who believe facts do not exist, as well as people who believe that objective truth should be valued beneath personal truth. While there are certainly people who believe reality may not exist, most of the time post-truth concerns people and situations that value emotion over fact. “Your truth” comes before “the truth” in a post-truth world. The second consideration of importance when discussing McIntyre’s formulation of post-truth is that post-truth is intentionally weaponized for the political end of domination. Post-truth is not problematic merely because some people go with their gut over facts (although that is certainly not desirable), but most importantly because post-truth is used to ignore reality when it disrupts political power. Many will note that this definition of post-truth does not describe a new phenomenon. While McIntyre claims that post-truth gained renewed power during the second half of the twentieth-century, it is not entirely new, insofar as people have sought to use feelings for the political domination of reality in the past. Some would likely push back against McIntyre’s claim that post-truth is new to any extent, such as Kent A. Ono, the first Humanities on the Edge speaker of the “Post-Truth Futures” series, who might be one to argue that people of color in the United States have been the targets of post-truth discourse through racial myths and stereotypes that “feel true” to white people with political dominance despite the lack truth in such racist claims.

What led to this resurgence of post-truth? McIntyre isolates three different factors that he argues have caused the recent rise of post-truth. Cognitive biases, the first of the post-truth forces, is anything but new. As fields such as psychology, behavioral economics, and argumentation studies among others have highlighted in recent years, humans do not always engage in rational decision-making. There is a long list of predictable biases that are ingrained in human decision making that must be accounted for whenever rational decision making is more desirable than gut instinct. In his lecture, McIntyre focused on biases such as confirmation bias, or seeking only information that confirms one’s priors, and the backfire effect, which is when people harden their beliefs when faced with disconfirming evidence. These are only a small sample of the long list of biases that occur in all people, regardless of their education or political dispositions. Due to the fact that cognitive biases have always been a force in human affairs, this factor alone does explain the recent intensification of post-truth. However, understanding cognitive biases is necessary for realizing how the other factors contributing to post-truth have gained so much influence rather than being trampled by the sheer power of unfailing rationality.

The second contributing factor to the rise of post-truth that McIntyre highlighted is the decline of traditional media and the accompanying rise of social media. Despite the problems and obvious downsides of traditional media, there are advantages to having gatekeepers that mediate the news. McIntyre put his finger on what many people have described as the role of news shifting away from investigation and informing the public toward a new model of news as entertainment and spectacle. The pundit class seems to have succeeded in their journalistic coup. News as entertainment takes the shape of a split-screen “debate” between a climate scientist explaining the reality of climate change and an oil industry hack who proclaims either that it is all a hoax or that the jury is still out. The entertainers on the news networks give both of these parties equal time and then ask their viewers to decide, which means false equivalence abounds. Social media has pushed society even further in the direction of post-truth. All information flows to the public in a way that looks credible. At first glance, there’s not much to distinguish the credibility of InfoWars from The New Yorker on a social media feed. Even more troubling is the fact that people sort their information themselves, thereby creating a digital echo chamber. People are also introduced to more and more people who think the same way and have the same priors, which makes even the most fringe digital communities seem more populous and mainstream. Given these conditions, fake news spreads virtually unhindered. McIntyre defines fake news as deliberate falsehood, not just false information, which aligns fake news with the political domination inherent to the goals of post-truth. The motivations of fake news are not always apparent. Sometimes it is the mere monetary incentive to get more clicks, and politics just so happens to be the perfect clickbait. However, there is plenty of fake news that has transitioned from clickbait to propaganda deliberately crafted to alter people’s ideas and behaviors.

If McIntyre’s audience was waiting to hear his solution for this mess, there was no solace to found in the final analysis. “Deep fake” technology that can replicate people’s voice and facial gestures in real-time is only getting better, which will eventually lend plausible deniability to candidates or public officials who deny they ever said something that was caught on video. Hope will have to be found elsewhere, but only after examining the third and final factor that McIntyre identifies as contributing to the current post-truth political world.

McIntyre claims the third contributing factor to post-truth is the intellectual movement of postmodernism. Perhaps in front of most audiences this claim would not be met with any fanfare, but in front of an academic audience at a lecture series called “Humanities on the Edge,” the notoriously edgy postmodernists are likely to be in attendance. However, potentially due to practice handling even feistier audiences such as climate deniers, McIntyre did not hold back his criticisms. Postmodernism, as understood by McInytre, is a vague academic movement that grew out of 1980s literary criticism and endorses social constructivism and a relativistic approach to reality that puts the fact/value distinction under the microscope (if those have not already been destroyed by post-truth). Scholars explicitly named by McIntyre as being either postmodernists or precursors to postmodernism include Lyotard, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, and Latour. McIntyre does not claim that any of these scholars directly advocate for post-truth, science denialism, or the complete rejection of reality. Rather, his critique focuses on arguing that the positions of leftist postmodernists, such as arguments that claim science is a human discipline that cannot fully obtain objectivity, are co-opted by people such as climate deniers to undermine the legitimacy of science and elevate their own baseless claims to the level of science. McIntyre charges postmodernists with obfuscation and reckless playing with ideas without regard for the potential consequences, and therefore lays part of the blame for post-truth at their feet. McIntyre stated that postmodernists need to recognize the problem they have caused, step aside, and let others clean up the mess.

No postmodernists emerged from the audience to defend themselves. However, Bruno Latour, one of the primary targets of McIntyre’s critique, did take a shot across the bow via a New York Times Magazine profile by Ava Kofman published the same day McIntyre gave his lecture in Lincoln. The profile’s title of “Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher, Mounts a Defense of Science” could not have inserted itself more squarely in the conversation of post-truth and Latour’s potential role in science denialism. Responding to Latour’s supposed defense of science, McIntyre did not change his tone toward the foundational scholar of actor-network theory and science and technology studies, but rather doubled down and said that Latour’s self-defense amounted to little more than a disingenuous and dangerous academic ploy intended to save himself from criticism. In McIntyre’s view, Latour would do better by accepting the problem he has caused and going into a self-imposed exile consisting of French wine, critical theory, and regret. After responding to Latour’s surprise imposition on his lecture from thousands of miles away, McIntyre closed his lecture by arguing that there is hope in science, truth, and fact. McIntyre warned to never cede the argument to post-truth in the hopes it will go away, because the audience of post-truth will always succumb to its enticements if they are not presented with empirical fact. By calling out lies and obfuscation with empirical fact and truth, even the most persistent cognitive biases and fake news narratives can be overcome. Use science as the sledgehammer of truth, and eventually post-truth can be beaten even if the near future looks to be only getting worse.

It is worth taking a closer look at McIntyre’s description of the rise of post-truth and his prescriptions for solving the problem. First of all, McIntyre could be entirely correct that certain reckless postmodernists have been co-opted by science denialists and post-truth. While reading his book, readers can tell that this is the claim he expects the most pushback on, so he spends a significant amount of time justifying his claim that there is a connection between postmodernists and post-truth by looking at both the writings of science deniers who cite postmodern influences, as well as scholars like Latour who express regret in seeing their ideas being misused in the wrong hands. However, it is worth pushing on a different part McIntyre’s argument after conceding some amount of culpability on the part of postmodernism. Specifically, one can look at how the natural sciences have also been co-opted for post-truth. McIntyre’s example of the tobacco industry’s strategy of funding their own research to obfuscate the debate and sow confusion in the public is a case in point. The industry-funded research on tobacco was bunk, but so are the careless readings of postmodernism. Furthermore, climate change deniers are always quick to point out that science always leaves open the possibility of future data disproving a scientific theory. The same goes for those who deny evolution and claim that intelligent design is more compelling. In these instances, science is being co-opted much like postmodernism has been co-opted by those who either do not understand that scientific consensus does not require proving an immutable objective Truth, or who simply disregard this fact for their own purposes. Once again, in these examples post-truth values the emotional or political truth over empirical truth.

However, pointing out the dangers of science being co-opted does not constitute a real defense of postmodernism. After all, the usefulness of science in combating post-truth is clear. Empirical facts are necessary to contest baseless, post-truth narratives. If both science and postmodernism could potentially be co-opted, but science is the only tool for beating post-truth, then McIntyre would be entirely correct in saying that we should reject postmodernism in favor of only using empirical science. Postmodernism, however, might just have something to contribute to the fight against post-truth after all. To highlight how postmodernism might be used to combat post-truth, one can simply look to the strategies of McIntyre himself, who plans on speaking at a convention for the Flat Earth Society. When McIntyre laid out his strategy for engaging with people deep in the weeds of post-truth, he did not say he was going to flood their senses with scientific facts about the spherical shape of the earth. Rather, his strategy is to speak about we properly justify claims. He plans on talking to the Flat Earth Society about how we warrant our arguments, and ultimately how we come to know something due to its comparative likelihood over other alternatives. In other words, McIntyre plans to talk to the Flat Earthers about how facts come to be known as facts, which is exactly how Latour formulates his networked understanding of science and facts. Science is so effective at advancing human knowledge precisely because its networks of scientists, institutions, and peer reviewed processes that generate scientific knowledge. These processes produce the facts as we understand them, even if it does not alter the underlying Truth of reality as it is. Kofman explains how Latour thinks his networked theory of facts help to combat science denialism and post-truth as she writes, “The more socially ‘networked’ a fact was (the more people and things involved in its production), the more effectively it could refute its less-plausible alternatives. [....] Instead of accusing Trump supporters and climate denialists of irrationality, Latour argues that it is untenable to talk about scientific facts as though their rightness alone will be persuasive.” McIntyre is right to center the importance of evidence in his strategy of persuading science denialists. However, the process of evaluating and comparing evidence relies on examining the processes through which the evidence came into existence. If McIntyre plans on fighting post-truth with evidence, warrants, and justifications, rather than the sheer force of being right about what is True, then perhaps his strategies should be informed by what the postmodernists have to offer. McIntyre thinks we need to understand how post-truth came into existence in order to combat it, and Latour thinks “A greater understanding of the circumstances out of which misinformation arises and the communities in which it takes root [...] will better equip us to combat it” (Kofman). It appears the two can, in fact, agree on something.

Ultimately, most people agree that post-truth is a problem. Perhaps Latour is not the best figure to follow in order to solve the problems of post-truth, insofar as he did not feel compelled to clarify that reality exists because “even this notion of a common world we didn’t have to articulate, because it was obvious” (Kofman). Obviously, such a view was reckless and shortsighted. McIntyre’s critique that postmodernists play with ideas without regard for the consequences seems stinging in light of Latour’s recent comments. For the sake of avoiding false equivalences, perhaps postmodernists like Latour are more to blame for post-truth than the scientists who constructed their field as an apolitical “view from nowhere.” However, it seems clear that no field of knowledge seems immune from the influence of post-truth, and each thinker can be co-opted if they do not handle their ideas with care. Scientists and postmodernists alike can defend reality if they approach the task with clarity and purpose. McIntyre is on a mission against post-truth, and that mission needs as many allies as possible. Hopefully some were gained in Lincoln at Humanities on the Edge.

Works Cited

Kofman, Ava. “Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher, Mounts a Defense of Science.” The New

York Times, The New York Times Magazine, 25 Oct. 2018, latour-post-truth-philosopher-science.html.

McIntyre, Lee. Post-Truth. The MIT Press, 2018.

“Post-Truth | Definition of Post-Truth in English by Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries |

English, Oxford Dictionaries,

“Truthiness | Definition of Truthiness in English by Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries |

English, Oxford Dictionaries,

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