This word is the most misused word I can think of. I see it used erroneously and frequently by virtually all promoters of religions, alternatives to medicine and any other kind of pseudoscience ("false knowledge"), including one US political party especially. I don't know about you, but I want to know as much truth as possible.
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The "Post-Truth" Problem: Identifying the Causes and Presenting a Solution
A. The Causes
Anyone paying attention to the 2016 US Presidential election knows that there was more heat than light. This was reflective of a deep problem within the culture: a degrading of respect for evidence and the truth. In light of this problem, Oxford Dictionaries declared “Post-Truth” as 2016’s “Word of the Year.” Oxford 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” (Oxforddictionaries.com).
We all have the tendency to take the easy way through information and accept it without much questioning or analysis. It is important to look deeper into what the media, our friends and our neighbors are exposing us to. There are many causes leading to the acceptance of false information. Again, we all have the strong tendency to protect the opinions we have against challenges to them. Here are the biggest problems.
Gullibility: Ability to be easily deceived or tricked, and too willing to believe everything that other people say (Dictionary.com).
Confirmation Bias: A type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one's beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one's beliefs (Skepdic.com). A great example of confirmation bias is getting news from highly biased one-sided sources such as only conservative news or only liberal news rather than looking at both sides.
Ideology: The body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group (Dictionary.com). While an ideology may have at least some evidential support, it tends to be resistant to counter-evidence. Ideological opinions, in themselves, are not necessarily bad, however, keep in mind that, psychologically, the stronger one’s set of opinions and worldview are, the more resistant to change they tend to be.
Logical Fallacies, or faulty use of logic, are very common generally. The more we attempt to defend our opinions, the easier it is to fall back on them. Two of the most common of these are the Argument from Authority and the Argument from Ignorance:
- Argument from Authority Fallacy: An authority is cited on a topic outside their area of expertise or when the authority cited is not a true expert (Wikipedia). Note: even experts must support claims with evidence . An example of this would be having an economist speak as an expert on climate science or a politician speak on the genetics of GMO’s. Neither is qualified to be an expert in these fields.
- Argument from Ignorance Fallacy: An assertion that a proposition is true because it is supported by intuition, logic and/or mathematics and it has not yet been proved false. If the one making the claim is a religious apologist, this is the classical “God of the Gaps” argument. Keep in mind that the one making the claim has the burden of providing support for it. (RationalWiki)
B. A Solution
What is the solution to the “Post-Truth” Problem? The main tool is the development and maintenance of critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence (Dictionary.com). HOW you think, not what you think, is most important.
Skepticism is the mindset undergirding critical thinking. Skepticism is defined as a questioning attitude or some degree of doubt regarding claims that are elsewhere taken for granted. Usually meaning those who follow the evidence, versus those who are “skeptical” of the evidence (see Denier) (Wikipedia). Those who do not accept strong scientific consensus on a topic tend to call themselves skeptics. However, they really are deniers, for example, evolution or climate change deniers. Please note, skepticism is not cynicism, which is believing that people are generally selfish and dishonest.
As a skeptic who uses critical thinking, it is important to have structure when analyzing any claim, and to respectfully challenge the claimant with questions like:
- “How do you know that is true?”
- “How do you objectively verify it?”
- “Why is it not the result of the demonstrated weakness of the brain to deceive us?”
I next want to spend a good amount of time on helping you to really understand science, which is the knowledge base supporting critical thinking and skepticism.
First it is important to define science. It is a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws. It is also systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation or systematized knowledge in general (Dictionary.com).
Note that the word KNOWLEDGE appears frequently when talking about science. The word “science” is from the Latin for knowledge. At its base, science is no more or less than knowledge. Yes, sometimes the information in scientific fields is detailed and complicated. However, the basic process is simple: honestly looking for knowledge about reality. Let’s break down this word knowledge.
Knowledge: A common definition is justified true belief (Philosophy-index.com).
- Justified: To prove or show to be just, right, or reasonable (Merriam-Webster.com).
- True: Consistent with fact or reality; not false or erroneous (Freedictionary.com).
- Belief: Conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence (Merriamwebster.com).
Now let’s take a deeper look at science and its processes.
- Acceptance of claims should be proportional to evidence.
- Science does not “disprove” something, it shows that the likelihood of a claim is either true or false based on evidence, and probability.
- We all use scientific methods in most daily activities.
“Truth” is another word that can be misused by ideologues. Let’s take a look:
- Objective Truth: Science looks for objective truth, which is external from the individual and may be seen by others. In other word there is evidence for this truth.
- Subjective “Truth”: Personal experience from consciousness. It is real to the individual, but not to people outside of the individual. Science has no role in subjective “truth.” Subjective “truth” is subject to the documented failure of the individual mind to reliably perceive reality. An example of this is when a person says I once saw “xyz” therefore it is true, even though no one else may have seen it.
Depending on the scientific discipline, each can be generally placed in one of two categories of science; Hard or Soft.
Hard vs. Soft Sciences:
- The natural sciences, such as physics, chemistry, biology and medicine, have been colloquially termed the "hard" sciences, as they are perceived as being more scientific, rigid and accurate.
- Soft Sciences refer to: The social sciences, such as anthropology, archaeology, history, sociology, economics and political science, that may use methods resembling those of the natural sciences, however, they are perceived as being less scientific, rigid and accurate. Note the underlining of economics and political science under the Soft category. It is for this reason that economic and political ideologues should be less certain and humble regarding what they accept as truth.
What Does All This Mean? The bottom line is that Science is the best tool to understand reality. There is no other way of “knowing.”
So, what can we conclude regarding a solution to the “Post-Truth” Problem? Is there an approach to political action that can tap into the shared values of most people in our constitutionally secular democratic republic? By the way, “Constitutionally Secular” basically means that the US government is officially neutral regarding the topic of religion: there is freedom OF and FROM Religion.
The answer to this is “Yes”:
- a science-based worldview that informs wisdom, reason and humanism. This is a 4-legged worldview within reality that maximizes well-being for individuals and society.
Wisdom: The quality or state of being wise; knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; sagacity, discernment, or insight (Dictionary.com).
Reason: The power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments logically (Oxford Dictionaries).
Humanism: Any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate (Dictionary.com).
Through the use of all of the elements mentioned above, one can see through biased and/or false statements and/or “Fake News.” They give you the power to be informed and to not fall into the traps of pseudoscience, conspiracies and general deceptions.