I’ve never been a good liar. Even bending the truth has become more and more difficult for me as I’ve come to accept my own flaws and the urge to cover for them has waned. The few times I’ve deviated from the truth have rarely worked out well. I was brought up to set great store by truth and honesty and with a science and engineering background it’s always been clear to me that you need facts to get closer to the truth (I know that truth is always somewhat subjective but that’s drifting a little too far into philosophy). The relationship between truth and facts was emphasized by the detective shows of my youth where the detective seeking the truth asked for “Just the facts ma’am” or something similar. Maybe if I’d been better at bending the truth myself I’d be more comfortable with the way that facts and truth seem to be optional in current public discourse.
Maybe it’s always been this way and I’ve just not noticed it. Maybe it’s the advent of social media that lets us identify the distortions where we previously would have been unaware of them. As I’ve learned more about things like human psychology and cognitive biases, I’ve come to understand why people can dismiss seemingly irrefutable facts if they don’t fit their world view. However, understanding such behaviour doesn’t make me feel more comfortable with it. In my world, people should keep their minds open to new information and adjust their opinions accordingly. Sadly though, approaches like this seem alien to many of those in power who fear it would be seen as a U-turn and provide ammunition for their opponents. Ironically, it seems as if the fear of not having absolute certainty causes our leaders to reject facts and information that might challenge that certainty, even though analysing the facts is the only way to get a better level of certainty.
Perhaps it is this desire for certainty that feeds the post-factual atmosphere. Certainty, any certainty, even if untrue is better than uncertainty. Admitting that you do not know is taken as an admission of weakness rather than the first step on the path to better knowledge. Strong but mostly wrong leadership is preferred to consensual but mostly right. If I were more cynical (which feels like it would be difficult) I might point to the newspaper owners for whom building up heroes to turn into villains when their mistakes are exposed is in their own interests. It appears that for them, people possessing facts are readily dismissed in a cloud of populist disapproval, such as the recent undermining of the judiciary (Levison backlash anybody?). If people were more analytical such wildly inaccurate coverage would surely have little impact, but sadly without critical thinking skills and an understanding of our own cognitive biases we are all susceptible to dog-whistle headlines of one form or another. As a society we are the sum of our collective actions so if the individual actions change then so, gradually, will the aggregate behaviour. However, until we start to teach our population such skills and understanding from a young age then we are saddled with the facts, or lack of, that we deserve.
Andy Longshaw spends most of his time developing software. In his spare time, when his family and football team can spare him, he is becoming increasingly focused on trying to make sense of the society around him.
Views expressed in blog posts are those of the author not The Democratic Society or Open Data Manchester.