I’m not a fan of the term ‘fake news’, mostly because the American president keeps using it to refer to… er… news. But I do recognise the broader post-truth phenomenon.
And I have to ask all those academics who are now wringing their hands about it: what exactly did you think would happen?
Because the best cure for post-truth is truth; objective knowledge of the world. Yes, it is hard to find. Concepts get overturned. New research expands the boundaries of what is known and provides new insights. But I don’t think the Earth will stop going around the Sun any time soon or that Julia Gillard will, at some point, stop being the first ever female Prime Minister of Australia.
Yet academia has spent the past fifty years rubbishing the concept of truth; of knowledge. It is as if butchers had decided to devalue the concept of meat or sailors to deny water.
Here is Michel Foucault expressing his own ambivalent attitude towards truth:
“There is a battle ‘for truth,’ or at least ‘around truth’-it being understood once again that by truth I do not mean ‘the ensemble of truths which are to be discovered and accepted,’ but rather ‘the ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true,’ it being understood also that it’s a matter not of a battle ‘on behalf’ of the truth, but of a battle about the status of truth and the economic and political role it plays…
‘Truth’ is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation, and operation of statements.
‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extends it. A ‘regime’ of truth.”
So there is no battle on behalf of truth. Truth is produced by systems of power. If you accept this concept then it’s not hard to swallow the idea that Russia produces it’s own truth. Or North Korea. Or Donald Trump.
Foucault notes the tendency for ‘societies like ours’ to centre truth on scientific discourse but there is something contingent in the way that he states this. Is our choice of science arbitrary? Does our society clothe itself in science in the way that I might choose a blue suit over a grey one?
Of course, I am not complex and deep enough to possibly understand what Foucault truly means but I do see his shadow looming over the current crisis.
As I mentioned, knowledge of the truth is the best antidote to falsehoods. And this is easy to demonstrate. In one of my earliest blog posts, I linked to the website Conservapedia and asked what we could teach a student to prepare her to think critically about it. Conservapedia contains plenty of logical fallacies but possibly the quickest way to evaluate the site is to note the part-word ‘conserv’ in the title, the American flag and link it to knowledge of American conservatives and their views.
Yet the teaching of knowledge has been degraded. Under the ideology of educational progressivism, curricula have been denuded of dry facts in favour of supposedly transferable skills. Rather than teach students the vast knowledge of the world that they need in order to think critically on a range of topics, we have chosen to go hunting the unicorn that is a generic skill of ‘critical thinking’; a skill which is supposed to emerge, fully formed and with no great teacher involvement when students do projects and chat to each other about stuff.
So this should be a call to arms. Now is the moment to reflect upon the folly of our dumbed-down curricula and choose another path where we teach children true things about this world, thus arming them against the social media tsunami of lies.
But we can’t do that because truth is ambivalent and suspect and possibly oppressive or abusive. Powerful people produce truth and we’re too rebellious for that. Stick it to the man! Yeah!
Perhaps we can fix the post-truth thing by talking about values instead?