Post-factual innovation?

When I learned that the Oxford Dictionary had identified ‘post-truth’ as the Word of the Year 2016, I really felt like I was slapped in the face. For somebody with a passion for science and knowledge, it just hurts. But it is true, the one new concept that dominated public discourse in 2016 was that thing called ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-factual’ (I’ll use those synonymously, with a preference for ‘post-factual’). And it’s not the Oxford Dictionary’s fault, nor the fault of the year 2016. We cannot blame anybody but ourselves; we have created it ourselves. But what is it? What is this post-factual thing?

What is it?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the adjective ‘post-truth” is defined as …

… relating to or denoting circumstances
in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion
than appeals to emotion and personal belief

Now, an adjective is only a descriptor, but what does it describe? There is nothing tangible like “post-facts”. There’s no philosophy like “post-factualism”; and there is no group or club of “post-factualists” who would be actively proclaiming, promoting, or pushing it. The ‘post-factual’ thing just seems to be happening as something fluid, something liquid. It remains a rather lose concept, and for lack of a better term, I’ll call it the post-factual climate that affects the style, quality, conduct of discussion in general, and of public discourse in specific.

Just remember how 2016 started: for a while, we all observed the U.S. presidential election with some amusement. That turned into bewilderment, then disbelief; until finally eyes bulged and jaws dropped. Watching from a European perspective, judging just superficially, it seemed like poor style and bad behavior. And it took a long time to finally realize how deeply divisive that post-factual discourse would actually become. But make no mistake, there’s no reason for any European self-complacency. Some see the pro-Brexit campaign as clear symptom. And the upcoming general elections in France, the Netherlands, and Germany (probably an incomplete list) all have right-wing contenders loudly proposing simple solutions that appeal to the electorate’s feelings more than to their reason. In the past, we used to call it populism, and we had hoped to have evolved beyond that point. Yet, there are already several elected governments that currently repeal political freedoms, preferably of the opposition and the press, but in some instances even of constitutional courts.

I’m afraid this is not just another short-lived trend; I’m concerned that this post-factual climate is here to stay with us for a longer while. And we cannot simply shrug it off as a mere question of political style. Its corrosive effects are likely to cause widespread, far-reaching, and long-lasting damage on many fronts: not only political, but scientific, economic, and social as well. But how does it work? And how is it different from earlier populism? What is different this time?

How does it work?

Tobias Rose offers an insightful analysis on the role of social media in his recent essay on How we broke democracy. While the title might be a bit noisy, the assessment is as sober as it is sobering. The way we use social media today works as a filter on the vast volumes of information that overwhelm us every moment. This filter is smartly responding to your interests and likings, so that you are exposed only to such information that fits with your preferences. In fact it has never been easier to surround yourself with only those ideas and opinions that support and reinforce your own views of the world. And what is more, through social media you can do that now high-frequency, high-intensity, 24/7 … no comparison to the good old days, the 15 minutes TV news and the one hour of reading the newspaper per day. The result is a filter bubble: your personal echo-chamber that serves as a self-imposed information and opinion ghetto. Inside that chamber, you are always right, and that perspective is systematically reinforced with every new piece of information that penetrates the bubble. Any counter-argument doesn’t get through.

The other factor at play is the demise of professional journalism. Social media empower everybody to be an author, to be a reporter, to tell a story to an audience; but hardly anybody has the training or discipline to discern fact and fiction, opinion and claim, evidence and suspicion … That creates a massive loss in the quality of consumer’s (the reader’s, the listener’s, the watcher’s) personal information management. At the same time the intensity and frequency shot through the roof. Under these circumstances, the boundary between objective fact and subjective opinion fades away; in the end, every piece of news is perceived as equally valid. And when the quality of an argument becomes irrelevant, it is only the quantity of likes and retweets that counts.

Multiple impacts

In the political realm, we all have observed the effects of the post-factual climate already. Pluralism is on the retreat and polarization takes over. Increasingly extremist views and positions become entrenched, they are less and less accessible for discussion and compromise (which are, let’s not forget, key principles of democratic rule). The U.S. presidential election campaign marked a historical low in the quality of the political discourse. But again, that was only the most visible, most commented case; it was not the only one. And more importantly, I’m afraid it won’t be the last one.

There shouldn’t be any doubt about the commitment of science to objective facts. As the quest for useful knowledge, science provides the evidence-based advice to political decision-makers. However, some fields of science are particularly close to policy-makers, and have not always managed to maintain a neutral objective position: economics is a much debated case, and climate research has become politically polarized as well. But those cases have a longer history than the post-factual climate, and while I loathe the idea of policy-based evidence, this might only be minor issue. The real challenge of the post-factual discourse to science is far more radical: when facts and opinions are not separate anymore, the very roots of science wither. Objective facts and evidence are what distinguishes science from myth and hearsay, and the post-factual equivalence of evidence and feeling would ultimately reject science itself. We would not only lose the knowledge built up over generations since the Scientific Revolution, we would also lose the method for acquiring knowledge, with nothing to replace it. Intellectually, we’d happily return to the Dark Ages.

At first glance, that might seem an abstract, even an academic notion. But it has rather immediate impact on the economy, as it undermines the very concept of useful knowledge that I’ve recently outlined as the origin of economic growth. The generation, dissemination, and application of useful knowledge embody the innovation supply chain that drives the technological progress our economy and society are built upon. When facts and evidence are equalized with opinions and feelings, new knowledge is not generated anymore; what is disseminated is a mix of outdated facts and latest feelings; and the application of such a mess is bound to fail: the wellspring of innovation runs dry, and all technological progress with it. That would be the end of Schumpeterian growth that dominated the development of Western societies since the Industrial Revolution.

What does that mean for society? Apart from the loss of knowledge, of innovation, and of economic growth, there’s an additional, far less immediate impact. But that is probably the most corrosive effect of the post-factual climate in the long run: the loss of social cohesion. We have a young generation growing up inside the social networks; and it’s not just a parenting problem that they are locked away in their own echo chambers. While today’s adults have unlearned, have lost the lost their ability to handle diverse ideas, to debate a topic, to discuss, to make compromise, the younger generation might never learn those skills. But where then would reasoning come from? And where tolerance?

Now what?

What was first perceived as a bad habit in the political domain has transformed the climate in political and public discourse and now has the potential to cause serious and long-lasting damage to the very foundation of our economy. Any idea of ‘post-factual innovation’ is not simply an oxymoron, it is actually moronic. The economy is much more than just making deals, and the technological progress that drives Schumpeterian growth will vanish as the post-factual discourse continues. The problem is that we are talking about long-term developments: it might take years until their effects are seen, their full impact is felt, understood, and counteracted.

But there’s actually quite a lot we can do now to change course over time. Let’s appreciate the quality of professional journalism, of curated content, of validated observations — Social media have lots to offer in addition, but not as a replacement. Let’s insist on evidence-based policies — Emotions are too volatile to orient our path to a sustainable future. Let’s embrace pluralism and the diversity of opinions — Nobody is always right, nobody knows it all. Let’s cherish the competition of ideas, combined with moderation and dialogue, as a shared struggle to find the best solution — There is rarely a simple solution or an easy way out.

And first and foremost: Let’s start today.

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