Navigating credibility in a post-truth world
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By Lila Asher
As university students, we are faced with the difficult task of planning the rest of our lives. Though Canada and the United States have typically been fairly stable countries where conditions are predictable enough to give us confidence in our plans, the current political climate is throwing all of that up into the air.
With ripple effects from the election of President Donald Trump extending north of the border, we are heading towards a future full of environmental and political uncertainty. This is not the least because of the increasing influence of ‘post-truth’ politics around the world.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) named ‘post-truth’ the 2016 word of the year, due to spikes in its usage surrounding the US election and the UK Brexit vote. The OED defines post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to opinion and personal belief.” It is not a stretch to say that, by this definition, post-truth circumstances are commonplace now.
In a post-truth climate, the task of making wise, personal decisions seems simultaneously more pressing and difficult than it might otherwise be. Prior to the post-truth era, a university degree may have been understood as a vessel by which to gain requisite knowledge for a particular career. While this may still be the case, the value of higher education may now centre around gaining critical capacity to make sense of divergent accounts of the truth in addition to objective knowledge.
The consequences of falling prey to faulty information in a post-truth world range widely from professional blunders to health and safety risks. To mitigate these effects, it is contingent upon responsible citizens not only to seek out various sources of information, but also to critically discern salient information and analysis from politically loaded rhetoric.
The anti-vaccine movement in the US provides one early example of post-truth ideology having a real world influence. Catapulted into the mainstream by celebrity and mother Jenny McCarthy, anti-vaccine sentiment has taken hold across the continent.
Proponents of anti-vaccine beliefs claim that essential vaccinations cause autism in children. These claims have been widely debunked by medical professionals. According to a study by the Center for Disease Control published in USA Today, parents’ refusal to vaccinate their children has led to outbreaks of preventable diseases like whooping cough and measles.
Once parents start down the anti-vaccine path, they are often caught up in a web of false information that reinforces their beliefs. Blogger Megan Sandlin, a former member of the anti-vaccination community, writes of her experience as a science-skeptic parent and her eventual decision to vaccinate her daughters.
“In the end, I couldn’t continue to deny the science. It’s hard to believe now how easily I bought into everything I was hearing from the anti-vaccine crowd,” she explained. Sandlin counts herself and her daughters as lucky, because her skepticism led her to seek out views that contrasted those of her anti-vaccine friends.
There are a number of ways that skepticism may be viewed as an asset in a post-truth world. One is the opportunity for productive dialogue resulting from divergent viewpoints.
In the case of the anti-vaccine example, we may look to the role that the doctor-patient relationship may play in increasing patient understanding. Second-year medical student William Wu said, “It is important for the parents to obtain the correct information, and also to understand the gravity of the risks regarding anti-vaccination.”
Though ‘anti-vaxxers’ may eschew medical attention entirely, doctors have an important role to play in exerting a gentle influence whenever they can in broadening patients’ minds. When patients arrive at the doctor with preconceived notions of the dangers of vaccines — or for that matter any other inexpertly developed medical opinion — that would be an opportunity for elucidative dialogue.
According to Wu, this shift towards more dialogic clinical relationships may not be entirely negative. “Doctors may not have the authoritative powers they once had, but our current role provides us with the fantastic opportunity to aid patients in a way that they feel best suits them while working as a team,” he explained.
In some cases, a more collaborative relationship between patients and care practitioners may expose failures within healthcare that have long been ignored due to the longstanding reverence of medicine as an objective field.
For example, there is a long history of Euro-Western medicine being used to control and marginalize non-white communities. Françoise Verges, Consulting Professor at Goldsmiths’ Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of London, explained how the French used psychiatry to pathologize the Creole population of French Réunion Island and delegitimize their culture. This is just one of many instances in which colonizers have cloaked violent motives in discourses of ‘curing’ the target population of their supposed dysfunction by making them conform to the norms of white society.
Stepping away from this relationship of domination may be seen as a positive thing, but it should not diminish the expertise that doctors have on healthcare matters, which is based on scientific evidence.
Wu noted, “I personally believe it is healthy for people and patients to challenge what we know, because this creates opportunities to improve and clarify our own understanding. However, if a movement is based upon falsified and previously rejected research, then it becomes difficult to constructively progress. We will forever focus on a circular argument regarding falsified data instead of looking at new studies that provide evidence.”
It is important for doctors and patients alike to critically reflect on all the available information, not just circle back to ideas that align with what they already think.
Confirmation bias has implications outside of the medical community as well. People are naturally inclined to search out information that supports their beliefs, and there is growing buzz about how social media’s algorithm-curated feeds contribute to the problem. During the heated US election season, The Guardian conducted a small experiment in which people with opposing political views swapped feeds.
The things people saw when they stepped outside of their own Facebook bubble shocked them. For Alfonso Pines, a Black union organizer from Georgia, the stark racism of the right was jarring. “It’s just a racist kind of thing, and I don’t think it’s cleverly disguised,” he told The Guardian.
Meanwhile, those on the right, like Trent Loos from Nebraska, didn’t find liberal views convincing at all. “Instead of luring me in, it pushed me away,” he said of the left’s relentless support for Hillary Clinton.
The polarization between the left and the right now leads not only to differing opinions, but also to divergent narratives of what is true. Politicians such as Trump have been quick to capitalize on this confusion, discrediting the media and scientists in bids to define people’s understanding of reality.
Satirical sources such as the Journal of Alternative Facts ridicule the Trump administration’s manipulation of information. Even the title is a jab, adopting White House Counselor and former Trump Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway’s use of the term ‘alternative facts.’ Boasting articles such as “Reduced Access to Contraception Reduces Abortions” by Amaleauthor, I.A. and “Quantifying Crowd Size with Empirical Data: A Wishful Thinking Approach” by the United States Press Secretary Sean Spicer, this journal of fake facts lends a lighthearted tone to a serious problem.
The Trump administration’s attitude towards the media falls in line with that of other repressive regimes around the globe. Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star interviewed journalists from Venezuela and Turkey, all of whom expressed their concern about the current pattern in the US.
According to Phillip Gunson, a Senior Analyst for the International Crisis Group in Caracas, Venezuela, it is a common trend among populist leaders to constantly reframe situations until “even those who don’t necessarily believe the government no longer have a firm grip on reality.”
Oftentimes, the ways that Trump reframes situations serve racist or Islamophobic ends. For example, one of Trump’s first executive orders as president was to ban entry into the US for people from seven Muslim-majority nations: Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.
The administration is trying to frame this as a national security policy, protecting the nation from terrorist attacks. On February 1, Trump tweeted, “Everybody is arguing whether or not it is a BAN. Call it what you want, it is about keeping bad people (with bad intentions) out of country!”
In his tweet, Trump labels everyone from these nations “bad.” Far from being an evidence-based conclusion, this is a clear example of using post-truth rhetoric to advance a xenophobic and Islamophobic policy.
Though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau certainly stays far away from Trump’s aggressive anti-media rhetoric, Canada has its own brand of alternative facts. In the wake of Trump’s executive order on immigration, Trudeau tweeted, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength
However, as Harsha Walia, author of Undoing Border Imperialism noted, a mere three days earlier, Canada reached its goal of admitting 10,000 refugees and quietly announced that “applications received after reaching the limit [would] be returned.”
When the apparent sentiments behind Trudeau’s statements as a national leader are not reflected in government action, it should be a cause for concern.
The future of belief
Post-truth politics pose an array of risks: both blatant and insidious in nature. Critical engagement will play a major role in countering this trend. To this end, it is useful — if disheartening — to consider the role of university education in the post-truth era.
What is the role of empirical research when politicians are able to publish alternative facts on Twitter in order to drum up support for their actions? Will professional degrees still command the same degree of respect if false claims to expertise are widely accepted?
The answers to these questions are unclear and up for negotiation. It seems clear though, that if we want substantiated information to retain its worth, we are going to have to fight for it.
Being in university means we all have some degree of privilege. Regardless of identity and background, we have opportunities to access knowledge because of our position within this institution.
With this privilege comes the responsibility to stand up to politicians’ attempts to manipulate reality. This does not mean that university-education professionals have a monopoly on truth though, or that we should parade around saving people from their ‘ignorance.’
As we move forward, it is crucial for us to interrogate our own beliefs and values, making sure that our claims to credibility are in line with the kind of world that we want to see.