A 'Post Truth Era'?

In some ways, the truth of our situation is as murky as ever

Posted Feb 08, 2013

A recent article struck a strong chord with me about the state of affairs today in politics, knowledge, and government. Namely, the article described the current state as being one of ‘wicked polarization’ that has led to a ‘post truth era’, wherein the complexity of modern problems has led to the proliferation of radically different conceptions, such that people can now essentially find experts to deliver facts that confirm their preconceived notions—almost no matter what. Thus, the characterization of the ‘post truth era’. The analysis of wicked polarization was based on Rittel and Webber’s 1973 formulation of wicked problems, which are defined as difficult conditions characterized by multiple factors and causes, no easy solutions, multiple outcome variables that in turn feedback creating multiple effects and broad entanglement with other domains (i.e., they are not isolated systems).

In short, wicked problems are massively complex entities that have no right or wrong solutions per se (only relatively better or worse approaches, depending on one’s values). Classic examples of wicked problems include global warming, economic markets and regulation (& deficits and jobs), healthcare, social justice issues, immigration, crime, and gun control.

Now consider wicked problems in the context of the Justification Hypothesis. The JH claims that humans organize their verbal-declarative knowledge into systems of justification that provide meaning and legitimize their approach to being-in-the-world. The JH also says humans are, at their core, reason givers rather than pure, analytic reasoners. Reason giving involves arguing one’s legitimacy to an audience, in contrast to pure analytic reasoning which involves trailing logical algorithms. Humans can learn to be analytic reasoners (i.e., factor out their subjective, intuitive biases), and in certain confined logic systems, like mathematics, analytic reasoning works. For example, Leonhard Euler was able to prove his famous Euler Identity via analytic reasoning. Interests, desires, and subjective biases do not yield much influence over the accuracy of conclusions in pure analytic systems.

But wicked problems and the policies needed to address them are anything but clear analytic truths with provable answers. As a consequence of this ambiguity, our social-value laden reason giving biases flood in and fill in the gaps and selectively organize our knowledge in accordance with our preconceived version of reality. Precisely because the ambiguity is great and the implications are large, these biases have an enormous pull on the systems of justification different people develop for understanding and approaching different problems. We can see this in the emergence of think tanks, policy and special interest groups, and political platforms that can come to completely different conclusions about the basic elements of the problems. In short, it has now become the case that if you want to see a problem a particular way, you now can. As author of the article Ronald Bailey writes…

Progressives who believe that corporations are unfairly denying workers a living wage can point to research by analysts at Institute for Research on Labor and Employment to argue that higher minimum wages do not increase unemployment. Free marketeers can turn to the Employment Policies Institute for evidence that boosting minimum wages increases unemployment among the youthful and poor. The pro-immigrant Migration Policy Institute can report that Washington "spends more on its immigration enforcement agencies than on all its other principal criminal federal law enforcement agencies combined." The Center for Immigration Studies, which favors strict immigration enforcement, can denounce the study as "bogus" and "riddled with false statements, cherry-picked statistics, and inappropriate comparisons." Climatologists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville can assert that the atmosphere "has not warmed noticeably since the major El Niño of 1997–98—giving us about a decade and a half of generally stable temperatures." Researchers associated with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research can report that the warming rate has been "steady" since 1979.

What has ultimately emerged in terms of wicked polarization is that the two political parties now compete to define the issues and are increasingly defined against one another. The complexities combined with the competing interests are giving rise to more and more diametrically opposed justification systems.

Not surprisingly, there is no simple solution. But there are things we can do. We can all own the fact that we are justifiers, that our belief-value systems emerge and evolve as function of our interests, demographics, early and important experiences, friends, feelings and intuitions, and that such justification systems play a defining role (if not the defining role) in how we look at particular complex social issues and that once we become entrenched in particular views, we are extremely resistant to changing our view. From this starting point we can then work to be more explicit about owning our justification systems, be reflective about where our systems of justification come from and what drives them, be clear about our ultimate values and visions for the good life, and have the appropriate degree of humility regarding wicked problems.

I also believe that we should be more reflective about the nature of discourse about problems. Especially for nonexpert laypeople, I think that folks should be engaging in much more dialogue than debate. Debate is when we try to convince someone that our justification system on a particular issue is better than theirs. In contrast, dialogue is when you engage in an exchange with the purpose of understanding where the other person is coming from. Dialogue allows us to broaden our justification systems, whereas debate tends to harden and close them down.