The Crash of Truth: A Critical Review of Post-Truth by Lee C. Mcintyre
Lee Mcintyre is a philosopher of science at Boston University, and author of Dark Ages: The Case for a Science of Human Behaviour. I read Post-truth on the basis of Fareed Zakaria’s enthusiastic endorsement on CNN’s GPS, so I fully expected to like it more than I ultimately did. It does an admirable job scouting the cognitive ecology of post-truth, but because it fails to understand that ecology in ecological terms, the dynamic itself remains obscured. The best Mcintyre can do is assemble and interrogate the usual suspects. As a result, his case ultimately devolves into what amounts to yet another ingroup appeal.
As perhaps, we should expect, given the actual nature of the problem.
Mcintyre begins with a transcript of an interview where CNN’s Alisyn Camerota presses Newt Gingrich at the 2016 Republican convention on Trump’s assertions regarding crime:
GINGRICH: No, but what I said is equally true. People feel more threatened.
CAMEROTA: Feel it, yes. They feel it, but the facts don’t support it.
GINGRICH: As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and let you go with the theoreticians.
There’s a terror you feel in days like these. I felt that terror most recently, I think, watching Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisting that the out-going National Security Advisor, General H. R. McMaster, had declared that no one had been tougher on Russia than Trump after a journalist had quoted him saying almost exactly otherwise. I had been walking through the living-room and the exchange stopped me in my tracks. Never in my life had I ever witnessed a Whitehouse Official so fecklessly, so obviously, contradict what everyone in the room had just heard. It reminded me of the psychotic episodes I witnessed as a young man working tobacco with a friend who suffered schizophrenia—only this was a social psychosis. Nothing was wrong with Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Rather than lying in malfunctioning neural machinery, this discrepancy lay in malfunctioning social machinery. She could say what she said because she knew that statements appearing incoherent to those knowing what H. R. McMaster had actually said would not appear as such to those ignorant of or indifferent to what he had actually said. She knew, in other words, that even though the journalists in the room saw this:
given the information available to their perspective, the audience that really mattered would see this:
which is to say, something rendered coherent for neglecting that information.
The task Mcintyre sets himself in this brief treatise is to explain how such a thing could have come to pass, to explain, not how a sitting President could lie, but how he could lie without consequences. When Sarah Huckabee Sanders asserts that H. R. McMaster’s claim that the Administration is not doing enough is actually the claim that no Administration has done more she’s relying on innumerable background facts that simply did not obtain a mere generation ago. The social machinery of truth-telling has fundamentally changed. If we look at the sideways picture of Disney’s faux New York skyline as the ‘deep information view,’ and the head-on picture as the ‘shallow information view,’ the question becomes one of how she could trust that her audience, despite the availability of deep information, would nevertheless affirm the illusion of coherence provided by the shallow information view. As Mcintyre writes, “what is striking about the idea of post-truth is not just that truth is being challenged, but that it is being challenged as a mechanism for asserting political dominance.” Sanders, you could say, is availing herself of new mechanisms, ones antagonistic to the traditional mechanisms of communicating the semantic authority of deep information. Somehow, someway, the communication of deep information has ceased to command the kinds of general assent it once did. It’s almost preposterous on the face of it: in attributing Trump’s claims to McMaster, Sanders is gambling that somehow, either by dint of corruption, delusion, or neglect, her false claim will discharge functions ideally belonging to truthful claims, such as informing subsequent behaviour. For whatever reason, the circumstances once preventing such mass dissociations of deep and shallow information ecologies have yielded to circumstances that no longer do.
Mcintyre provides a chapter by chapter account of those new circumstances. For reasons that will become apparent, I’ll skip his initial chapter, which he devotes to defining ‘post-truth,’ and return to it in the end.
He provides clear, pithy outlines of the history of the tobacco industry’s seminal decision to argue the science, to wage what amounts to an organized disinformation campaign. He describes the ways resource companies adapted these tactics to scramble the message and undermine the authority of climate science. And by ‘disinformation,’ he means this literally, given “that even while ExxonMobil was spending money to obfuscate the facts about climate change, they were making plans to explore new drilling opportunities in the Arctic once the polar ice cap had melted.” This part of the story is pretty well-known, I think, but Mcintyre tells the tale in a way that pricks the numbness of familiarity, reminding us of the boggling scale of what these campaigns achieved: generating a political/cultural alliance that is—not simply bent on—hastening untold misery and global economic loss in the name of short term parochial economic gain.
He gives a curiously (given his background) two-dimensional sketch of the role cognitive bias plays in the problem, focusing primarily on cognitive dissonance, our need to minimize cognitive discrepancies, and the backfire effect, how counter-arguments actually strengthen, as opposed to mitigate, commitment to positions. (I would recommend Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach’s The Knowledge Illusion for a more thorough consideration of the dynamics involved). He discusses research showing the profound ways that social identification, even cued by things so flimsy as coloured wristbands, profoundly transforms our moral determinations. But he underestimates, I think, the profound nature of what Dan Kahan and his colleagues call the “Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons,” the individual rationality of espousing irrational collective claims. There’s so much research directly pertinent to his thesis that he passes over in silence, especially that belonging to ecological rationality.
Traditional versus social media
If Mcintyre’s consideration of the cognitive science left me dissatisfied, I thoroughly enjoyed his consideration of media’s contribution to the problem of post-truth. He reminds us that the existence of entities, like Fox News, disguising advocacy as disinterested reporting, is the historical norm, not the rule. Disinterested journalistic reporting was more the result how AP, which served papers grinding different political axes, required stories expressing as little overt bias as possible. Rather than seize upon this ecological insight (more on this below), he narrates the gradual rise of television news from small, money-losing network endeavours, to money-making enterprises culminating in CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and the return of ‘yellow journalism.’
He provides a sobering assessment of the eclipse of traditional media, and the historically unprecedented rise of social media. Here, more than anywhere else, we find Mcintyre taking steps toward a genuine cognitive ecological understanding of the problem:
“In the past, perhaps our cognitive biases were ameliorated by our interactions with others. It is ironic to think that in today’s media deluge, we could perhaps be more isolated from contrary opinion than when our ancestors were forced to live and work among other members of their tribe, village, or community, who had to interact with one another to get information.”
Since his understanding of the problem is primarily normative, however, he fails to see how cognitive reflexes that misfire in experimental contexts, and so strike observers as normative breakdowns, actually facilitate problem-solving in ancestral contexts. What he notes as ‘ironic’ should strike him (and everyone else) as astounding, as one of the doors that any adequate explanation of post-truth must kick down. But it is heartening, I have to say, to see these ideas begin to penetrate more and more brainpans. Despite the insufficiency of his theoretical tools, Mcintyre glimpses something of the way cognitive technology has impacted human cognitive ecology: “Indeed,” he writes, “what a perfect storm for the exploitation of our ignorance and cognitive biases by those with an agenda to put forward.” But even if the ‘perfect storm’ metaphor captures the complex relational nature of what’s happened, it implies that we find ourselves suffering a spot of bad luck, and nothing more.
At last he turns to the role postmodernism has played in all this: this is the only chapter where I smelled a ‘legacy effect,’ the sense that the author is trying to shoe-horn some independently published material.
He acknowledges that ‘postmodernism’ is hopelessly overdetermined, but he thinks two theses consistently rise above the noise: the first is that “there is no such thing as objective truth,” and the second is “that any profession of truth is nothing more than a reflection of the political ideology of the person who is making it.”
To his credit, he’s quick to pile on the caveats, to acknowledge the need to critique both the possibility of absolute truth as well as the social power of scientific truth-claims. Because of this, it quickly becomes apparent that his target isn’t so much ‘postmodernism’ as it is social constructivism, the thesis that ‘truth-telling,’ far from connecting us to reality, bullies us into affirming interest serving constructs. This, as it turns out, is the best way to think post-truth “[i]n its purest form” as “when one thinks that the crowd’s reaction actually does change the facts about a lie.”
In other words, for Mcintyre, post-truth is the consequence of too many people believing in social constructivism—or in other words, presuming the wrong theory of truth. His approach to the question of post-truth is that of a traditional philosopher: if the failure is one of correspondence, then the blame has to lie with anti-correspondence theories of truth. The reason Sarah Huckabee Sanders could lie about McMaster’s final speech turns on (among other things) the wide-spread theoretical belief that there is no such thing as ‘objective truth,’ that it’s power plays all the way down.
Thus the (rather thick) irony of citing Daniel Dennett—an interpretivist!—stating that “what the postmodernists did was truly evil” so far as they bear responsibility “for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts.”
The sin of the postmodern left has very, very little to do with generating semantically irresponsible theories—Dennett’s own positions are actually a good deal more radical in this regard! When it comes to the competing narratives involving ‘meaning of’ questions and answers, Dennett knows we have no choice but to advert to the ‘dramatic idiom’ of intentionality. If the problem were one of providing theoretical ammunition then Dennett is as much a part of the problem as Baudrillard.
And yet Mcintyre caps Dennett’s assertion by asking, “Is there more direct evidence than this?” Not a shining moment, dialectically speaking.
I agree with him that tools have been lifted from postmodernists, but they have been lifted from pragmatists (Dennett’s ilk) as well. Talk of ‘stances’ and ‘language games’ is also rife on the right! And I should know. What’s happening now is the consequence of a trend that I’ve been battling since the turn of the millennium. All my novels constitute self-conscious attempts to short-circuit the conditions responsible for ‘post-truth.’ And I’ve spent thousands of hours trolling the alt-Right (before they were called such) trying to figure out what was going on. The longest online debate I ever had was with a fundamentalist Christian who belonged to a group using Thomas Kuhn to justify their belief in the literal truth of Genesis.
Which brings us, as promised, back to the book’s beginning, the chapter that I skipped, where, in the course of refining his definition of post-truth, Mcintyre acknowledges that no one knows what the hell truth is:
“It is important at this point to give at least a minimal definition of truth. Perhaps the most famous is that of Aristotle, who said: ‘to say of what is that it is not, or of what is not, that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and what of is not that it is not, is true.’ Naturally, philosophers have fought for centuries over whether this sort of “correspondence” view is correct, whereby we judge the truth of a statement only by how well it fits reality. Other prominent conceptions of truth (coherentist, pragmatist, semantic) reflect a diversity of opinion among philosophers about the proper theory of truth, even while—as a value—there seems little dispute that truth is important.”
He provides a minimal definition with one hand—truth as correspondence—which he immediately admits is merely speculative! Truth, he’s admitting, is both indispensable and inscrutable. And yet this inscrutability, he thinks, need not hobble the attempt to understand post-truth: “For now, however, the question at hand is not whether we have the proper theory of truth, but how to make sense of the different ways that people subvert truth.”
In other words, we don’t need to know what is being subverted to agree that it is being subverted. But this goes without saying; the question is whether we need to know what is being subverted to explain what Mcintyre is purporting to explain, namely, how truth is being subverted. How do we determine what’s gone wrong with truth when we don’t even know what truth is?
Mcintyre begins Post-truth, in other words, by admitting that no canonical formulation of his explanandum exists, that it remains a matter of mere speculation. Truth remains one of humanity’s confounding questions.
But if truth is in question, then shouldn’t the blame fall upon those who question truth? Perhaps the problem isn’t this or that philosophy so much as philosophy itself. We see as much at so many turns in Mcintyre’s account:
“Why not doubt the mainstream news or embrace a conspiracy theory? Indeed, if news is just political expression, why not make it up? Whose facts should be dominant? Whose perspective is the right one? Thus is postmodernism the godfather of post-truth.”
Certainly, the latter two questions belong to philosophy as whole, and not postmodernism in particular. To that extent, the two former questions—so far as they follow from the latter—have to be seen as falling out of philosophy in general, and not just some ‘philosophical bad apples.’
But does it make sense to blame philosophy, to suggest we should have never questioned the nature of truth? Of course not.
The real question, the one that I think any serious attempt to understand post-truth needs to reckon, is the one Mcintyre breezes by in the first chapter: Why do we find truth so difficult to understand?
On the one hand, truth seems to be crashing. On the other, we have yet to take a step beyond Aristotle when it comes to answering the question of the nature of truth. The latter is the primary obstacle, since the only way to truly understand the nature of the crash is to understand the nature of truth. Could the crash and the inscrutability of truth be related? Could post-truth somehow turn on our inability to explain truth?
Truth lies murdered in the Calais Coach, and Mcintyre has assembled all the suspects: denialism, cognitive biases, traditional and social media, and (though he knows it not) philosophy. He knows all of them had some part to play, either directly, or as accessories, but the Calais Coach remains locked—his crime scene is a black box. He doesn’t even have a body!
For me, however, post-truth is a prediction come to pass—a manifestation of what I’ve long called the ‘semantic apocalypse.’ Far from a perfect storm of suspects coming together in unlikely ways to murder ‘all of factual reality,’ it is an inevitable consequence of our rapidly transforming cognitive ecologies.
Biologically speaking, human communication and cooperation represent astounding evolutionary achievements. Human cognition is the most complicated thing human cognition has ever encountered: only now are we beginning to reverse-engineer its nature, and to use that knowledge to engineer unprecedented cognitive artifacts. We know that cognition is structurally and dynamically composite, heavily reliant on heuristic specialization to solve its social and natural environments. The astronomical complexity of human cognition means that sociocognition and metacognition are especially reliant on composite, source-insensitive systems, devices turning on available cues that correlate, given that various hidden regularities obtain, with specific outcomes. Despite being legion, we manage to synchronize with our fellows and our environments without the least awareness of the cognitive machinery responsible.
We suffer medial neglect, a systematic insensitivity to our own nature—a nature that includes this insensitivity. Like every other organism on this planet we cognize without cognizing the concurrent act of cognition. Well, almost like every other organism. Where other species utterly depend on the reliability of their cognitive capacities, have no way of repairing failures in various enabling—medial—systems, we do have recourse. Despite our blindness to the machinery of human cognition, we’ve developed a number of different ways to nudge that machinery—whack the TV set, you could say.
Truth-talk is one of those ways. Truth-talk allows us to minimize communicative discrepancies absent, once again, sensitivity to the complexities involved. Truth-talk provides a way to circumvent medial neglect, to resolve problems belonging to the enabling dimension of cognition despite our systematic insensitivity to the facts of that dimension. When medial issues—problems pertaining to cognitive function—arise, truth-talk allows for the metabolically inexpensive recovery of social and environmental synchronization. Incompatible claims can be sorted, at least so far as our ancestors required in prehistoric cognitive ecologies. The tribe can be healed, despite its profound ignorance of natures.
To say human cognition is heuristic is to say it is ecologically dependent, that it requires the neglected regularities underwriting the utility of our cues remain intact. Overthrow those regularities, and you overthrow human cognition. So, where our ancestors could simply trust the systematic relationship between retinal signals and environments while hunting, we have to remove our VR goggles before raiding the fridge. Where our ancestors could simply trust the systematic relationship between the text on the page or the voice in our ear and the existence of a fellow human, we have to worry about chatbots and ‘conversational user interfaces.’ Where our ancestors could automatically depend on the systematic relationship between their ingroup peers and the environments they reported, we need to search Wikipedia—trust strangers. More generally, where our ancestors could trust the general reliability (and therefore general irrelevance) of their cognitive reflexes, we find ourselves confronted with an ever growing and complicating set of circumstances where our reflexes can no longer be trusted to solve social problems.
The tribe, it seems, cannot be healed.
And, unfortunately, this is the very problem we should expect given the technical (tactical and technological) radicalization of human cognitive ecology.* Philosophy, and now, cognitive science, provide the communicative tactics required to neutralize (or ‘threshold’) truth-talk. Cognitive technologies, meanwhile, continually complicate the once direct systematic relationships between our suites of cognitive reflexes and our social and natural environments. The internet doesn’t simply render the sum of human knowledge available, it also renders the sum of human rationalization available as well. The curious and the informed, meanwhile, no longer need suffer the company of the incurious and the uninformed, and vice versa. The presumptive moral superiority of the former stands revealed: and in ever greater numbers the latter counter-identify, with a violence aggravated by phenomena such as the ‘online disinhibition effect.’ (One thing Mcintyre never pauses to consider is the degree to which he and his ilk are hated, despised, so much so as to see partners in traditional foreign adversaries, and to think lies and slander simply redress lies and slander). Populations begin spontaneously self-selecting. Big data identifies the vulnerable, who are showered with sociocognitive cues—atrocity tales to threaten, caricatures to amuse—engineered to provoke ingroup identification and outgroup alienation. In addition to ‘backfiring,’ counter-arguments are perceived as weapons, evidence of outgroup contempt for you and your own. And as the cognitive tactics become ever more adept at manipulating our biases, ever more scientifically informed, and as the cognitive technology becomes ever more sophisticated, ever more destructive of our ancestral cognitive habitat, the break between the two groups, we should expect, will only become more, not less, profound.
None of this is intuitive, of course. Medial neglect means reflection is source blind, and so inclined to conceive things in super-ecological terms. Thus the value of the prop building analogy I posed at the beginning.
Disney’s massive Manhattan anamorph depends on the viewer’s perspectival position within the installation to assure the occlusion of incompatible information. The degrees of cognitive freedom this position possesses—basically, how far one can wander this way and that—depends on the size and sophistication of the anamorph. The stability of illusion, in other words, entirely depends on the viewer: the deeper one investigates, the less stable the anamorph becomes. Their dependence on cognitive ‘sweet spots’ is their signature vulnerability.
The cognitive fragility of the anamorph, however, resides in the fact that we can move, while it cannot. Overcoming this fragility, then, either requires 1) de-animating observation, 2) complicating the anamorph, or 3) animating the anamorph. The problem we face can be understood as the problem of adaptive cognitive anamorphosis, the way cognitive science, in combination with cognitive technology, enables the de-animation of information consumers by gaming sociocognitive cues, while both complicating and animating the artifactual anamorphic information they consume.
Once a certain threshold is crossed, Sarah Huckabee Sanders can lie without shame or apology on national television. We don’t know what we don’t know. Mcintyre references the notorious Dunning-Kruger effect, the way cognitive incompetence correlates with incompetent assessments of competence, but the underlying mechanism is more basic: cognitive systems lacking access to information function independent of that information. Medial neglect assures we take the sufficiency of our perspectives for granted absent information indicating insufficiency or ‘medial misalignment.’ Trusting our biology and community is automatic. Perhaps we refuse to move, to even consider the information belonging to:
But if we do move, the anamorph, thanks to cognitive technology, adapts, the prop-facades grow prop sides, and the deep (globally synchronized) information presented above, has to compete with ‘faux deep’ information. The question becomes one of who has been systematically deceived—a question that ingroup biases have already answered in illusion’s favour. We can return to our less inquisitive peers and assure them they were right all along.
What is ‘post-truth’? Insofar as it names anything it refers to diminishing capacity of globally, versus locally, synchronized claims to drive public discourse. It’s almost as if, via technology, nature is retooling itself to conceal itself by creating adaptive ‘faux realities.’ It’s all artifactual, all biologically ‘constructed’: the question is whether our cognitive predicament facilitates global (or deep) synchronization geared to what happens to be the case, or facilitates local (or shallow) synchronization geared to ingroup expectations and hidden political and commercial interests.
There’s no contest between spooky correspondence and spooky construction. There’s no ‘assertion of ideological supremacy,’ just cognitive critters (us) stranded in a rapidly transforming cognitive ecology that has become too sophisticated to see, and too powerful to credit. Post-truth, in other words, is an inevitable consequence of scientific progress, particularly as it pertains to cognitive technologies.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders can lie without shame or apology on national television because Trump was able to lure millions of Americans across a radically transformed (and transforming) anamorphic threshold. And we should find this terrifying. Most doomed democracies elect their executioner. In his The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power, Benjamin Carter Hett blames the success of Nazism on the “reality deficit” suffered by the German people. “Hostility to reality,” he writes, “translated into contempt for politics, or, rather, desire for a politics that was somehow not political: a thing that can never be” (14). But where Germany in the 1930’s had every reason to despise the real, “a lost war that had cost the nation almost two million of her sons, a widely unpopular revolution, a seemingly unjust peace settlement, and economic chaos accompanied by huge social and technological change” (13), America finds itself suffering only the latter. The difference lies in the way the latter allows for the cultivation and exploitation of this hostility in an age of unparalleled peace and prosperity. In the German case, the reality itself drove the populace to embrace atavistic political fantasies. Thanks to technology, we can now achieve the same effect using only human cognitive shortcomings and corporate greed.
Buckle up. No matter what happens to Trump, the social dysfunction he expresses belongs to the very structure of our civilization. Competition for the market he’s identified is only going to intensify.