The Post-Truth Prism: Changing Your Mind

Years ago, we humans used to have something pretty neat called the scientific method.

It was a pathway out of darkness and chaos, and led to the Age of Enlightenment with its concomitant discoveries and emancipations. Every generation, things became palpably better, fairer, and easier to understand. We were on our way to a Golden Age and all we had to do was keep applying the scientific method: observation – hypothesis – experiment – knowledge.

The only facts that matter are those which are provable, by anyone.

Facts which aren’t provable?

Well, I guess they aren’t facts.

We’re all familiar with the expression “post-truth”. We hear people say: “We’re living in the post-truth era.”

I kinda got that – superficially – there are people who don’t believe certain facts despite the evidence. For example, I know two (quite intelligent) people who are unconvinced of the moon landings. You can actually see high resolution pictures of astronaut tracks at the landing sites taken from orbit, or shine a laser off reflectors left on the moon for that very purpose, but they’ve read stuff on the internet that says it’s bollocks, so nothing can convince them otherwise.

So yeah, I had this idea that “post-truth” was a kind of mass hypnosis where people simply decided not to trust the experts – not to trust the science – but rather to trust non-elite sources of truth which delivered something closer to their own level of understanding.

Lamentable, but it didn’t do that much harm.

I’ve now realised, however, that “post-truth” is actually much worse than I thought. Post-truth has an agenda.

The true insidious nature of post-truth is the ideological prism it builds in the mind of its adherents.

Let me say immediately this is not something that happens only on one side of politics. It is something that happens in multiple contexts and any individual might have several of these. Maybe even me!

This is how it works: a person becomes so imbued with a particular idea that they become incapable of shifting away from that idea irrespective of the evidence against (internet echo chambers don’t help). They therefore need to reinterpret the evidence (or simply ignore it) to make it fit within their world view, rather than change their world view when the facts suggest they are mistaken.

In other words, the complete opposite of the scientific method.

To give an example, I was engaged in a (comparatively polite and friendly) online debate this week over former president Trump’s description of Putin’s actions in Ukraine as “genius”.

I need not bore my millions of readers with all the details but what amazed me was the lengths some people would go to fit Trump’s words within some kind of ideological construct which happily accommodated both Putin’s outrageous aggression and Trump’s apparent praise of his intellect.

For these people, it was somehow okay that Trump referred to Putin as a genius.

Would George W Bush have described Osama bin Laden as a genius after 9/11? I don’t think so.

Did Winston Churchill refer to Hitler’s invasion of Poland as genius? It would have raised a few eyebrows. I sincerely doubt he would have become prime minister (as he did shortly afterwards).

The people approving of Trump’s genius comments could not see beyond their pro-Trump/anti-Biden prism and insisted on finding ways of interpreting those comments in a positive light despite the horrible reality of what is happening in Ukraine.

I started wondering: what would these people say if they could be suddenly transported to Lviv and witness Putin’s genius first hand. Would they still call it genius? Would the war somehow be Biden’s fault?

What most worries me is the sheer number of these people and it’s not just those who still believe the US election was stolen. There are people everywhere who believe all kinds of stuff that – by any objective or scientific standard – simply isn’t true.

These people have the right to vote (in democracies – real ones, I mean) and, given enough positive publicity, can influence others to behave in ways that have no basis in truth and are actually hostile to their own best interests.

We’ve seen Trump (the pussy-grabbing, Russophile tax avoider) base a presidency on post-truth – calling everything he didn’t like “fake news” while generating billions of column inches of his own fake news – and we see similar attempts in Australia. Clive Palmer is singing from the Trump songbook and arguably changed the last federal election result by campaigning in Queensland on the basis that Labor were intending to restore death duties. It was an absolute lie with no basis anywhere in fact – but some people believed it, because it suited them to believe it.

Personally, I believe that anyone guilty of such an appalling attempt to hijack an election by making such a patently dishonest claim ought to be banned permanently from public office, but I am a simple soul and probably naïve.

This is all bad enough but the post-truth prism is not just about politics. I see similar prisms operating in myriad areas such as alternative medicine (facts please); vitamin supplements (facts please); celebrity endorsements (facts please); general anti-intellectualism; and don’t get me started on religion.

The great tragedy of our times is that we no longer have the capacity to see what is real.

We see what is real according to our prisms.

Probably the most enlightened and human thing you can do these days, is change your mind about something.

When is the last time you did that?

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