The post-truth myth and the crisis of academic egos

Based on Rose, D. C. in press. Avoiding a post-truth world: Embracing post-normal conservation, Conservation and Society, DOI (TBC) [note academic paper is restricted to conservation, while this blog uses a wider lens – find in early view section here

‘Post-truth’, Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year in 2016, is everywhere you look at the moment. From reading scientific papers, newspaper articles, blogs, and books, you’d be forgiven for thinking that post-truth was some kind of new phenomenon, a new paradigm for the relationship between evidence and policy. The ridiculousness of this has occurred to me for some time now as the first post-truth articles rolled off the press in the midst of apparently unexpected election results in the UK (Brexit) and America (Trump). But the post-truth fad of 2016 shows no sign of slowing down. As I perused the bookshelves of Waterstones, Evans Davis’ book ‘Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit’ captured my attention. Now, the latter two words of that title did immediately spring to my mind when I was flicking through the first few pages, but such books are obviously selling well. ‘Why?’, I wondered, ‘surely decades of work in the policy sciences has shown that politics has always been post-truth to an extent?’. Apparently not if some of the recent post-truth contributions are anything to go by, but then again you have to peddle the post-truth myth if you want to sell copies! I much prefer this in The Spectator – “Post-truth? It’s pure nonsense“.

In the context of nature conservation, yet applying just as well more generally, I discuss these issues in my new paper which is in press in Conservation and Society.

I start by asking when the ‘truth phase’ of policy-making existed? This is a question that could just as easily apply to public policy in all areas – seriously, when did the truth phase exist? When did policy-makers make decisions purely on ‘the truth’ [whatever that is] without thinking of other factors, such as beliefs, world views, interests, and practicalities? When was the last election campaign where candidates did not try to stretch the truth or form arguments based on a selective use of evidence? The answer – probably never. If we consider scientific evidence as a primary source of the truth [contentious – see the paper when released!], then policy-making has never been based on science alone – and that is an eminently good thing. I have no desire to live in a technocracy. Science says that we can do all sorts of things, but it doesn’t mean that we, as a society, should do them, a point made by several prominent STS scholars over the years. While better scientific representation in Parliament, or on Science and Technology Committees, might be a good thing, I have no desire to see decisions made by a Parliament dominated by them! [figure below adapted from Rose, 2014, Nature Climate Change]


So if there has never been a truth phase, surely many politicians have told mistruths, or misused evidence, before? If the recent outcry is anything to go by, apparently it’s a new phenomenon. But, in the UK, didn’t Nick Clegg promise to scrap tuition fees, before then increasing them in government? Didn’t Jeremy Corbyn’s team make repeated pre-election claims that the rise in tuition fees had led to a fall in applications from students of poorer backgrounds, a claim which showed complete disregard for the evidence? Didn’t Gordon Brown et al. claim in 2005 that the Conservatives wished to cut spending by £35 billion, before then admitting they were going to spend £15 billion more than Labour? And what about the record of former PM Tony Blair – what was his record like in terms of making evidence-based decisions?

OK, so those examples are selective and rather unwisely limited to politicians on the Left. I could have pointed to many similar examples of ‘post-truth’ claims by Conservative politicians through the decades – but it makes a change for an academic to criticise the Left first, so why not? My point, however, is simple. Policy-makers have always lied, or stretched the truth (that’s politics!), but it is only very recently that scholars are rushing to write books on post-truth or to claim that there is a ‘crisis of democracy’. A ‘crisis of academic egos’ might be more accurate as scientists realise that not everyone listens to their lecturing from on high (but when did the deficit model of understanding ever work?). One possible comeback from the post-truth protagonists is that post-truth is somehow different – it isn’t about merely stretching the truths or telling white lies, but instead it is the deliberate act of lying without fear of the consequences. Some of those examples listed above, however, as well as many more, surely fall within this description of post-truth. It’s funny that this claim has been made only after a couple of disagreeable election results – does democracy only work if the people get the ‘right’ answer as designated by the intellectual elites?

Although I tactfully try to avoid the subject in the paper, instead sneaking my point into footnote one, I suggest that the recent ‘post-truth’ fad has indeed been whipped up by scholars and other commentators in response to election results that they disagree with. It is no secret, for example, that the academic community in the UK heavily favoured ‘Remain’ in the Brexit vote. It is, of course, perfectly understandable that many academics hold this position – Brexit does potentially create challenges for funding, as well as providing challenges for attracting talent from the EU, and even splitting up families. There was also much evidence to suggest that leaving the EU would cause problems for the economy etc. – although those pre-vote Treasury forecasts might as well have been made by the clairvoyant who lives next to my in-laws. All are good reasons to have backed the Remain case, and indeed to support ongoing protests.

Yet, other people had their own reasons for voting ‘Leave’, including evidence that suggested there would be benefits. Amidst the many claims, there were some spectacular mistruths told by both sides. It is unfair to suggest, though, that the arguments for supporting Remain were somehow the only valid ones. Yet, if you had attended the academic conferences and meetings that I have in the last two years, you’d have thought that the wider public were stupid, ignorant, and devoid of the truth – ah, the deficit model of old! Hardly a conference goes by where someone doesn’t make fun of the public for voting Leave! It’s like a rite of passage – make an anti-Brexit joke early in your talk, or indeed at the start of a coffee break, and you’re part of the club, and everyone will like you. Perhaps it’s worth considering how this looks from outside of the ivory tower.

The major point I make in the paper is that it is too convenient for the academic community, including in conservation science, to blame people for being ignorant and devoid of truth. ‘If only people had listened to the scientific facts’, goes the argument, ‘then the result would have been different’. I will argue in the paper that such a contention is dangerous – it is dangerous because an attitude of ‘we have the facts, we have the truth, you don’t, so listen to us’ is precisely the cause of the gap between academics and the public. The day after the Brexit vote, I walked into the department to shocked people saying that ‘I don’t know anyone who voted Leave, so how could it have happened’.

That is precisely the problem. If the academic community continues to blame such events on people lacking in truth, then it won’t consider that change might be needed. Change, for example, that may lead to a new kind of science better suited to the societies it serves. Lack of engagement with society causes science to be poorly communicated and framed, and may lead to the production of knowledge which is irrelevant to people’s lives. Not including people in the co-production of knowledge further reinforces the idea that academics reside in an ivory tower and therefore do not care about people’s concerns in practice.

Instead of wishing that we lived in a truth world, we should embrace the fact that public policy on the environment, and on other issues, has always been post-normal. As evidence is often uncertain and the policies affect a large number of people, an extended community of people has always been responsible for making policies. Such decisions will not always be based on what the evidence suggests we should do (although it is always likely to play some sort of role), but that is not automatically a bad thing. As Sarewitz argues, let’s stop treating science denial as a disease. In order to succeed in a messy post-normal world, academics need to become better storytellers in order to make their knowledge persuasive and relevant to people. Blaming people for being ignorant isn’t part of that good story!

So the next time you hear the claim that ‘post-truth’ is a new phenomenon, perhaps point out that such a claim may actually be ‘post-truthful’ in itself.


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