A post-truth era?

Do we now live in a post-truth era?

I’ve heard that question quite a lot over the past few weeks and months, after a year in which a lot of people made a lot of money and more from peddling ‘news’-stories that were often outright inventions, or at best ‘economical with the truth’, designed to appeal to and reinforce people’s emotions and prejudices.

(Yes, I’ve caught myself falling for some of those stories. I’m human too. Sometimes…)

All very profitable, yes. For some forms of ‘profitable’, anyway.

Yet not without consequences. That’s the real point here.

It doesn’t matter what our politics may be: it really isn’t that important here.

What is important is just three things, three words:

  • There is fact: that which is, or that which has been.
  • There is imaginationthat which could be, or that which could have been.
  • There is delusion, where we confuse fact with imagination and/or vice versa, often with blame-laden assertions about that which should be or that which should have been.

We need fact.

We need imagination.

But we really, really don’t need delusion.

And building ‘post-truth’ structures that prioritise delusion over imagination – or, worse, prioritise delusion over fact – that’s really, really Not A Good Idea…

There are serious consequences for that kind of delusion.

All too often, lethal consequences.

The catch is that it may take a while for those consequences to show up – and by then, it’s already too late…

Let’s take a non-political example of this, closer to the main focus of this blog, in enterprise-architectures and the like: the causes of the Challenger disaster.

By the mid-1980s, there was a huge disconnect in NASA and its suppliers, between management-culture, oriented towards public-relations and national prestige, and the engineering culture, oriented towards reliability and safety. As still happens too often in such contexts, management presumed priority over engineering, leading to an overall enterprise-culture in which ‘what should be’ took priority over ‘what is’.

This was the real-world result:

Not A Good Idea…

Yes, Reality Department had allowed the managers to relax into their delusion that the whole system was a lot safer and more robust than it really was.

Yes, forcing the engineers to keep quiet about their concerns had kept the politicians and public happy too.

Yes, it had all seemed to work well enough the previous few times.

But as Richard Feynman later commented in his ‘personal observations‘ added to the official report:

When playing Russian roulette the fact that the first shot got off safely is little comfort for the next.

There’s a quote commonly attributed to Mark Twain that might perhaps be most relevant for the managers here:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

And, as Feynman also famously commented, at the very end of those ‘personal observations’ about the Challenger disaster:

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

Yet did NASA fully learn that lesson?

Probably not enough.

(This is in no way specific to NASA, by the way. Compare the Challenger disaster to the R101 disaster – different period, different country, exactly the same delusion-drivers, depressingly-similar outcomes…)

So yes, delusions have consequences… Especially if we refuse to drop the delusions when faced with real-world fact…

And it’s really, really important not to pretend otherwise.

We need fact. It’s how we learn what is, or has been, or is. It’s how we build foundations that are actually real; build decisions that based on what is real.

We need imagination. It’s how we connect with what could be; it’s how we build towards a future that we actually want.

Fact and imagination together can help us build a future that we want and that actually works, for everyone involved.

But delusion? No. We don’t need delusion. We definitely don’t need delusion.

Delusions are what will get us killed.

Not A Good Idea…

So we need to challenge those delusions – every delusion – wherever they may be, whatever form they take, and in whomever may be holding onto them.

And challenge our own delusions, perhaps most of all.

Because if we don’t, yes, there are consequences to those delusions.

So if we really are in a ‘post-truth’ era, don’t expect that era to last long.

Because if we don’t fix it, and fast, everywhere, we’re dead.

Simple as that, really…

Posted in Complexity / Structure, Knowledge, Power and responsibility, Society Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,
9 comments on “A post-truth era?
  1. JJ Dubray says:

    As a French, it’s pretty clear that we ever lived in a “truth” era, the only difference today is that the ability to define the “truth” is now accessible to everyone rather than a few

    • Tom G says:

      Agreed, ‘truth’ is an interpretation of a (selected) set of facts and feelings, and there many possible interpretations of any such set.

      However, pretending that fact is opinion and/or opinion is fact, is rarely going to lead to good results. I’ll cover this in another blog-post as soon as I can – though there’s a huge queue of posts that have built whilst I’ve been somewhat offline, so it may take a little while before I can get to it.

  2. Eric Weinstein says:

    What a timely post. Considering today, the big news here in the USA is how Kelly-Anne Conway mentioned “alternative facts” in relation to the size of the inauguration. Well, the media is really roasting her and calling it out. At least that is encouraging.

    http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/22/politics/kellyanne-conway-alternative-facts/

  3. IMHO, part of our problem is an assumption on our part that there are “facts” about most of the world.
    Reality is a personal experience, where most of us share the same version of “what is real.” Based on science, and based on trust. Some of us go based on belief, which we adopt from others, whom we trust. Trust can be absolute. But science is “as far as we know …” Science is about un-refuted plausibility. In some cases science is undecided. Science has gaps. Beliefs fill the gaps.
    IMHO, the reality is that truth is a matter of belief in a prescribed set of plausibilities about what might be facts. So, the real issue isn’t so much “delusions” but a question of beliefs. How are we forming our beliefs?
    None of us knows everything. That’s a fact. So we have trust in belief systems. Most of us appreciate that, but the world has become so complex that we, as individual real people, have trouble charting our belief systems in an information overloaded, exponentially expanding, rapidly changing environment.
    So we fall easy prey for over-simplified, easy answers. And not being able to tell the difference between real life and reality TV because we’ve perfected movie making, fantasy storytelling and marketing isn’t helping the situation.
    Imagination and “fact” (or plausible fact) are not always easy to distinguish when clearly presented.
    The challenge is dealing with belief system overload.

    • Tom G says:

      Sure, Joe – agreed, for the most part, though it depends somewhat on which philosophical school we choose. There’s an old post of mine that goes into this in some depth: ‘Bending reality‘ for more on that.

      However, we take it in terms of probabilities. If we use a SCAN frame (the slidedeck ‘The dung beetle’s tale‘ gives a good intro to that), we can map out levels of probability or certainty, with things such as Newtonian-type basic astrophysics (high-certainty) way over on the left, and areas such as politics (high-uncertainty) out on the right. In effect, that also tells the probable reliability of assumptions spread over that spectrum. Where things go wrong is when we place the wrong assumptions on the wrong level of certainty, which leads (eventually…) to what I call a ‘mythquake‘: a clash between expectations and reality. The severity of the misalignment indicates the severity of the mythquake.

      What you’ve described as ‘belief system overload’ – yes, that’s real. What we’ve done as a society is more than just belief-system-overload, though: it’s much worse than that. There are whole areas – a morass of ‘inconvenient truth’, to use Al Gore’s phrase – that are racking up the pressure towards ever-more-severe mythquakes, in exactly the same way that a stuck tectonic plate ramps up the pressure a more severe earthquake. On the Mythquake Scale, we’re heading right up into potential-mythquake levels that haven’t been seen for at least 5-10,000 years – but at the same time we have huge social pressure to pretend that everything’s just fine. To be blunt, it’s not fine at all – and whichever way we try to spin it through post-structuralism and ‘alternative facts’ and the rest, the reality is that the longer we leave it, the worse it’s going to get. To be even more blunt, I don’t hold out much hope for the survival of humanity at all at the moment: but I do what little I can to develop and distribute tools (such as SCAN, SCORE and the rest) that can relieve at least some of the pressure, in the thin hope that it may reduce at least some of the damage when the full MQ-9 mythquake finally breaks through the current walls of self-delusion and self-dishonesty that dominate our current human world.

      Oh well.

  4. Jay Bitsack says:

    Hi All,

    Let’s turn this question regarding the existence of an absolute truth around a bit by positing the notion that such a thing actually does exist… BUT, that the ability of any human being to reach and recognize it as such is highly fallible in nature. Why might that be a reasonable way of examining the question? Well, it has everything to do with the way the human brain – together with its sensory extensions – work and interact with the environment(s) in which humans exist. As a fundamental requisite for something to be true is must be both repeatable and predictable in its occurrence/behavior, and that character must persist over both an extended period of time and over a plausible set of conditions.

    What does that mean or imply you may wonder? In essence, it means that any and all truths are subject – as far as human beings and human consciousness are concerned – to existing only within a definable CONTEXT; that is, within a set of definable and reproduceable conditions conducive to and necessary for something to be perceived (and measured) as being true.

    IF INTERESTED, this is what David Bohm, one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th century, who contributed numerous unorthodox (i.e., not in accord with popular or generally accepted thinking) ideas to quantum theory, neuropsychology and the philosophy of mind, described in one of his books entitled: Wholeness and the Implicate Order. Therein, he focuses on understanding the nature of reality in general and of consciousness in particular as a coherent whole, which is never static or complete but which is an unending process of movement and unfoldment….

    It’s that very existence of constant “movement” – by the constituent elements that make up what we as human beings encounter as reality (in a manifest form) – and the interactions that occur as a result that can and do cause unpredicted and unanticipated/unimagined changes in what can be perceived as reality. Ergo, over long enough periods of time, no perceived truths may hold up… except for one possible ultimate “enfolded” singularity (i.e., the implicate order) from which the explicate order (i.e., manifest reality) unfolds or emerges in ever changing ways… which, once again, happen to be purely condition dependent.

    So, when it comes to working with facts, imagination and delusions, these are the tools/mechanisms by which humans choose to understand and work with the realities that are confronting them. Each has a purpose unto itself, but none can alter the nature of any truth that exists in reality at any point in time, under any given set of conditions. It’s purely up to human will and capacity and choice to discover it and leverage it for what it is… or is not.

    • Tom G says:

      Thanks, Jay (and my apologies for the slow reply…)

      Good points all – and yes, David Bohm is useful here, it’s crucial to maintain that distinction between “the nature of any truth that exists in reality at any point in time” versus our always-somewhat-subject perception of that truth.

  5. Ron Parker says:

    I have so much to say but I have a small Wittgenstein voice in my head telling me to remain quite. Or maybe it is a Post-modern voice. I am sure they are both correct.

    –Ron

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