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 imagination: that 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…
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.
When playing Russian roulette the fact that the first shot got off safely is little comfort for the next.
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?
(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…