Those decrying Brexit and the rise of Trumpism point to the victory of emotion and lies over facts and evidence in determining policies and choosing leaders. The role of the media in providing ‘balanced’ coverage allows emotion, lies and facts to be equally reported, providing credibility to fictions. Whatever happened to ‘facts’? Why don’t facts trump lies in complex policy decisions?
Is Post-Modern Theory an Underlying Problem?
I’m a bit of a black and white person. What are the facts, the evidence? My first real questioning of ‘facts’ occurred when I was faced with post-modern theory. This theory essentially argues that ‘facts’ depend on your perspective. Reality is what individuals and groups believe it is. What I see as a fact may not be seen as a fact by someone in a different position. I see the economy growing, so I believe society is doing well economically. However, a person without a job, with limited prospects and bad prior experiences doesn’t see that the ‘economy’ is doing well at all. In their view, the system is rotten and needs change.
Interviewers don’t talk about winning or losing. They ask people ‘How do you feel?’ Positive thinkers feel good about losing (I did my best’, ‘I tried hard’). We award medals and certificates for participation in everything, regardless of skill or relative position. Our education system increasingly refuses to grade or compare students, simply talking about their ‘progress’. No one ‘fails’ any more. Yet our education, sporting and business results suggest we are – in fact – slipping behind the rest of the world. But who cares? We participated! We all feel good!
This ability to look differently at ‘facts’ seems to have led – over time – to the ability to challenge any ‘fact’. We refuse to look at the facts on climate change, on drugs policy, on flouting UN refugee conventions, on aboriginal welfare, on gender equity, on income inequality, on obesity causes, on water use and much more. Rubbish (biased, emotional, incorrect information) is presented in neatly packaged arguments and sound bites, to balance scientific evidence, statistical evidence, social evidence, environmental evidence, financial evidence. And we choose to believe those arguments that suit our belief values, our emotions.
We’ve seen how the tobacco PR machine lobbied (and continues to do so!) against the facts on smoking and cancer. We’ve seen how industries have argued against the facts, particularly sugar-based, salt-based ones, mining, gambling and health. Their PR machines masquerading as ‘information and research centres’, their money, their professional faces, their smooth sound bites are hard to resist. Facts are smothered, overwhelmed. Facts die. Our society, our world suffers.
Can facts fight back?
Having a wide, internet-based media with many different views was supposed to help shape opinions for the better. Group decision making leads to better outcomes. Instead, it seems to have encouraged different minority groups(tribes) to self-support their own views, reading only views they agree with (which you and I might be doing here…).
Across the world, people are raging against established political parties, but those coming forward from outside are media types who are great at manipulating the public through emotional argument, not facts. Self-interest is thriving, not compromise for the common good. And when manipulative, untruthful, power hungry leaders are democratically elected (think Berlusconi, Putin, Erdogan, Zuma, Mugabe, Chavez, Abbott and many more), truth disappears. Only arguments that suit are given air.
‘Education’ has been seen as the answer. But education systems are broken, producing too many soft-skilled people who can’t do useful jobs, passing through the production line with little quality control. People expecting a reasonable income from a degree, when the supply of jobs for those soft skills are not there. (Hard skills are quite different – think IT, plumbing, electrical, medical, health). Interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills is declining – they are seen as too hard. You can be ‘wrong’ here. You can fail. Worse, it’s not yet understood that the education system is broken, that you can actually learn so much more, more quickly outside the system than in it. When will that ‘fact’ be recognised?
Should factists take to the streets, protest? A counter-group will quickly be formed to negate the impact. Both groups will appear on TV. Who knows who is ‘right’? Anyway, influence now seems to be via individual Facebook and Twitter, phone conversations and blogs, rather than laboriously trooping the streets with indistinct banners which the powerful ignore by laying low for just a day or so till any media storm simply blows over. And people in precarious part-time jobs won’t risk joining these old-fashioned approaches (though it seems to have worked for Syriza, Podemos and women in Poland protesting abortion law change proposals).
This time I can’t see ‘answers’. But, unless we can find answers, or demagogues that factists can support, it seems we are in for a period of self-interest ruling over the common good. Our society will be the worse for it, but we have only ourselves to blame. The rules of the society we have created are responsible for these outcomes.