From Daniel Engber at Slate:
Ten years ago last fall, Washington Post science writer Shankar Vedantam published an alarming scoop: The truth was useless.
This supposed scientific fact jibed with an idea then in circulation. In those days of phantom Iraqi nukes, anti-vaxxer propaganda, and climate change denialism, reality itself appeared to be in danger. Stephen Colbert’s neologism, truthiness—voted word of the year in 2006—had summed up the growing sense of epistemic crisis. “Truth comes from the gut,” Colbert boasted to his audience. “Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.”
Ten years on, the same scientific notions have now been used to explain the rise of Donald Trump. The coronation of the man who lied a thousand times, a champion of “alternative facts,” had brought us from the age of truthiness to the era of post-truth—2016’s word of the year. In a span of several weeks after Trump’s inauguration, Slate announced that “It’s Time to Give Up on Facts,” Rolling Stone declared “The End of Facts,” the New Yorker told us “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” and the Atlantic ran through “the facts on why facts alone can’t fight false beliefs.” These lamentations continued unabated throughout 2017. Just two weeks ago, Facebook said it would no longer flag phony links with red-box warnings, since pointing to a lie only makes it stronger. The truth, this move implied, does more harm than good.
But there’s a problem with these stories about the end of facts. In the past few years, social scientists armed with better research methods have been revisiting some classic work on the science of post-truth. Based on their results, the most surprising and important revelations from this research—the real lol-nothing-matters stuff—now seem overstated. It may be that the internet does not divide us, that facts don’t make us dumber than we were before, and that debunking doesn’t really lead to further bunk. More.
Engber provides a useful summary of the decades-long attempts by social scientists to establish as science the idea that the public cannot be trusted with facts and that more crackdowns are needed. The social part is pretty obvious; the science is the problem.
An informative discussion about how and why that happened is much needed. In the meantime, everyone is free to have a chuckle at the expense of the people who took themselves in by believing so.
Note: The oddest part is that common sense reasoning can explain much of the effect anyway. If the government or some other authority demands that we believe something, it is only human nature for some people to assume it’s not true. Because… Hawaii, for example.
Note: CNN could be telling tales too. The bottom line is that it is not unreasonable to doubt information from an authoritative source. It depends on the circumstances.
See also: All sides agree: progressive politics is strangling social sciences