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[Andrew Sheng] Post-truth or alt-future?

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Published : 2017-01-11 16:22
Updated : 2017-01-11 16:31

The most fashionable word after Brexit and Trump’s triumph in 2016 as US President-elect was “post-truth,” roughly defined as the “cherry-picking of data to support emotive politics.” If there is no truth or objective facts, because all media is subject to manipulation, then are we living in the “Alt-Future,” an alternative future where there are no truths, only selective lies?

The Nazi propaganda chief Goebbels was reputed to have said that if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.

Allow me to be brutally honest -- objective truths are theoretical fictions -- truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, just as history is written by the victors.

We have grown up in the age of science, in which there are theoretically, immutable laws of nature, which we can test or repeatedly test to verify. But human behavior is always changing, just as time moves forward, so that observations about human nature do not conform to laws of nature. There is always an element of uncertainty, which means that truths about human behavior, especially its predictability, is always subjective, never fully objective.

We are living in a “post-truth” age, because the newly elected leader of the United States, the dominant global economy, is quite economical with his facts, opinions and policies, which are clearly not what we are used to under past US leaders. If the new victor starts rewriting history, then will Trump’s “post-truth” become the new normal for alternative futures?

Trump was elected because his electoral supporters are so fed up with the conventional wisdom that “if the sane does not work, try the insane.”

The established newspapers and television, including Hillary Clinton, were so concerned with the inconsistencies of Trump with known facts that they spent all the time attacking him. They failed to recognize that a large part of the electorate were already not listening -- they wanted a change from the present.

Living in the Information Age, where we are bombarded by massive doses of information in 24/7 real time, most of us have difficulty discerning fact from fiction. The events of the last decade, revealed through WikiLeaks and Snowden, have shown that fact is often more spectacular than fiction. These facts are unfolding before our very eyes -- how the Russian ambassador can be assassinated before TV cameras, how terrorists can shoot up Christmas festivities. It is therefore not surprising that we are easily fooled by small lies, white lies and big lies.

How should we cope in this age of post-truths? To answer this, we need to understand what is considered to be “truth.”

Ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Aquinas basically argue that truth is what corresponds to facts. But modern philosophers like Bertrand Russell reject this because truth then becomes ideal, which may not correspond with facts. Some facts are believable or verifiable, whereas lies can be proven to be false. Note that if my experience was such that a lie worked for me, I may not believe a fact even if it is shown to me. Human beings love to delude themselves -- inconvenient truths are covered up by convenient lies.

The issue of truth or falsehood lies at the heart of human behavior, because every day we have to make decisions on whether to cooperate or not cooperate -- humans work with each other through the process of exchange, trade or bargaining based on the available information that each has.

Software specialists and management consultants today recommend that we deal with information overload through Big Data, using sophisticated computer programs to analyze all sorts of data. That itself is not strictly fact. The old adage “garbage in, garbage out” remains true -- if Big Data is fed lots of faulty data, you can get misleading or even wrong results. All you have achieved is to pay lots more to get more rubbish conclusions -- the only justification that since it was very expensive, the result must be very good. This is another case of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, when individuals feel discomfort being confronted with contradictory beliefs or facts.

Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling, who only just passed away last month, was awarded his Nobel award for his work on improving understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis. His seminal work, “The Strategy of Conflict” (1960), was very influential in social theory because he moved away from the idealist work of game theory on social cooperation towards the more realistic work of conflicts. In other words, life is not just about giving rewards for good behavior, but actual and credible threats that enforces good behavior. Post-truths are alteration of facts to induce social behavior in line with what those in charge want. The left-leaning liberals push for “soft” incentives like rewards and subsidies, whereas the right-leaning hard-liners push for “hard” incentives like punishment, law enforcement and walls to protect against immigrants and outsiders.

What we can assess from known facts is that society has moved far more right, in which conflict and possible war is an outcome to solve problems for the US. It is by no means clear that the existing institutions of checks and balance within the US can stop this trend becoming reality. This means that life has become much more complicated for everyone, especially in Asia, because we can be sure that there will be more bashing of China, Iran or whoever that disagrees with the Trump administration. We are using the language of computers more and more to communicate with each other. Post-truths can easily become Alt-facts, Shift-news or Ctrl-data -- information on our keyboard or screens that someone wants us to consider as truths. What do we normally do when we get into such messy computer situations? We press Ctrl+Alt+Del and go for reset.

Be prepared for Alt-Futures of greater uncertainty. 

By Andrew Sheng

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective. –Ed.

(Asia News Network)