The year 2016 may go down as the year that truth was finally abandoned in politics and public discourse. George Orwell (1984) was only 32 years off.
Among the various indicators for this event: The British vote to abandon the EU (Brexit); the popular vote turning down the Colombian peace deal; Rodrigo Duterte’s election in the Philippines; the successful campaign of Donald Trump for President of the US; the post-election revelations that online media such as Facebook strongly promoted (inadvertently, perhaps) fake news stories through the algorithms that feed readers what they want to see; and, most significantly, the selection by the Oxford English Dictionary of “post-truth” as the Word of the Year 2016.
This is indeed a frightening trend for individuals and organizations active in the efforts to promote peace, sustainability, and justice, since the call for transparency and truth is one of our principal tools in those efforts. “Speaking truth to power” is not just a metaphor — it captures the essence of these efforts, and PEP awarded the Gandhi Peace Award to Amy Goodman in 2012 in honor of her efforts to do just that.
But if no one cares about the truth anymore, then that strategy may need to be revised.
Research evidence has recently demonstrated that “truth” may be less relevant than we think. In divisive arguments about policy, or politics, the effort to promote one’s position with facts has been found to be ineffective and may even backfire. Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler concluded in 2007: “Ideological subgroups failed to update their beliefs when presented with corrective information that runs counter to their predispositions. Indeed, in several cases, we find that corrections actually strengthened misperceptions (sic) among the most strongly committed subjects.” More disturbingly, greater science literacy and cognitive reasoning seems to make this problem worse, not better. According to Dan M. Kahan et al in 2012: “Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest.”
What is the motivation for literate and rational people to resist new evidence that conflicts with their prior position? According to Kahan: “Public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.”
Another study by Kahan et al in 2013 supports the “Identity-protective Cognition Thesis. “The outcome supported ICT, which predicted that more Numerate subjects would use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks. The bottom line of this research— identity trumps truth.
Most disturbingly, this human tendency is, according to Kahan’s research, equally true for both sides of the political divide. We are all guilty of motivated reasoning, and the smarter we are, the better we do it!
Does this mean that truth is now irrelevant? Absolutely not! As I stated in Living in a Post-Truth World, “We ignore the true facts of our experience, our science, and our spiritual teachings at our peril. The fate of the world, and the fate of our souls, hangs in the balance.”
Clearly, activism needs a new strategy. Focusing on fact-based arguments for polarized policy issues is a recipe for failure. Rather, we need to begin studying the scientific evidence that Kahan and others are developing in order to identify what approaches can be successful. The evidence discussed in this article suggests that we need first to understand the identity dynamics of the parties involved in the issue, and then to find ways to bridge the identity divide. We need to bring the communication efforts out of the cognitive frame in which it is stuck, and put it into a frame where identify is not threatened and common values and goals can be defined and explored.
In his first Sunday service after the election, Pastor Chuck Blair (New Church Live, Bryn Athyn, PA) put it this way:
“We need to stop focusing on what we are arguing about, and begin to focus on what we are arguing for.” NCL Nov 13, 2016.