What happens when facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief? This phenomenon is known as “post-truth,” a term that was named word of 2016 by the Oxford English Dictionary. When false news is seen as credible and the metrics of prediction have proven inaccurate, even unreliable, it is essential to consider the role of truth and research in political and social issues. This has long been a topic of concern in the New School for Social Research’s international quarterly, Social Research.
Economist and sociologist Emil Lederer, writing in 1937, published an essay in the journal on “The Search for Truth.” The uncertainty of the era hangs over his words as he writes of the “responsibility that rests upon those of us who believe that the search for truth is our vocation.” Nearly eight decades later, his message has lost none of its power.
Truth itself has always been the subject of political and philosophical inquiry. “Transparently dishonest” arguments have been seen before, as Eric Alterman argues in his 2004 Social Research article “Fear: What Is It Good For?” and in our 2012 issue on Politics and Comedy, Angelique Haugerud picked up on “truthiness” — Stephen Colbert’s “popularized term for ersatz truths.” Is “post-truth” something new and different? Does the relevance and currency of this word signal a monumental shift, a growing trend, an outlier year, or a recycling of what history has seen before?
Kenneth Prewitt, at our conference on “The Future of Scholarly Knowledge,” noted the “high stakes” of asking such questions. Academia may have lost its monopoly on knowledge, but knowledge is not necessarily more egalitarian as a result. In the current context, think tanks and lobbying groups compete with universities for ownership of knowledge. Universities and funders struggle over questions of autonomy and performance metrics. Scholarly research fails to reach the public, and research itself is increasingly commercialized.
Given all of this, attempts to seek truth face a very uncertain future, especially when the methods by which we determine what is fact are rejected as the product of the “liberal elite,” or when epistemological pluralism — the different ways of knowing things — has taken hold to such a degree that some reject the certainty with which anyone can “know” anything sufficiently well enough to claim it to be true. Under these conditions, the Holocaust may be denied or climate change may be considered unreal.
Fighting for a world that respects knowledge and research is of as much importance today as ever. To return to Emil Lederer’s charge, we ought to “follow the truth wherever it leads.”