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Is there such a thing as "post-truth?"

"Is the truth really out there?"

Image by Romina Santos, used under the creative commons license.

The Oxford Dictionary named "post-truth" the 2016 Word of the Year. According to their announcement article, post-truth is an adjective meaning:

"Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief"

They have traced the word back to 1992, but have seen an increase in its usage in 2015 and 2016 (and now into 2017), sparked in particular by the "Brexit" referendum and the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This current timeframe has seemed to cultivate an atmosphere of "post-truth," as the idea that consuming information that accords with one's emotional and personal beliefs (rather than digging to see if that information is backed up facts) arguably gained the most traction it has had since the days of yellow journalism.

Some have argued (with some amount of merit, as is the case with Jayson Harshin -- WSU login required) that "post-truth" is an actual, observable phenomenon.  Their arguments typically revolve around the idea that instances of misinformation and disinformation have become so numerous, and the acceptance of ideas that only conform to a person's ideology so persuasive, that broad public consciousness has shifted away from a reality in which agreed-upon truths form the basis of a social reality.

That said, objective and measurable facts are still objective and measurable facts.  Accordingly, truths are still truths when they are based upon fact.  Facts can still be agreed upon by enough people to establish them as truth, with the small minority who disagree being viewed as subscribing to a conspiracy theory (see the tab to the left).  Responding to an assertion that facts have ceased to exist and truth is accordingly constructed by individuals, Wake Forest philosophy professor Christian Miller writes that

There is a reality apart from us – filled with trees, birds, oceans, and mountains – which is not dependent on what we think about it.  It is not socially constructed. 2+2=4.  The Earth is round, not flat.  Water is H2O.  These statements are objectively true.  They are not true relative to my opinion, or to the opinion of my online community, or to what our society happens to believe. They are simply true, period.

Reacting to the same assertion, Dan Rather wrote the following critique of the concept of post-truth (Facebook login required).  Last but not least, in an admittedly frivolous example, the presence of an objective reality based on truth is posited by Fox Mulder's famous line on the X-Files, repeated on the show's opening credits:

Content partly adapted from Hailley Fargo, Penn State University Libraries

Stephen Colbert thumbnail image

  "Truthiness" is a related concept to "post-truth," based more on humor than on warping or ignoring facts in an attempt to craft a reality based upon emotional and personal beliefs.  The Washington Post offers an extended write up of the concept:

For what it's worth, “post-truth” is not to be confused with “truthiness,” a subtly different term popularized by Stephen Colbert more than a decade ago that described the phenomenon of “believing something that feels true, even if it isn't supported by fact.”

“Now I'm sure some of the word police, the 'wordinistas' over at Webster's, are gonna to say, hey, that's not a word,” said Colbert in the 2005 segment that introduced the word. “Well, anybody who knows me know that I'm no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They're elitist! Constantly telling us what is or isn't true. or what did or didn't happen.”

At the time, Colbert was still playing an exaggerated caricature of a conservative political-show host.

"Who's Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914?!" he continued in the segment. “If I want to say it happened in 1941, that's my right. I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart.”

Merriam-Webster made “truthiness” its 2006 word of the year.

Image by DonkeyHotey, used under the creative commons license.

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