The Oxford Dictionary has just revealed their Word of the Year for 2016: post-truth. It is a word used to indicate that we live in an era in which politics are more influenced by appeals to emotion and by falsehoods than by objective fact.
I beg to differ. I say we are in the era of pre-truth politics. While this year is worse than any other in recent memory, that is a relative measure. The reality is we have never had a completely clear view of the facts in an election. The U.S. federal government alone is way too complex for any one person to understand to any real depth, even for the president himself (and yes, we are still in an era of pre-bigendered White House pronouns, to coin yet another catchy term). So we have always had to base our opinions on the iceberg's tip of facts, as handed to us by third parties, about what would happen post-election.
To put it another way, there are JUST TOO MANY FACTS out there, not to mention lies and half-truths. So we pick the ones we like based on the narrative we prefer, or the ones we are lucky enough to hear. Truth be told, we are just as likely to vote based on "character" as we are on specific policies, and who can really say they are a good judge of the character of a public figure who, by the very nature of politics, we know is putting on airs?
Getting to the Truth
There are many challenges to actually basing our decisions on the truth:
- The things presented to us as facts may not represent the actual truth, or may be used in a misleading context
- We may not be seeing a balanced view of all the facts; that is, even if we see only facts, we may be seeing more facts on one side of the issue than on the other, giving a distorted view
- Most importantly, there are more facts than any one person can process
If you've read any of my other posts, you know that I'm in the process of writing up all my thoughts on an idea I call The Wikipedia for Debates. I believe that, if successful, it can be the antidote to post-truth politics.
First, there's the challenge of getting real facts that we can trust, used in the correct context. The best we can get are either first-hand experiences, or unedited recordings of events. Scientific data is meant to be a trustworthy source, though it is often disputed based on methodology and generally presented through the interpretation of an expert. The further we get from a primary source, the more it is filtered through the views and opinions and edits of others. Even newspapers and TV journalism, once considered very trustworthy, are regarded as superficial and opinionated. One way or another, our version of the "truth" is based on some level of trust in our sources, and as is currently being discussed all over the internet, our selection of sources tend to be unbalanced.
Debates provide an antidote to this. By virtue of the adversarial nature of a debate, all sides of an issue have a vested interest in making sure that what they propose as "truth" gets heard, and that falsehoods that support the opposing view are debunked. This nugget of wisdom is embedded in our justice system, which provides for an advocate on each side of the legal question on the belief that it is a better way to get at the truth than just appointing an independent and uninterested council.
The more people that get involved in a debate, and the more we have expert fact checkers with a personal or professional interest in separating fact from fiction, the more trustworthy the information we read. We have this to some degree now, but the fact checking is published in a separate location from the information source, requiring the discerning user to go hunt for the truth. By holding the debate in a single, public place, it creates the possibility for fact-checkers to present their findings together with the proposed evidence without any additional effort from the reader.
The adversarial environment also encourages each side to give it all they've got. For each argument, there is a counter-argument, and so on, until all viewpoints are exhausted. Contemporary news, editorials and blog posts give us one narrative at a time. Debates are about a tit-for-tat, the result being that each side gets heard.
It's true that the quality of the outcome depends on the quality and dedication of the participants, and on tools to promote the best arguments to the top. If this platform is as successful as Wikipedia, it will be the one place all stakeholders in a debate MUST go to present their evidence if they want to be heard. It will also be the first place people on the internet will go to understand the issue. This virtuous circle will improve the access of everyone to a balanced perspective.
Given the huge amount of relevant information out there, and it is already out there, we need the cream to rise to the top if we are to trust we are getting at the truth. Getting just the facts is just the first step.
The rest is prioritizing them based on their relevance to the issue at hand and the impact they have on the discussion. The news is full of anecdotes and clickbait that may be true, but get blown way out of proportion, obscuring the real debate. We spend more time discussing scandals rather than policy. We believe a single, disputed scientific study that shows a correlation between vaccines and autism, and ignore all the others that don't. One might accuse Donald Trump of having an axe to grind with Japan, but risk of nuclear proliferation might be a stronger argument against withdrawing military support from the region. Likewise, an argument in favor of deportation of illegal immigrants that says they compete for jobs with citizens and legal immigrants would have to be measured in relevance according to the NET TOTAL of jobs lost.
The final component is presenting this information in a format that is as easily digestible as a tweet, or as the headline of a news story. We know that news headlines can have a big impact on popular opinion, and that readers often take the headlines at face value. In the Wikipedia for debates, the reader will KNOW they can take these arguments at their word, due to amount of vetting and analysis behind it.
Not the Whole Pre-truth
Designed right, and given the same support and success as Wikipedia, having a single home page for all our online debates will help reverse the tide on the trend now officially defined as post-truth politics. There are many other benefits that I will be touching on in future articles, but I feel this is one of the most important. Some day, I hope we can get to the truth about it.
I am now a founding member of the Canonical Debate Lab, a group working on solutions to bring us closer to the truth.
We invite you to join our group in our effort to build the Canonical Debate platform. We have a few resources available online already, and a growing Slack team discussing such issues every day.
Also check out our partner organization, The Internet Government, which is working towards establishing a meritocracy of public policy ideas.