If you’ve noticed an unusual mix of content on this website, it’s because of the hybrid nature of my professional career, half English teacher, half software developer. Both ploughed their own furrow, and you may have noticed that occasionally elements of the two have converged in reviews of books that have ‘political’ themes. It’s worth briefly exploring these relationships before looking at the topic du jour, being ‘truth’ as discussed in a further dozen or so books I’ve recently read.
As an English teacher, clarity of expression was one of the goals I encouraged. A point of view, well-argued and relatively free of ambiguity, achieved good scores. With writing about literature - that other treasure for which the English teacher is a guardian - the task is not entirely dissimilar: make any case you wish (be it in your opinion, for example, that Hotspur is not so much over-ambitious but affronted by the King’s disregard for northern Percy pride, or that Seamus Heaney’s more lyrical poems praise nature first because it is a stand that can be taken apolitically, avoiding ‘the Troubles’), as long as you refer to the text and justify your thinking, that too may achieve a good score. Persuasion is nothing without evidence and, though in matters of literature truth can be a shape-shifting thing, texts are amenable to examination so that their varied significance can be revealed. In short, a bit of effort in this can go a long way.
Writing software sharpens different skills yet, curiously, they work in a similar direction. The hunt for bugs - a larger part of software development than most will at first appreciate - requires a certain forensic ability. The variables - metaphorical and literal - need methodical handling (puns intended). If five factors are at play (say state, sequence, compatibility, permissions and time), each needs nailing down to see where errors might prevent intended execution. It is laborious - and software that works smoothly for the user requires considerable labour. But for the current discussion, this degree of diligence requires much more than just ‘a bit of effort’: it is the difference between pass and fail.
In both these domains, one is required to show one’s workings: shed light on specific meaning in specific parts of the text, identify the very line of code, the very statement, that throws the error that represents the bug. Both ventures fail if one turns one’s back on these exigencies. Years of this and little by little one’s respect for evidence shows up as a respect for ‘truth’. With these proclivities baked into my broader outlook, my choice of reading matter makes some sort of sense. You be the judge, for here are the books. With the help of short, salient quotes, I have covered each with the slimmest of summaries. These are followed by a succinct wrap-up.
How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, Jason Stanley, 2018
Left out on one’s desk, How Fascism Works could give the wrong impression: “Didn’t know you were that way inclined!” So get your defence prepared early … which is easy as the author is a Professor of Philosophy at Yale, not a political firebrand, and the book does indeed explain how fascism works. After reading this, you will appreciate the cogs and levers of outrageous fortune, so to speak, notably how fascism aims quite deliberately to suffocate and smother ‘truth’. It’s not an accidental outcome but a deliberate target of this sort of political ‘thought assassination’.
This is a short volume of great clarity that points out that so much of what we saw with Trump we’ve seen before. (Lest we forget, The Washington Post itemised 30,753 false or misleading claims in the man’s four year tenure.) The appeal of a mythic past pollutes the present with propaganda. Attacks on education and expertise weaken the foundations of public debate. Public oratory sways the will rather than convinces the intellect because emotion, rather than reason, attracts an audience. As the author memorably says,
Regular and repeated obvious lying is part of the process by which fascist politics destroys the information space. A fascist leader can replace truth with power, ultimately lying without consequence.
(How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley, p. 57)
This short book anchors current political trends in history, identifying strands of fact that bind then to now. I recommend it to you as a quick-acting primer on where we might now be finding ourselves.
[How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]
The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism, Peter Oborne, 2021
Of course, Trump was/is not the only disrespector of an evidence-based modus operandi. For those of us in Britain, our own prime minister is at it as well, as Peter Oborne’s slim volume ably demonstrates. The book takes a broader look at the phenomenon than the author’s own excellent website did, no doubt because it was simply too difficult keeping up with Johnson’s numerous lies - and because the underlying political reasoning needs our attention.
This is a hard-hitting examination of Johnson’s flagrant disregard for truth, couching the showman’s personality in a political framework. That the author worked with Johnson when they were both journalists on The Spectator lends weight to this account, which covers the introduction and triumph of political lying in the UK, the failure of the British press and the capture of the Conservative party. Three quotes are worth using here:
To make rulers accountable to the people the latter need access to objective truth. When truth is defined by the rulers themselves, the people lose all ability to pass judgement on them. The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that lying corrupts our basic humanity because it deprives us of the ability to make rational choices. In the political sphere, we cannot replace a poorly performing government with a potentially better one, if, by successful lying, that government has denied us the means of conceiving of one.
(The Assault on Truth by Peter Oborne, p. 91-2)
In a profound reshaping of the public domain, the long-accepted distinction between truth and falsehood is replaced by truth and error. In the words of the American journalist David Roberts: ‘Information is evaluated not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one.’
(The Assault on Truth by Peter Oborne, p. 163-4)
Democracy can function only when all sides agree some common basis of truth and how to establish it… The British prime minister has repeatedly lied. About economic policy, about Brexit, about trade, about borders, about the Covid pandemic. He has lied to voters, to ministers, to journalists, to Parliament. He has lied to adults. He has lied to children… Nobody would tolerate this level of deceit in a friend, a colleague, an employer or a spouse.
(The Assault on Truth by Peter Oborne, p. 165)
This is an impassioned, detailed and thoughtful analysis, crammed with footnotes throughout to justify the basis of every individual claim the author makes. I recommend it to you.
[The Assault on Truth by Peter Oborne is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]
How to be a Liberal: The Story of Freedom and the Fight for its Life, Ian Dunt, 2020
Consider Peter Oborne’s volume above as a warm-up to this magnus opus by the esteemed Ian Dunt. If you want a history lesson on how liberalism advanced from Descartes through Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Smith, Mill and countless others, only to retreat in the face of nationalism, this is it. This history lesson embraces and explains the American Revolution (with an excellent primer on the US Constitution) and the French Revolution, as well as examining how Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty equated “the will of the people” with “the tyranny of the majority”. Read in the context of the storming of the United States Capitol on 6th January this year, their views on freedom of speech are germane. It had one limit, which was the incitement to violence, which they defined as occurring in a time and place in which it was directly and immediately likely to cause harm. There is much else in this hugely informative volume to recommend it, but one quote stands out for the purpose of this post:
The liberal world order was falling down. Orbán was undermining the EU from within. Britain was undermining it from without. And Trump was humbling the WTO. Decades of delicate construction work were being dismantled. Inside these countries, the same process was undermining the institutions which kept executive power in check. Parliaments, the judiciary, civil society, the press. All were under sustained attack.
And at the core of the programme, in its engine room, the real work was being done which made all the other projects possible. The notion of objective truth was being eradicated. The concept of the individual was being subsumed into the people.
(How to be a Liberal by Ian Dunt, p. 412)
Ian Dunt’s book also includes accounts of interviews with specialists I’ve not encountered elsewhere, many of whom give very detailed analysis of social media algorithms that result in the disappearance of our shared objective world, where people live in a virtual world which reflects back their own subjective selves - the ‘echo chambers’. For this and for the history of how we inadvertently arrived here, this book is hugely impressive.
[How to be a Liberal by Ian Dunt is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]
Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare, Thomas Rid, 2020
Thomas Rid’s Active Measures is an authoritative account of the hacking, leaking and forging of data conducted by spy agencies since 1921, especially by East Germany, America and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Detailing interviews with current and former operatives in multiple agencies, it documents dirty tricks and bizarre, even farcical, plots that were hatched to gain strategic advantage. Richly provisioned with a historical understanding of the field of disinformation, readers of this volume will better appreciate much of the political landscape in which we now find ourselves.
Towards the end of the book and just before its 76 pages of references and the detailed index, the author is ‘spooked’ by what these active measures say about ‘truth’:
The postwar decades had exposed a cultural tension within truth itself - or rather, between two common understandings of truth that stand in permanent opposition to each other. One is a given, positive, analytical; something is true when it is accurate and objective, when it lines up with observation, when it is supported by facts, data or experiments… Truth in this sense is inherently apolitical…
But there has always been another truth, one that corresponds to belief, not facts. Something is true when it is right, when backed up by gospel, or rooted in scripture, anchored in ideology, when it lines up with values… Truth in this sense, is relative to a specific community with shared values, and thus inherently political. This truth is preached from a pulpit, not tested in a lab… It tends to confirm and lock in long-held views, and to divide along tribal and communal lines.
(Active Measuresby Thomas Rid, p. 425-6)
Could one wish for a more succinct analysis of this issue of facts and alternative facts, I wonder?
[Active Measures by Thomas Rid is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]
This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, Peter Pomerantsev, 2019
The author is a Soviet-born British journalist who moved with his family from Ukraine to West Germany when his father was arrested by the KGB. He therefore knows a bit about Russian dirty tricks. He is now a London-based specialist on Russian propaganda. This volume details the coercion and control behind social media and political messaging.
In a chapter entitled Soft Facts, the author discusses the war in Syria and how Russia aided and abetted Assad in his maintenance of power and vicious crushing of all opposition. The detail is grim and the denials of complicity by Syria and Assad are brazen. He details disinformation used to brush aside all international accusations (of causing a body count that the UN estimated as being in the region of 400,000), including, for example, YouTube footage pretending to show that Syrian ‘White Helmets’ were actually terrorists, when as we know they were a citizen group that attempted to rescue bombing victims. (Debunking this falsehood was one of the accomplishments of Eliot Higgins in his Bellingcat work, discussed below.) In the face of these sorts of propaganda, the author details the following with passion:
Meanwhile, 22 TB of video recorded by the White Helmets sits in safe houses across Europe. To that one can add 60 TB of videos, tweets and Facebook posts held by the Syrian Archive: 800,000 documents and over 3,000 witness statements collected by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability that link crimes to senior Syrian officials.
It is as much archive as we have ever had relating to torture, mass murder and war crimes. And it sits there, waiting for facts to be given meaning.
(This is Not Propagandaby Peter Pomerantsev, p. 179)
Of course, there’s a difference between lying for political advantage and lying to cover up or deny “torture, mass murder and war crimes”. What This is Not Propaganda perhaps shows is that, taken to extremes, the one can lead to the other. This is a sobering read.
[This is Not Propaganda: by Peter Pomerantsev is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]
Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West, Luke Harding, 2020
On matters pertaining to the waving of Kremlin’s shadowy tentacles, this may be the go-to, definitive work. As The Guardian’s Russian-speaking, Moscow bureau chief between 2007 and 2011, the author provides interview-supported accounts of: the 2018 Skripals’ poisoning; the 2016 GRU hack of DNC emails; the 2018 summit between Trump and Putin in Helsinki; Christopher Steele’s 2016 dossier on Russian interference in the 2016 US election and the Kremlin’s sustained cultivation of Trump; Michael Cohen; world-wide GRU hacking; Bellingcat’s exposure of Russian incompetence in Ukraine; Russia’s Internet Research Agency; Russian money in London; Mueller, Manafort and Ukraine; the likelihood of Russian kompromat on Trump; and Trump and Hunter Biden. There is much old-fashioned shoe-leather work here, as well as careful cross-referenced research; the impression conveyed is of a series of well fact-checked accounts.
In Spring 2014 the foreign section [of Russia’s Internet Research Agency] embarked on an audacious new project. The objective was to sow discord in the US political system by boosting radical and polarizing opinions. These views already existed, independent of Russia. By using social media, you could feed internal division, with Facebook used as the kind of paraffin you might throw on a bonfire. More conflict meant a weaker enemy. A weaker enemy meant a stronger Kremlin.
(Shadow State by Luke Harding, p. 166)
The IRA’s budget for its Lakhta operation was £900,000, or 73 million rubles, a month, concealed as payments for software support and development… Facebook failed to notice that a foreign power had thoroughly hacked its platform.
(Shadow State by Luke Harding, p. 168)
This volume helps detail the way in which Russian spy agencies have been waging an increasingly bold war in the UK and America, using ‘traditional’ operatives on the ground as well as state-backed social-media campaigns that have aimed to gain political advantage abroad.
[Shadow State by Luke Harding is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]
We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People, Eliot Higgins, 2021
The Bellingcat story is hugely impressive. Eliot Higgins’ early work on the Brown Moses blog (from 2011) lead to the Bellingcat website (from 2014). Both exposed Syrian, Libyan and Russian atrocities in meticulous detail with a novel methodology based on the scrutiny of photographs and videos that had been uploaded to the internet - by victims of brutal regimes and by soldiers of those regimes publicising their brutalities. The aim of the endeavour has been to expose regime lies and denials and accumulate an archive of evidence that may eventually be used in international courts of law. It is heroic work.
Stalin coined the term dezinformatsia, giving it a French spin to suggest that Soviet disinformation tactics were merely keeping up with what the west had been doing all along. These days, this now means “Dismiss, Distort, Distract, Dismay”. The Bellingcat riposte to this is independent verification. It is the “scientific method applied to journalism”. As Higgins pithily writes:
While the Bellingcat motto is ‘Identify, Verify, Amplify’, that of the Counterfactual Community could be ‘Believe, Insist, Ignore’. Their practice is to begin with a conclusion, skip verification and shout down contradictory facts. Whereas we search the internet for evidence, they search for confirmation.
(We are Bellingcat by Eliot Higgins, p.116)
There are, it seems, two lessons from this important book. The first is that the evidence unearthed by this sort of endeavour is often of a higher standard that that assembled by national security agencies, the US included. It justifies the book’s subtitle of “An Intelligence Agency for the People”. It explains why one of Higgins’ roles is as a member of the technology advisory board of the International Criminal Court. As Higgins himself writes, Bellingcat now “dealt in legal evidence”. The second lesson, just as important, is that open-source, citizen-based investigation is “a discipline with teachable skills”. Again, in his own words:
A well-crafted training programme teaching verification skills to those entering adult society ought to be among the basic skills of the twenty-first century.
(We are Bellingcat by Eliot Higgins, p.217)
A more detailed review of We Are Bellingcat is available in its own post on this site.
[We Are Bellingcat by Eliot Higgins is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]
Like War: The Weaponization of Social Media, P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, 2018
I have detailed elsewhere why this book is worth reading - and not just because of a memorable quote the authors give of a U.S. Army colonel that “Once every village had an idiot. It took the internet to bring them all together”! Their focus is on how ill-equipped we are to handle the instantaneity and immensity of the information that defines the social media age, and how this publishing opportunity represents a godsend to malign players, especially those linked to the Russian state. That this argument has been around for several years now doesn’t make it any less relevant, particularly to the subject of this post, truth and its ‘opponents’. Two short quotes are germane, but the whole book is worth scouring for much of the research detail it contains:
Social media provided an environment in which lies created by anyone, from anywhere, could spread everywhere, making liars plenty of cash along the way.
(Like War by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, p. 120)
[The French scholar of democracy Alexis de] Tocqueville was worried about the number of newspapers expanding past the few hundred of his time. Today, the marvels of the internet have created the equivalent of several billion newspapers, tailored to the tastes of each social media user on the planet. Consequently, there is no longer one set of facts, nor two, nor even a dozen. Instead, there exists a set of “facts” for every conceivable point of view. All you see is what you want to see. And, as you’ll learn how it works, the farther you’re led into this reality of your own creation, the harder it is to find your way out again.
(Like War by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, p. 121)
This volume serves to remind us that the internet - and social media in particular - has acted as an accelerator and amplifier of misinformation and that this has made it easier for what has come to be known as tribal epistemology to flourish.
A more detailed review of Like War is available in its own post on this site.
[Like War by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]
Mind F*ck: Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World, Christopher Wylie, 2019
Wylie was Cambridge Analytica’s titular director of research in the period leading up to the 2016 Brexit Referendum and the US Presidential Election. He was in the cockpit of the now infamous business of Cambridge Analytica’s quasi-legal use of Facebook user data to build in silico simulations of a society’s personalities and unique behaviours in pursuit of creating an advanced market intelligence tool. Cambridge Analytica was linked to an obscure Canadian firm, AggregateIQ who were the disseminators of digital adverts to Britain’s Facebook users, a strategy which, in the words of Vote Leave’s campaign manager, Dominic Cummings, played a crucial role in the Brexit campaign. “We couldn’t have done it without them” was the Cummings quote on AIQ’s website at the time. Christopher Wylie as we now know became the first whistle-blower to expose the nefarious, undeclared dealings between these players, the pro-Brexit politicians and campaign managers, Trump’s erstwhile Svengali Steve Bannon (Cambridge Analytica’s vice-president), Farage’s Leave.EU campaign, various Russian players operating out of their embassy in London - and elsewhere and other, household names. Wylie met most of them and was the naïve, young systems engineer who helped them achieve their goals. They populate this surprisingly level-headed book.
Wylie saw first-hand how Bannon’s strategy for dealing with the media was, as Bannon memorably put it, “to flood the zone with shit”. The press had traditionally been the great sifters of fact from fiction, helping the public to make enlightened political choices. By saturating the ecosystem with misinformation, that mediating role would be overwhelmed, thereby contributing to a disruption of the democratic process. As Wylie put it:
Chaos and disruption, I later learned, are central tenets of Bannon’s animating ideology. Before catalysing America’s dharmic rebalancing, his movement would first need to instil chaos throughout society so that a new order could emerge. He was an avid reader of a computer scientist and armchair philosopher who goes by the name of Mencius Moldbug, a hero of the alt-right who writes long-winded essays attacking democracy and virtually everything about how modern societies are ordered. Moldbug’s views on ‘truth’ influenced Bannon and what Cambridge Analytica would become. Moldbug has written that ‘nonsense is a more effective organising tool than the truth,’ and Bannon embraced this. ‘Anyone can believe in the truth,’ Moldbug writes. ‘It serves as a political uniform. And if you have a uniform, you have an army.’
(Mind F*ck by Christopher Wylie, p. 85)
Anyone who watched Laura Kuenssberg’s interview with Dominic Cummings in July 2021 might see a parallel here. When questioned about his 2016 Brexit Referendum campaign adverts about the £350 million a week claim and how Turkey was on the point of joining the EU, Cummings’ smirk was there for all to see. For him, as for Bannon and the ludicrously monickered Moldbug, ‘truth’ is irrelevant. It might as well just be another opinion, fashioned to hose into social media feeds for the purpose of sowing confusion.
[Mind F*ck by Christopher Wylie is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]
Privacy is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data, Carissa Véliz, 2020
Carrisa Véliz’s Privacy is Power - Why and How you Should Take Back Control of your Data is a clear and passionate manifesto about digital privacy that does what its subtitle says in explaining why privacy matters and how to do something about maintaining it. Although as something of a techie myself I can vouch that her advice is ample and worth following, the discussion that precedes the advice is also worth absorbing.
The book’s an easy read. There’s an abundance of research behind the writing in the form of 16 pages of bibliography, 23 pages of footnotes (helpfully mapped with page headers that say “Notes to pages x - y” to aid navigation), and a 23-page index. The author is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and the Institute for Ethics in AI, and a Tutorial Fellow at Hertford College, Oxford. Yet Privacy is Power comes over as a primer, a manifesto, a guide as to why privacy should matter to us all, not an academic tract.
The relevance of this volume to this post is when the author discusses the micro-targeting of adverts on social media, here in the context of elections:
What is new and destructive is showing each person different and potentially contradictory information. Data firms try to exploit our personality traits to tell us what we want to hear, or what we need to hear to behave in the way they want us to. A candidate could get away with giving one image to some citizens and giving an opposite image to a different set of citizens.
Personalized ads fracture the public sphere into individual parallel realities. If each of us lives in a different reality because we are exposed to dramatically different content, what chance do we stand of having healthy political debates?
(Privacy is Power by Carissa Véliz, p. 107)
The author provides an interesting footnote to the discussion of micro-targeting when she cites a Digiday poll of forty publishing executives in which 45% of them believed that behavioural ad targeting had produced no notable benefit, while 23% believed that their revenues had declined. Concurrently, the New York Times blocked personalized ads on its website with the result that revenues rose rather than declined. The author wonders whether platforms such as Google and Facebook might after all be “selling smoke” whilst all the while damaging the public debate space.
[Privacy is Power by Carissa Véliz is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]
Deep Fakes and the Infocalypse: What You Urgently Need To Know, Nina Schick, 2020
It is one thing to rebut a question or statement with a phrase like “Fake News!” - as we have seen only too well from some of those in power in recent years. It is another thing entirely, as Nina Schick’s excellent Deep Fakes and the Infocalypse (2020) chillingly says, “to show people in places they have never been, doing things they have never done, saying things they have never said”. Welcome to ‘Deep Fakes’, now on a screen near you. (Try a non-video one that the author mentions of AI-generated human faces - or of its feline equivalent - and keep pressing your browser’s refresh button - or F5 - to see a sequence of entirely AI-fabricated faces, all “imagined” by a “generative adversarial network”. I don’t know how I’d learn to spot that these faces are ‘generated’ by AI. So when it comes to the content of audio and video footage, we will perhaps be suckered even more easily.)
Nina Schick uses the term ‘deep fake’ to denote image, audio or video files that are synthetic, meaning that they have been “either manipulated or wholly generated by AI”. She contends that “in a few years’ time anyone with a smartphone will be able to produce Hollywood-level special effects at next to no cost, with minimum skill or effort”. AI quality will beat anything that CGI has done; it will become accessible to all - at close to no cost - with the intention to portray events that are by definition not true.
Schick’s book stands out for two reasons. The first is in its handling of the liar’s dividend:
To paraphrase the German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt, it doesn’t matter that leaders lie if people think that everything is already a lie anyway … If everyone is a hypocrite, why bother with the truth?
Aside from lying, Trump is also adept at utilizing the ‘liar’s dividend’. The liar’s dividend is the concept of a liar dismissing anything they don’t like as ‘fake’, even if it is not. The liar’s dividend is becoming an ever more powerful tool in the Infocalypse… (Of course, when deepfakes become more widespread, the liar’s dividend will become even more powerful. In a world where any can be faked, everyone has plausible deniability.)
(Deep Fakes and the Infocalypse by Nina Schick, p. 93-4)
The second reason Schick’s book stands out is in the coverage she gives for how to fight back against what she calls the infocalypse. She closes the book with a section on fact-checking resources (such as PolitiFact, Snopes, AP Fact Check, AFP Fact Check, Full Fact, BBC News Reality Check, and bell¿ngcat), and a section on Estonia and how it is addressing the torrent of disinformation coming across its border from its Russian neighbour. Its deep-fake detection resource is impressive - as is their PDF report on deep fakes.
[Deep Fakes by Nina Schick is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]
Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back, Matthew d’Ancona, 2017
This short volume is in the author’s own words ‘a personal tract’, written in 2017 - and thus after Brexit and the election of Trump - which explores “the declining value of truth as society’s reserve currency, and the infectious spread of pernicious relativism disguised as legitimate scepticism”. It is an exploration of the principal symptoms of the Post-Truth era, offering proposals as to what can be done about it. One of the writer’s many roles is as a trustee of the Science Museum in London, of which he writes:
In its stunning halls and galleries, the work of its remarkable team, it feels like an affront to the greatest revolution in the history of human knowledge that so much fakery, pseudo-science and medical nonsense is now in circulation. The notion of science as a conspiracy rather than a world-changing field of enquiry used to be confined to cranks. No longer. It seems to me intolerable that this should be so.
(Post-Truth by Matthew d’Ancona, p. 3)
Three things about this lucid book stand out. The first is the author’s assertion that higher education offers no real insulation against what he calls ‘magical thinking’. He quotes recent research that seems to indicate that those who are “most knowledgeable about politics and science … tend to take extreme positions on, for instance, climate change and death panels”. He quotes the author Rob Brotherton: “our beliefs come first; we make up reasons for them as we go along”. The second and very much related point worth quoting is that “the epistemology of Post-Truth” encourages us “that prudent conduct consists in choosing sides rather than evaluating evidence”. His third stand-out point is that “it should be a core task of primary - not secondary - education to teach children how to select and discriminate from the digital torrent”, a contention that the author explores in greater detail in his 2021 book Identity, Ignorance, Innovation, discussed below.
[Post-Truth by Matthew d’Ancona is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]
Identity, Ignorance, Innovation: Why the Old Politics Is Useless - and What to Do About It, Matthew d’Ancona, 2021
I came to this volume thinking it would address truth and tribalism, which it does, but I was not prepared for the brilliant analysis of identity politics that comes with it. d’Ancona refuses to “stay in lane”, as he puts it, and despite being “by most reckonings … a one-man privilege carnival and an avatar for patriarchy and power” (white, male, middle-aged, metropolitan elite panellist, etc.), he admits to “rushing into this particular minefield of sensitivities and grievances”. “Didn’t I get the memo?” he asks. His answer is that because he believes “in the marketplace of ideas and the never-ending flux of pluralism, then you should be prepared for ideas that challenge the very foundations of what you believe”. His contention is that everyone is entitled to speak on condition that they “listen, without interruption, to the stories and lived experiences of those who are less advantaged, to those whose lives are different to their own”. “Let it be emphasised: this is a matter of basic respect, not an act of civil charity.” The application of discourse and the open exchange of opinions and ideas is the way to navigate today’s turbulent waters.
For educators, this volume should be compulsory reading. It is wise and incisive and, as the author freely admits, “unashamedly polemical in tone”. Since the early 1990s in the UK, policy makers have failed younger generations by spoon-feeding them a tick-box National Curriculum that has also “failed to teach them the digital literacy that will enable them to be masters rather than servants of the hyper-powered technology in their pockets”. We all need the ability to “sift, assess and filter” the data deluge that we are subjected to daily. We need, as the author grippingly has it, “a transformation in the way in which we prepare, and continue preparing, every citizen for life in a storm of change”. It is, he contends, our “collective duty”.
d’Ancona proposes a number of things that might buttress the fight-back against disinformation, including the archiving of all social media political adverts (for subsequent scrutiny), and the publishing of social media algorithms so that they can be evaluated against ethical frameworks. Yet the greatest value of the book - to my mind - are those passages where he reminds us of the basis of democratic societies, amongst which is this:
Perhaps the greatest intellectual bequest of the Enlightenment era - of which the [US] declaration [of Independence] is one of the most significant texts - is the principle of verification. According to this intellectual framework, philosophical enquiry, rational debate, academic research and the pursuit of truth must be subjected to the most rigorous tests, analysis and scrutiny. It is axiomatic that all claims are vulnerable to challenge, negation and improvement. Doubt is what fuels the machine. That, one might say, is the whole point: the foundation upon which modern liberal, pluralist societies have been built.
By design, therefore, liberalism is open to attack. In contrast to totalitarian or theocratic ideologies, it provides a framework rather than a final analysis.
(Identity, Ignorance, Innovation by Matthew d’Ancona, p. 38)
None of this is new. That we need to be reminded of it is the telling part. Karl Popper in his Conjectures and Refutations, written all the way back in the 1960s, elaborated truth as being “true knowledge”, “an even more special kind of belief”, but one that is “well-founded or justified”. “Objective or absolute truth”, he said, “is truth as correspondence to the facts”. Much of his philosophical work comes over these days as being densely cumbersome, but who could argue - once you’ve located it - with the proposition “that we should accept a belief only if it can be justified by positive evidence”? Popper was at the head of the queue - as d’Ancona is in this volume - in support of the view that all evidence deserves to be questioned; such is the nature of science. Failure to do so throws us back into theology and disinformation.
[Identity, Ignorance, Innovation by Matthew d’Ancona is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]
Truth and tribal epistemology
In reading these books, I did not consciously set out to learn how truth has become a modern-day casualty of public debate. I had wanted to read round various topics (fascism, social media, the influence of Russia, privacy, etc.). In doing so, I encountered a diverse group of writers making broadly the same observations, culminating in a generally-accepted view that the first two decades of this century have seen accepted orthodoxies (for lack of a better word) supplanted by a cacophony of disinformation and pseudo-science. That a viewpoint is increasingly evaluated by whether it conforms to the outlook of one’s tribe rather than the viewpoint’s demonstrable veracity is, frankly, shocking. Various commentators have called this phenomenon tribal epistemology.
It’s worth re-visiting epistemology, particularly as viewed by Popper, in order to gain an even firmer grasp of the basics. In simple terms, conjectures hold good until they are refuted. Propositions about the world that we occupy, even when supported by every observation imaginable, are still open to correction and improvement. Newtonian laws of gravity held firm until Einstein proposed otherwise. In this sense, all knowledge is a provisional thing - and is so in perpetuity. This is the doubt that d’Ancona says fuels the machine.
The lazy response to that is to bombard orthodoxies with evidence-free (or evidence-flimsy), alternative views. “Liberalism”, remember, “is open to attack”; it needs to be. You should be as free as anyone else to question ‘orthodoxy’. Like the trolls of the Russian Internet Research Agency, one could sow doubt. One could firehose contradictions into social media feeds, or “flood the zone with shit” in Bannon’s words. It’s undoubtedly persuasive and has certainly persuaded millions to change their vote, to refuse vaccines, to deny the anthropogenic nature of climate change, to feel that they have trumped the system. But few of these - if any - are refutations marshalled with the same discipline as the knowledge they seek to debunk. Those that are - and which succeed in refuting an existing ‘truth’ become the new ‘truth’; the rest is unscientific babble. Nothing is fixed, change is perpetual; all of us need to understand that.
Wiser heads than mine are busy countering this storm of misinformation, and proposing improved ways of doing so. The Clean up the internet movement in an excellent start and should be given full backing. Lessons can undoubtedly be learned from Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania who have invested heavily in countering misinformation in their education systems - including at the primary school level, as Matthew d’Ancona specifies. The foundational strategy is to call for the evidence behind an assertion. As good maths and science teachers the world over say, “Show me your workings.” Even if you’re wrong, I’ll be able to understand your thinking.