Published Date: Jan 8, 2017
Earthly Matters: Living in a post-truth world
Are you still in shock with the way 2016 turned out? Can’t wrap your head around Trump’s election win and the vote for Brexit? Well, with 45,000 followers on Twitter, Dr Adil Najam is a well-known academic and intellectual who says that we now live in a “post-truth” world where the old rules just don’t apply anymore. Dr Najam, who was educated at both MIT and Harvard University, is considered a leading authority on global climate change negotiations. Having recently served as vice chancellor of the Lahore University of Management Sciences, and currently residing in the US, his expertise is often called upon by governments, think tanks and the media. Currently dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, he gave an interesting talk in Islamabad this month on what it means to be “Living in a Post-Truth Society.” Organised by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), the discussion focused on the rise of the new global leadership, defined by populism, authoritarianism and ultra nationalism. Take Putin in Russia, Xi in China or Erdogan in Turkey — they are all popular, strong men who are ruling with an iron fist. And now Donald Trump has been added to this strange mix.
According to Dr Najam, “post-truth” is actually a new word that has now been included in the Oxford University. It means: “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotional and personal belief.” Gauged from internet use, “post-truth” is actually the most popular word of the year 2016.
In the new world we need to discern between truth and lies using our own judgement
In Dr Najam’s view, “post-truth does not equal fake news or misinformation or lying or propaganda or exaggeration … it thrives in an overdose of information and lets you choose your own echo chamber of nonsense.” He calls it “an assault on analytical information.” Take climate change for example; from 1991 to 2012 there have been around 13,950 peer-reviewed articles on climate change and only 24 have rejected the notion of global warming. “In scientific terms this type of certainty is unusual — still the public perception, especially in the US, is that global warming is questionable.” This is what one can call a “post-truth” impact on science — making people doubt climate change.
Think-tanks and other academic institutions involved in the process of verification have been sidelined. Dr Najam describes it as the “fracturing of trust… your tools are no longer useful … and as trust erodes, verification erodes.” In Pakistan, most news programmes are viewed as infotainment and not watched for verified news. News anchors with “chirryas” on the side can give whatever news or information they want and not give sources or any sort of verification. In the US, you have Fox News spouting all sorts of unverified nonsense. Hence worldwide the media is no longer an institution of verification that it once was when journalists were committed to uncovering the truth. Dr Najam says that when invited as a guest in TV talk shows, he often makes an effort to “become as un-expert as possible.” Donald Trump in fact realised that trust in institutions had eroded to such an extent that people are no longer willing to believe them so his attacks on these institutions were successful.
“Post-truth does not equal fake news or misinformation or lying or propaganda or exaggeration … it thrives in an over dose of information and lets you choose your own echo chamber of nonsense.”
“The play on fear is also important for survival in a post-truth society,” explained Dr Najam. Fear is used to get reasonable people to ignore reasonable references. For example, the fear of weapons of mass destruction was used to convince the public in order to invade Iraq, essentially for oil. In the aftermath of globalisation, there has also been the rise of ultra nationalism along with the distrust in institutions. “By ignoring falsehoods and repeating them we create a post-truth society,” says Dr Najam. All over the world, it seems that people are becoming used to intellectual impoverishment. According to him, it is the responsibility of the media and academia to make sure this trend is reversed. “Our collective failure is creating an entire generation who does not rely on the process of verification.” In the old days people would go to libraries, look up edited books and do proper research but now in the digital age with so much information instantly available (and not all of it accurate) the system has crumbled. Information has changed because of this and we need new tools to sift out what is right or not. Think-tanks and academics have to pursue this with “humility and fervour”, otherwise the alternative is the dumbing down of society with scary repercussions.
Dr Najam’s presentation concluded with a question and answer session in which some important points were raised about the “bombardment of information” and the “speed of information vs the speed of knowledge” in today’s society. Technology is certainly a double-edged sword and Dr Najam agrees that “post-truthism” has been enabled by technology and that there has been an “information overload.” He concluded that we can no longer abdicate responsibility and it is up to institutions such as the media and academia to insist on the process of verification and to ensure that knowledge is not tainted.