Consensus in a Post-Truth World

What Happens When We Don’t Examine Our Opinions?

Imagine you’re in the Louvre with your crew. The six of you have fought your way through the politely manic Japanese photographers, and you are all staring at the Mona Lisa. Do you all see the same thing? This question has perplexed philosophers for a very long time.

I used to think it didn’t matter much. The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose prose style made many graduate students weep bitter tears, tells us that all we have of the world is how we experience it. If there is some Absolute Reality behind what we perceive, we can never know it. (He thought the unknowable Absolute was there, somewhere. He called it ‘the thing in itself or ding an sich in German.’ (Love those catchy Teutonic phrases.)

Not the Same, But Good Enough. Until It Isn't.

But I used to agree with the equally great philosopher Chuck Berry, who said what we have is ‘good enough for rock-and-roll’. We have what could be called shared subjectivity, and it has allowed us to act in concert, cooperate, and build a very complex civilization without losing much sleep over whether we all see things in the world around us the same way. That Mona Lisa smile seems to register with most viewers such that we can all express our collective admiration over wine and oysters on the Montmartre afterward — good enough for rock and roll.

But, what happens when this shared inter-subjectivity starts to fray around the edges when we try to achieve political consensus?  What I am thinking about is this post-truth business. The logician in me bristles at the premise, because of course, if the statement ‘we live in a post-truth world’ is true, it falsifies itself. But let’s grant that this is a logical quibble, and there is something amiss in the way we go at building consensus concerning verifiable facts.

Science Changes, But We Resist

This consensus atrophy appears to be a socio/political problem. I see no evidence that the science and technology juggernaut is wasting any time worrying about the validity of its facts. That world has a ‘praxis’. By this, I mean a tried and true methodology that works. Scientists happily or grudgingly discard failed theories, and progress marches on.

But the rigorous methodologies of science, validated by the most telling arguments of all — that they work and bring forth wonders — don’t seem to travel well outside their own sphere. Most of us do not live in the blessed garden of testable hypotheses. We live in the overgrown jungle of opinion, made ever more luxuriant by that potent fertilizer, social media. And our machetes can barely cut through the undergrowth.

Opinions are not hypotheses. At least most of us don’t treat them nearly as tentatively as a theorist does a premise that he or she knows will be put through the wringer by peers.  We love our opinions. We clutch them to our bosom as the very fabric of who we are — for what is Man but a walking, talking bundle of views? Given that we can now confirm via social media virtually anything we believe, including the flatness of the earth, our fondness for our own opinions has never been easier to reinforce.

Unexamined Lives

Why, outside the world of science, has consensus about facts seemingly become so elusive? I plan to dedicate several pieces to this problem and offer some prescriptions. I start with a modest preamble.

Most of us do not learn a praxis for examining what we believe. Philosophy and, in particular, logic was the discipline that taught us how to question what we think. But who has time for that fluff anymore — we’ve got careers to train for. The other way some of us acquired greater circumspection about our beliefs was through debating. Unless we attended an elite private school, joined a university club, or trained to become a lawyer, most of us have never learned how to debate an issue properly. This lack of debate training is a massive failure in public education. It is hard to overstate the benefits that come with learning to debate under a system of formal rules. It is not just that you learn how to string coherent points together and marshall them in the most persuasive way. It is not just that you are taught how to listen because you can’t challenge what you don’t hear. Perhaps the most useful discipline of all is that you are made to defend positions you do not personally hold. There is nothing like defending a point of view you don’t believe in to give you a broader sense of the rationalizations we make when we opine. It can make you much more careful about expressing what you think and why you think it. 

However, I am a realist. Most of us are not going to sit down and learn the 32 most common fallacies of relevance. We will not triumphantly tell our neighbor that his global warming argument lacks negative disprovability —  and is no proof of anything. We will not become statistically sophisticated and quote the principles of Bayesian inference with our friends over tea.   While it is a fine thing to know that the man up on charges for the murder of his parents who appeals for mercy because he is an orphan is committing a fallacy of relevance called argumentum misericordiam – most of us don’t give a damn.

Create a World, Not Worth Living?

But unfortunately, this lack of a praxis that helps us run our opinions through a testing process is becoming a real problem with severe real-world implications for consensus building. Can this problem be fixed? 

That, my friends, is the question for next time.