The Sunday Magazine

How "post-truth" entered the political mainstream

Lee McIntyre of Boston and Harvard Universities discusses why appeals to emotion and personal belief can be more powerful than objective facts and science.
Author Lee McIntyre says post-truth did not begin with Brexit or Donald Trump, it began with science deniers (Matt Brown/Flickr)

There is a difference between post-truth and plain old lying, says professor and author Lee McIntyre: "I see post-truth as a little bit darker in motive. It's manipulation for a political purpose that has less to do with convincing someone and more to do with ruling that person."

His new book, titled simply Post-Truth, outlines the history of both the term and the trend. In 2016, there was a 2,000 per cent spike in the use of the term "post-truth," both in Britain – during that country's referendum on the European Union – and again during the U.S. presidential campaign. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary announced that "post-truth "became "Word of the Year."

Lee McIntyre is the author of Post-Truth. (Supplied by Lee McIntyre)

Post-truth is not a recent phenomenon. McIntyre traces it back to science denial in the 1950s. As scientists were on the verge of arriving at a consensus over the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, tobacco companies saw a looming disaster that would have a profound effect on their bottom lines.

They hired public relations experts to convince the public there was no conclusive link between smoking and cancer. Their campaign was successful for the following 30 or 40 years, sowing seeds of confusion and doubt about the science around tobacco. In one memo they reminded themselves "that doubt was their product as much as cigarettes were" says McIntyre.

He says the same anti-science tactics were emulated in subsequent decades: in denying the existence of environmental concerns such as acid rain, the ozone hole and climate change; in refuting the theory of evolution; and in anti-vaccine campaigns.

 "I think that science denial was so successful that folks on the right began to notice: 'You know what, we can use this for all facts and reality, we don't just have to use this to doubt truths in science.'"- Lee McIntyre

McIntyre says there is a trajectory for people who choose to live in a post-truth world. They may start with ignorance of the issues at hand. Then they may hear some misinformation through the media.

"Then they move to a stage that I call willful ignorance, where maybe they know that there's more information here, but it suits their politics or their ideology to be on the 'wrong side' of it, so that's what they believe. Then they end up at the final stage, being a denialist," says McIntyre. "If somebody really, really wants to believe something, there are powerful cognitive forces, cognitive biases, that will help them to believe that."

He adds that people are more likely to believe something that is patently untrue, if they see that others believe it.  This happened over the discussion of crowd sizes at U.S. President Donald Trump's inauguration.

"Anybody looking at the pictures can tell which one has more people in it, but people will deny facts right in front of their face, based on social pressure," says McIntyre.

A combination of photos taken at the National Mall shows the crowds attending the inauguration ceremonies to swear in U.S. President Donald Trump at 12:01pm (L) on January 20, 2017 and President Barack Obama sometime between 12:07pm and 12:26pm on January 20, 2009, in Washington, U.S., REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (L), Stelios Varias/File Photo - RC1AF02E0C10

In this wide-ranging conversation, McIntyre discusses the role of the media, as they are attacked for disseminating "fake news."

He also offers advice about how to discuss differences with people in a post-truth world, whether facing a science denier or a politician like Donald Trump who openly lies.

A lie must always be confronted, he says, because there are always people listening to it, and it is important for them to hear the truth.

"We need a commitment to the idea that truth matters," says McIntyre.

Lee McIntyre is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University.  He also teaches Ethics at Harvard University.  He spoke with Michael from the Harvard studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Listen to the full interview at the top of the page.