The academic roots of post-truth society

Saturday 28 October, 12:0013:00, Cinema 3Intellectual life

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It has almost become a cliché to note that we seem to be living in a new age of post-truth, or post-factual politics. Liberal critics and academics in particular blame right-wing politicians for disparaging the importance of evidence and expertise, and for stirring up emotions rather than appealing to rationality. Michael Gove’s much-derided experts bemoan that gullible readers swallow ‘alternative facts’ and that so-called ‘fake news’ spreads like wildfire on social media, even influencing the outcome of democratic elections. Nick Curtis in the Telegraph asks what hope there is for science in a world where ‘facts kowtow to personal belief’. The assumption seems to be that the public accepts the word of tabloid newspapers without question and without any recourse to evidence or reason.

But does the greatest threat to the idea of objective truth really come from the poorly educated masses? After all, arguably the origins of ‘post-truth’ thinking can be traced to the radical philosophers of postmodernism who have become a major influence in academic life over recent decades.

For centuries, great research universities, were considered to be the bastions of wisdom and truth, epitomised by the motto on the famous Harvard University coat of arms emblazoned with a single Latin word: ‘Veritas’. But influential theorists such as Lyotard, Foucault and Derrida repudiated the Enlightenment values of objectivity, rationality and universalism, claiming that these legitimise diverse forms of oppression in modern capitalist societies. If initially marginal, postmodernist theories have acquired mainstream respectability in many university departments, particularly in literary criticism and cultural studies.

Nowadays, these ideas have become influential beyond the ivory towers, and the claim that knowledge can be universal, objective and true is regularly derided as a kind of epistemological elitism, even moral authoritarianism. But is this conclusion true? And what does its widespread acceptance among the most educated sections of the public tell us about today’s society in general, and the role of academia in particular?