Since June 2015 the BBC has been interviewing supporters of the Republican presidential-elect Donald Trump as the apolitical businessman with a loose commitment to Republican values became the potential next President of the United States of America. Many Republican voters told BBC interviewers that Donald Trump appealed to them for 'saying it how it is'. Trump appeals because he does not abide by political correctness; he says what is on his mind without fear of reprisal. Related to this, other supporters value Trump's background in business, not in politics. They believe that this gives him independence and the freedom from keeping closely to the party rhetoric. Trump is not a member of the political elite, nor is he involved in 'the establishment', making his appeals to 'make America great again' refreshing and genuine to voters.
The factors for the popularity of Donald Trump suggest something worrying about the status and importance of truth in more fields than just politics. The voters the BBC mentions value Trump for 'saying it how it is'. They believe that the official statistics, the establishment views and so on do not match reality. When Trump talks about Mexican criminals, rapists and drug dealers crossing the border into the South, Islamic extremism that is rampant across the states, or the machinations of the Chinese state, it all chimes true for his voters.
Public perception is an important indicator for many people and institutions. Politicians use the public's opinion to judge what they can and cannot say in public; think tanks monitor clamour for various potential policies; opinion pollsters use public opinion to make reports. Public mood has impressive and long-lasting effects on the popularity of things from products on the market to government policies.
But public perceptions can also be extraordinarily unreliable. Several surveys and investigations have proved that many Britons' beliefs about political and social aspects of life are wildly off the mark. A 2013 phone survey suggested that Britons greatly overestimate the number of immigrants and welfare claimants in the country. A particularly interesting overestimation concerned the number of teenage pregnancies, thought to be twenty-five times' the correct number. A 2014 survey suggested that citizens from an array of countries, including Great Britain, France, the United States, Australia and Italy, greatly overestimate the number of Muslims living in their countries - in Great Britain alone, the polled Britons believed that 20% of the country's population are followers of Islam, four times the correct figure.
Many Americans put a lot of weight behind conspiracy theories, many of which have been widely dismissed by experts. A 2013 poll suggested that 28% of those polled believed in the secretive existence of a elite organisation bent on world domination. The allegation that Barack Obama is not an American citizen and is in possession of a bogus birth certificate has taken many forms, all of which have been debunked repeatedly, yet many voters, including the Republican front-runner, continue to believe that their current leader is a Kenyan who illegally resides in the White House.
I don't think the importance of truth, facts, logic and evidence can ever be exaggerated in relation to debate, arguments, politics and the like. It would therefore be easy of me to wrap things up now by making a case for more fact-checking and better education in order to promote better discourses and conversations to help us progress. However, the situation is far more complex. I have read more than once that we are living in a post-truth world; a world where misinformation can distort our understanding of important events in seconds; a world where, to adapt the observation mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain, a lie can get halfway round the world before truth has finished tying its shoelaces.
Only days ago Trump wondered aloud, without any proof, that the Muslim mother of a fallen American soldier had not been permitted to speak at the 2016 Democrat convention by her husband. When the soldier's parents condemned his ignorance, he told Fox News that the Clinton campaign had paid for the couple to criticise him on stage. He has suggested that the forthcoming election will be rigged. It seems likely that if he loses in the end, there will be no end of intimations - all of them with no evidence at all - that foul play was afoot.
Many people such as myself are concerned not just by the dearth of facts in Trump's rhetoric, but by the wilful desire not to bother doing any work. Facts are boring today. People don't want to spend their time in libraries and archives gathering evidence to construct answers or suggestions for the future; people want to read exciting things, hear outrageous things and know that their leaders are going to do something about them. If people cared about the absence of evidence and reasoning in the kinds of things that Trump has proposed over the past few months, he would never have become the nominee. But Trump is now in a position to be voted into the White House. Truth is boring and unnecessary to success.
If this is the post-truth era, we should be scared of it. If the post-truth era is upon us, we are living in a world where paranoia is the new rationality and where ignorance brings fame and attention. It is a world where intellectuals and research are cast aside and the capacity to talk on the cheapest level is praised as courageous and honourable; a world where rational thinking and adherence to evidence is unfashionable.
It is no longer the case that truth's importance has been neglected; it now seems as though truth is an irrelevance. We should all be afraid of life in a post-truth era.
Adapted from a post from my own blog.
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