The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer


published March 2018

Are we living in a post-truth world?

Scientific American (cover)

In 2005 the American Dialect Society’s word of the year was “truthiness,” popularized by Stephen Colbert on his news show satire The Colbert Report, meaning “the truth we want to exist.” In 2016 the Oxford Dictionaries nominated as its word of the year “post-truth,” which it characterized as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In 2017 “fake news” increased in usage by 365 percent, earning the top spot on the “word of the year shortlist” of the Collins English Dictionary, which defined it as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.”

Are we living in a post-truth world of truthiness, fake news and alternative facts? Has all the progress we have made since the scientific revolution in understanding the world and ourselves been obliterated by a fusillade of social media postings and tweets? No. As Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker observes in his resplendent new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, 2018), “mendacity, truth-shading, conspiracy theories, extraordinary popular delusions, and the madness of crowds are as old as our species, but so is the conviction that some ideas are right and others are wrong.”

Even as pundits pronounced the end of veracity and politicians played loose with the truth, the competitive marketplace of ideas stepped up with a new tool of the Internet age: real-time fact-checking. As politicos spin-doctored reality in speeches, factcheckers at,, and rated them on their verisimilitude, with waggishly ranking statements as True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, and Pants on Fire. Political fact-checking has even become clickbait (runner-up for the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2014 word of the year), as PolitiFact’s editor Angie Drobnic Holan explained in a 2015 article: “Journalists regularly tell me their media organizations have started highlighting fact-checking in their reporting because so many people click on fact-checking stories after a debate or high-profile news event.”

Far from lurching backward, Pinker notes, today’s fact-checking ethic “would have served us well in earlier decades when false rumors regularly set off pogroms, riots, lynchings, and wars (including the Spanish-American War in 1898, the escalation of the Vietnam War in 1964, the Iraq invasion of 2003, and many others).” And contrary to our medieval ancestors, he says, “few influential people today believe in werewolves, unicorns, witches, alchemy, astrology, bloodletting, miasmas, animal sacrifice, the divine right of kings, or supernatural omens in rainbows and eclipses.”

Ours is called the Age of Science for a reason, and that reason is reason itself, which in recent decades has come under fire by cognitive psychologists and behavioral economists who assert that humans are irrational by nature and by postmodernists who aver that reason is a hegemonic weapon of patriarchal oppression. Balderdash! Call it “factiness,” the quality of seeming to be factual when it is not. All such declarations are self-refuting, inasmuch as “if humans were incapable of rationality, we could never have discovered the ways in which they were irrational, because we would have no benchmark of rationality against which to assess human judgment, and no way to carry out the assessment,” Pinker explains. “The human brain is capable of reason, given the right circumstances; the problem is to identify those circumstances and put them more firmly in place.”

Despite the backfire effect, in which people double down on their core beliefs when confronted with contrary facts to reduce cognitive dissonance, an “affective tipping point” may be reached when the counterevidence is overwhelming and especially when the contrary belief becomes accepted by others in one’s tribe. This process is helped along by “debiasing” programs in which people are introduced to the numerous cognitive biases that plague our species, such as the confirmation bias and the availability heuristic, and the many ways not to argue: appeals to authority, circular reasoning, ad hominem and especially ad Hitlerem. Teaching students to think critically about issues by having them discuss and debate all sides, especially articulating their own and another’s position is essential, as is asking, “What would it take for you to change your mind?” This is an effective thinking tool employed by Portland State University philosopher Peter Boghossian.

“However long it takes,” Pinker concludes, “we must not let the existence of cognitive and emotional biases or the spasms of irrationality in the political arena discourage us from the Enlightenment ideal of relentlessly pursuing reason and truth.” That’s a fact.

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9 Comments to “Factiness”

  1. Liam McDaid Says:

    Teaching fallacies of argument are being attacked now as useless. Below is a link to an article from NESS about it:

    I disagree (I use them in class), but it’s nice to see debates about using fallacies.

  2. Dr. Patrick Buick Says:

    I live a universe were the tendencies of minimum energy and maximum entropy determine the causes of all changes. And change never stops.
    So relax. Enlightenment Now has caused me to think better; thank you, Steven Pinker.

  3. ACW Says:

    Pinker: ;And contrary to our medieval ancestors, he says, “few influential people today believe in werewolves, unicorns, witches, alchemy, astrology, bloodletting, miasmas, animal sacrifice, the divine right of kings, or supernatural omens in rainbows and eclipses.”’
    True, perhaps, of the developed world. But in the developing and Third and Fourth worlds – including, e.g., China, India, several African and South American nations that we would now count among ‘modern’ nations, as well as regions where older tribal traditions still prevail and education and technology have made limited inroads – these superstitions are still very much alive. The Chinese are exterminating species at a fast clip to feed their appetite for ‘traditional medicine’; Trevor Noah, in his memoir ‘Born a Crime’, includes the story of the sad fate of two black kittens his family adopted, which were tortured, killed and mutilated by neighbours who believed they were witches’ familiars. Similarly, the papers all carried the recent story of a rare tiger who was similarly killed by Indonesian villagers convinced it was a ‘shapeshifter’.
    Not that the so-called developed world is much better. Is there really that much difference between the Chinese tycoon who believes ingesting powdered rhino horn will enhance his sexual potency, and the American trophy hunter who believes shooting a lion will somehow enhance his (in both cases, questionable) masculinity?
    Note that Pinker references George Mackay’s 19th C. classic ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’. Few people, I think, read beyond the famous chapters on the tulipmania. But just as the economic irrational exuberance described there is still with us (dotcom and subprime boom/busts most recently), other chapters describe phenomena that have current parallels — lionization of criminals and scoundrels, the sudden spread and equally sudden disappearance of popular catchphrases (we now call them memes).
    When Pinker says ‘few influential people’ believe in the phenomena he lists, he means ‘no one in my circle’. He needs to get out more, as I can find any number of educated, successful people who subscribe to one or more of those beliefs.
    I recently read Pinker’s book, and I agree with some of his points, but I think he’s far too optimistic and dangerously overconfident. At the height of the Roman empire, one author’s treatise on farming advised not to cultivate marshlands, to avoid contracting disease spread by mosquito bites. This wasn’t an artifact of modern translation, either; at least some of the ancients understood some form of the germ theory of disease. Then the pagan empires fell, Christianity came in, and we spent more than a millennium with priests dancing around malaria victims with rosaries and holy water, trying to scare the demons out of them. Progress is neither inevitable nor necessarily permanent. We can go backward. We have done. We may yet.

  4. Tzindaro Says:

    Superstition is not confined to the Third World. In fact, it is growing worse in many modern countries today.

  5. Bob Pease Says:

    The article is an Anti- Catholic rave.

    It contains more logical errors than the “superstition ” it is supposed to be addressing

  6. Barbara Harwood Says:

    Truth can be very slippery and hard to pin down. Much of what we were taught as children has been proven wrong. If we analyze the advertising that we see and hear every day, we will see that it cannot all be true. The latest new fact about some items that we have been told are good for us may be refuted ay the next report. .
    Then you come to statistics. They can be twisted to say anything you may want them to say. Fires don’t lie, but liars figure.
    Even in the sacred area of science, people will hold on to beliefs that they have worked with for a life time because they represent their entire life’s work. What a person believes does not affect the truth in any way.

  7. Russell Willmoth Says:

    “few influential people today believe in werewolves, unicorns, witches, alchemy, astrology, bloodletting, miasmas, animal sacrifice, the divine right of kings, or supernatural omens in rainbows and eclipses.” Pinker.

    The above may be true, but the number of our leaders who believe in various supernatural powers in the form of a panoply of gods and the power of prayer is almost as high as ever.

  8. Jack Feldman Says:

    I’ve noticed that a lot of the skepticism of this site is focussed on religion and other kinds of beliefs in the supernatural. OK, fine, even if it has a self-congratulatory tone and can be equated with shooting fish in a barrel.
    How about being skeptical of environmentalism? Gun control? “Social justice?” Net neutrality? Social psychology, which is belatedly becoming self-critical?
    You might start here:
    Try something that might require a little courage for a change.

  9. ACW Says:

    Jack Feldman, you equate ‘courage’ with simple gainsaying.

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