When I interviewed Marcus du Sautoy for my Confessions podcast, the mathematician explained to me the initial attraction he felt towards maths as a young man. He was, he confessed, an “insecure” teenager – “spotty” and “nerdy”. And he was drawn to the “security” that mathematics seemed to promise – the compelling idea that these numbers spoke for themselves, that he didn’t have to argue for the truth that mathematics held out. The truth was just there, in the proof, in the symbols.
That discussion has been rattling around in my head over the past few weeks. And, in particular, the idea that there exists such a thing as truth that is so entirely self-evident that it ‘speaks for itself’. This idea about truth, it seems to me, is connected with the political maelstrom in which we now find ourselves. There’s a reason ‘Post-truth’ was chosen, in 2016, by the Oxford Dictionaries as their ‘Word of the year’ – the year of the Brexit referendum, the year of Trump’s victory in America.
The idea of truth has always had a powerful political valence. The promise it holds out is a little like the promise of monotheism – that the truth is singular and, therefore, is something that all human beings should rally around. Just as Du Sautoy’s mathematics is without agro, so too the truth itself promises a kind of peace between people, something around which we can all unite. It suggests a common and indisputable reference point, everyone singing from the same hymn sheet.
For a secular society, the self-evident truth of mathematics comes to be seen as a bit like the idea of the one holy Catholic church, only better (because true!). And those who are persuaded by this dream of truth-based politics are driven by a sort of utopianism, that we might negotiate our place in the world – do politics – without agro. Like the teenage du Sautoy.
However, the coming together of those who claim some unique access to truth and political power has a long and not especially distinguished history. Plato imagined the existence of philosopher-kings. That philosophers (like him), with their special attention to truth, are best suited to captain the ‘ship of state’.
Likewise, the Catholic church, in the person of the Pope, aligned religious truth and temporal power, claiming to base the latter on the former. And in our present age, it is the high priests of STEM who are credited with particular access to truth, and thus the best people to steer the political ship. Hence evidence-based policy, technocratic politics and the way scientists increasing feed into our decision making process. This is society as ‘rationally ordered’.
The rise of post-truth liberalism
One of the most disturbing features of all of these different ways of linking truth and politics is the way they conceive of dissent. For what happens when truth and political power marry up is that those who dissent are – by definition – either stupid (because they don’t understand the truth) or liars (because they wilfully oppose it). There is no room for intelligent opposition – you can have your own opinions but you can’t have your own facts, as they often say. In other words, when truth and politics line up, any opposition is morally objectionable.
One way of thinking about post-truth is that, with Trump and Brexit, a new breed of political liars has emerged. This strikes me as unlikely. It is surely the case that politicians have always lied, stretched the truth, spun things to their advantage. “Everybody lies”, says Dr Gregory House. And in 2017, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz published a fascinating book of the same name, using internet data to reveal how much of a gap there exists between what we say about ourselves and what we do online when we think no one is looking.
Of course, it goes without saying that liars are to be condemned. And both Trump and the advocates of Brexit have lied about all sorts of things. As, have their opponents. Everybody lies. But post-truth, as I understand it, is not so much a crisis of political liars, so much as a collapse of faith in the (most recent version of the) alignment of truth and the political. And so, the way I see it, post-truth is to be celebrated not condemned.
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To be clear, I am not against truth. Not at all. How could one be? But I am highly suspicious of the claim to know something we might call the Truth, with a capital T. Big ‘T’ truth is universal truth, like God or maths (Du Sautoy thinks God and maths almost amount to the same thing). Big ‘T’ truth is the language that the universe speaks, as it were. Little ‘t’ truth, is everyday truth, “Paris is the capital of France”, “I am 53 years old”, “Barak Obama was born in the USA”. Little ‘t’ truth is tremendously important. Big ‘T’ truth is dangerous – and especially when Truth and politics are claimed to form some sort of harmonious combination.
For me, that is a recipe for fascism. Popper in his Open Society and its Enemies, charges Plato with totalitarianism and a hatred of democracy; being a philosopher, Plato knows the truth and the plebs do not. A similar change could be rightly made against the church. But the latest inheritors of the politics-as-truth tradition still do not recognise this as a picture of themselves.
Post-truth is a good thing because what has collapsed (again) is not a belief in truth, but a belief in Truth. What has disappeared is the claim that philosophers or priests or experts have some sort of unique access to it along with the idea that us plebs should just bow before them and shut up.
If you don't 'get' statistics it's just as bad as not 'getting' Shakespeare
This essay began with du Sautoy and his belief that the truth of mathematics promised a way of bypassing the confusing complexity of being a teenager. Those who bemoan post-truth politics are dealing with the realisation that there is no way of Truth bypassing the confusing complexity of the political. The political – the contest of competing and clashing human aspirations – is ineradicable. And it always means agro.
That is not to say that there isn’t still an issue with liars. The reformation was made possible because of a new communication technology: the printing press. And Guttenburg’s new invention spewed out all sorts of exaggerated claims and wild conspiracy theories. But it also challenged those who claimed a monopoly of power on the basis of their special access to Truth.
This new reformation is also powered by a similar invention in information technology: the internet. And it too makes possible the dissemination of lies and bullshit. But to see only this misses the bigger picture. The new reformation also brings down those who have become too comfortable with their unique access to Truth. It challenges the priesthood and the priesthood don’t like it. It is not just post-truth (which remains a problem) – but also post-Truth. And hurrah for that.