The Perse School

Education in a ‘Post-Truth’ era

Education in a ‘Post-Truth’ era

The Oxford dictionary has declared ‘post truth’ to be its international word of the year. Defined as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” use of ‘post truth’ has increased by around 2000% in 2016.

Underpinning ‘post truth’ is the concept of ‘truthiness’ – things that feel true even though they are not. Examples include the Brexit claim that Britain’s membership of the EU costs the country £350 million per week (the actual figure is circa £160 million), and the assertion that Barack Obama was not a native born American citizen (Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii on 4 August 1961).

Whilst the EU referendum and American presidential election may have caused a spike in ‘post truth’ politics in 2016, making decisions based on emotions rather than facts is nothing new. The brain can ‘think’ emotionally via the limbic system and rationally through the prefrontal cortex.  In children where the prefrontal cortex is still developing, the limbic brain can be dominant with decisions being shaped by emotions rather than reason and fact.  It is for this reason that it can be difficult to ‘rationalise’ with an upset child.

Whilst the term ‘post truth’ may have been coined by the late Serbian – American playwright Steve Tesich in 1992, human history is unfortunately littered with ‘post truths’. From seventeenth century witch hunts to twentieth century Nazi propaganda there is a depressing list of leaders putting truth to one side and using emotional appeals to manipulate public opinion for their own purposes.  Emotional decision making is often flawed leading to bad politics and poor government.  It is for this reason that schools must give children the intellectual toolkits needed to deconstruct arguments and look for evidence behind claims.  The central question must always be “How do we know”?  The International Baccalaureate has a paper on the theory of knowledge that addresses this very question, but concepts of truth, reason, argument, evidence and bias run through all subjects and exam systems.  Such evaluation skills are more important than ever in a world where there has been an explosion in ‘facts’ and ‘knowledge’ generated by academic research and internet / social media sources.  Faced by so much information there is a danger that people either pick and choose the facts that reinforce existing views, or give up in the face of information saturation and allow the limbic system rather than the prefrontal cortex to shape their thinking.

Whilst ‘post truth’ politics may not be new, the 3.5 billion people who use the internet around the world may be exaggerating its effects. The algorithms that lie behind internet search engines can create ‘filter bubbles’ in which users are fed stories similar to those they have previously liked.  Thus in the Brexit campaign, ‘leavers’ tended to see more articles in favour of leaving, while those who wanted to ‘remain’ saw more articles in favour of remaining.  Existing viewpoints were reinforced, passions inflamed and opportunities for consensus reduced.  Increasing polarity is a challenge for democratic governments which require different parties / interest groups to compromise and find a middle ground for action. In a perfect world search engines would deliver a balanced range of articles covering a spectrum of reasonable and well-reasoned views.

Differences of opinion on what constitutes reasonable and well-reasoned views, concerns to protect the freedom of speech, and the money to be made from search engines all act to preserve the search engine status quo. As such it must fall to educators to ensure that children are exposed to a range of reasoned and reasonable viewpoints and also given the intellectual tools needed to evaluate the arguments that underpin them.  There is nothing new in this, as there is nothing new in ‘post truth’ politics, but in an increasingly uncertain world that faces some big challenges, good decision making skills at all stages in the political process from government ministers and party leaders to the general electorate are essential.


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