Wikibooks:ClareParlett/sandbox/Approaches to Knowledge/Seminar Group 10/Truth in Politics

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This is for the UCL BASc Approaches to Knowledge Course: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/basc/current/core/atk.

This page is for one team in Seminar 11 to work on their content for the UCL Wiki book for the end of the term and will be populated over the period 19/11/2018 - 17/12/2018.

It has been created by Clare Lewis who is the seminar leader. See https://www.ucl.ac.uk/basc/people/academic-staff/clare-lewis. Please do not delete this page.

Contents:

Introduction[edit]

People often hear the word 'post-truth' with politics to describe a situation where statements by politicians lack actual links to evidence, facts, and truths. The Oxford Dictionaries web pages define 'post-truth' as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion that appeals to emotion and personal belief." and as their usage was at its peak, the Oxford Dictionaries decided 'post-truth' as the word of the year in 2016.[1] Hence, as Newt Gingrich suggested, it is possible to preselect any available data to come up with the desired conclusion and what people feel about the truth is more significant than the actual facts[2].

The word democracy is originated from Greek words ‘demos’ and ‘kratia’. Often, ‘kratia’ connotes power and ‘demos’ means people. Thus, democracy signifies ‘rule by the people’ yet ‘demos’ also has the meaning of ‘mob’ which illustrates that politics can be led by the majority of ignorant people[3]. Therefore, the rule of ignorance and  'post-truth' in politics is perhaps inevitable and the factual truth in other disciplines can be interpreted based on the political belief.

Climate change: scientific and political truth[edit]

What this man says becomes the political truth

It is inevitable that there is a certain correlation with the rise of Donald Trump, now the President of the United State, and the usage of the word ‘post-truth’ in politics. He argued that scientists are not free from confirmation bias and they have 'political agenda' when they are providing truths[4]. Arguably, there does however exist objective truths about global warming. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who is assessing climate change from a purely scientific perspective, concluded that the temperature of the Earth is going to increase 3C and confirmed that it is related to human interactions[5]. However, political truths are different. Trump believes the temperature could well go back and, thus, he would not spend trillions of dollars for combating global warming. Although he hasn't provided objective evidence to explain his belief, the validity of his claims is irrelevant. The CBS poll suggested that just few strong Trump supporters trust the mainstream media, whereas majority of them believe Trump[6]. Therefore, for Trump, what he believes becomes political truth and it is accepted as truth, at least to his supporters who determines actions in politics. Consequently, Trump could pass the $2.8bn budget cuts on Environmental Protection Agency(EPA)[7] and withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement. This indicates that in recent politics the scientific truth is less likely to correspond to public view of truth and political truths may eliminate any other truths in climate change such as human geography in order to obtain desired conclusions.

Truth in law and political truth[edit]

Brett Kavanaugh, now the Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court , was being accused of sexual misconduct that was claimed to happen in the early 1980s. During his appointment process, the allegation was debated hastily, nonetheless, more so in relation to whether he should be confirmed as the Supreme Court Justice regardless of the truth in law[8]. People who opposed the appointment argued that even if the nominee denied the allegation and the time is limited for the Senate vote, the appointment should not continue until thorough FBI investigation begin. On the other hand, Republicans advocate of Kavanaugh said he is entitled and well qualified for the role anyway[9] and the investigation might be biased. Therefore he should be appointed since a long vacancy for the Supreme Court Justice would cause problems and it should follow the presumption of innocence.

The 'rule of law' indicates that the law must be implied the same regardless of whom[10] and, thereafter, there should be a rigorous investigation to find out the truth. Yet, it is uncertain whether this rule and presumption of innocence are applied when it is defining a political truth. In addition, it suggests that the truth in law can alter when the case is loaded with political questions in order to favor certain political belief.

Ways of Knowing in Politics[edit]

Ways of Knowing (WOKs) are traits which knowers can possess through which the knowers obtain and manipulate knowledge. The most essential WOKs in politics are reason, language, and increasingly emotion. Locke argues that:"The freedom then of man and liberty of acting according to his own will, is grounded on his having reason, which is able to instruct him in that law he is to govern himself by, and make him to know how far he is left to the freedom of his own will" (p. 45). In other words, reason and rationality enable citizens to establish a just political regime through democracy, and without it, the electoral process is bound to be flawed. Emotion on the other hand, has been portrayed as a detrimental force that must be controlled, if not extirpated was largely at play, a conception that dominated the classic Greek period and remains influential in modern psychology – emotion undermines our capacity to reason. Despite this, and the tendency of classical economists to assume human rationality, studies in psychology points towards the opposite, namely that intense emotions can undermine a person’s capacity for rational decision-making. According to phycologist John M. Grohol, this is what dragged the US into both the Vietnam - and Iraque war. Hence emotion as a WOK has been predominant in politics long before the post-truth era, illustrating the impossibility of a truth without emotion in politics, leading to the logical deduction that a democracy where the electorate is perfectly informed is indeed also impossible. This would assume accuracy of the classical approach which denounces emotion completely, however there are arguably examples where emotion benefits political decision. The inevitability of emotion arguably reaches a more profound political truth in relation to the refugee crisis – there is more emotion than reason involved in the belief that getting involved is the right thing to do. Truth is obscured by emotion, however, when demagogues with a political aim manipulate national emotions such as anger or fear in. Knowledge in history shows this pattern over time, and it would seem history is repeating itself in Western democracies, once again giving rise to extremist political views and leaders showing autocratic tendencies. Hence, when emotion prevents truth, this has ramifications beyond the borders of politics, on society as a whole – most notable the level of democracy, but also the economy which according to economic theory might experience news market failures in response to the rise of fake news. ‘Fake news’ which has come to characterize the post-truth era illustrates the fine yet essential line between honesty and truth in the role of politicians. Although several different truths can exist depending on the political point of view of an individual, citizens must ask of its government that despite bias, they remain honest. Honesty includes the element of intention and deciding whether a claim is honest or not (assuming perfect information of the intention of an individual) is thereby in many ways less ambiguous than deciding whether a claim is true. Psychology and history inform of the inevitability of emotion in political decisions, and despite philosophical views of the Greeks on emotion, democracies have managed to thrive and survive. Under those imperfect circumstances, there can never be one political truth – individual truth will depend on world perception of the individual, and collective truth has changed through history/over time always - yet there can be honesty. Citizens have a basic right to information in a democracy and the level of factual truth provided will determine the political structure, as well as the economy, and the knowledge produced across multiple disciplines.


Knowledge is defined by Plato as a justified true belief. Statistics is often used as a means of evidence disciplines across arts and sciences, including politics, to justify a belief in order to make sure that it is in fact true. Some individuals provide hope for the use of statistics in the search for truth, most famously Hans Rosling who wholeheartedly believes Mark Twain’s quote: “Lies, damn lies, and statistics” to be inaccurate, and instead argues, that statistics highlight widely held misconceptions – “statistics tell us if the things we think are actually truth”, he says. Nevertheless, statistics related to health, particularly lifestyle and diet, consistently denotes the opposite, namely ambiguity and conflicting conclusions which can lead to confusion and even mistrust. In a study, 37% Americans agrees with the statement that “research about the health effects of what people eat and drink cannot really be trusted because so many studies conflict with each other.” Hence, we might ask ourselves if statistics always gets us closer to the one truth even within scientific disciplines where we would expect it to, or whether in practical due to the issue of casual claims, collective statistical illiteracy, and economic aims of food – and pharmaceutical industries, the use of statistics in other disciplines beyond politics, is flawed in justifying a truth. Although truth is definitely easier to achieve in statistics – after all, numbers never lie - when applied to the practice of politics and other disciplines, with the purpose of providing evidence of a claim, even the indubitable becomes ambivalent. Statistical data do not allow for lies so much as semantic manipulation: numbers drive the misuse of words.


Conclusion[edit]

In the post-truth era, politics transformed truth and scientific facts into a controversial topic whereas it shouldn't be one; because it can't be changed or interpreted, it is solely based on facts. The factual truth not only changed in politics but also in other disciplines. Politicians used people's psychologies and connected to them through their emotions. It became easier for leaders, with technology improving, to operate with their own facts by triggering emotions in people which undermine the capacity to reason. It made them believe 'truths' that they would not believe if they were being reasonable. The issue of truth in politics is displayed in various disciplines. For instance in filmmaking, HyperNormalisation a documentary by Adam Curtis, is a contemplation on life in the post-truth era and the title describes life, when people understood the insanity of propaganda from the government but had difficulty foreseeing an alternative. Curtis narrates in a voiceover how Trump realized that "in the face of that, you could play with reality" and in the process "further undermine and weaken the old forms of power." According to conspiracy theorist, Renee DiResta, the internet no more reflects the exclusive truth it shapes the entire reality that operates with its own facts. Politicians and many leaders utilize facts in a way that change their meanings and manipulate people into believing in the new truth they present them. They use language to manipulate people's thoughts and decisions. George Orwell wrote that, "political chaos is connected with the decay of language." which states that language creates a gap between leader's real goals and declared aims. President Trump uses language to spread his own truths and creates a disoriented public. Therefore politicians adapted everyday language to control how people communicate. The lack of reasoning, the utilization of language and emotion are called Ways of Knowing, which are ways that knowers obtain and manipulate knowledge. As a result, politicians use these traits to distort the truth in science, such as climate change, and in law.

  1. McComiskey, Bruce. "Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition." In Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition, Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2017, p1-50
  2. Forbes, Ethan Sigel, 'Newt Gingrich Exemplifies Just How Unscientific America Is', 5/08/16. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2016/08/05/newt-gingrich-exemplifies-just-how-unscientific-america-is/#3376ba425e47
  3. Jonathan Wolff, An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2006, p67
  4. BBC, 'Trump: Climate change scientists have 'political agenda'', 2018/10/15, Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-45859325
  5. Zedillo Ponce de León, & Zedillo Ponce de León. Global warming : Looking beyond Kyoto / Ernesto Zedillo, editor. (UPCC book collections on Project MUSE). New Haven, Conn. : Washington, D.C.: Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University ; Brookings Institution Press.(2008), p15-17
  6. CBS News, Anthony Salvanto, Jennifer De Pinto, Kabir Khanna and Fred Backus, Trump backers stand by president in face of Russia criticism — CBS poll, 29/07/2018, Available from: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-backers-stand-by-president-in-face-of-russia-criticism-cbs-poll/
  7. Independent, Mythili Sampathkumar, 'Donald Trump's budget proposal includes major cuts to environmental programmes', 2018/02/12. Available from:https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/donald-trump-congress-federal-skinny-budget-environmental-protection-agency-cuts-a8207556.html
  8. The Washington Post, Sally Kohn, 'Kavanaugh isn’t entitled to a Supreme Court seat, just as men aren’t entitled to sex', 2018/09/24, Available from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/09/24/kavanaugh-isnt-entitled-supreme-court-seat-just-like-men-arent-entitled-sex/?utm_term=.d9d9b0388327
  9. ABC news, Meridith McGraw, 'At Las Vegas rally for Republican candidate, Trump says Kavanaugh 'is going to be just fine', 2018/09/21, Available from: https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/las-vegas-rally-heller-trump-kavanaugh-fine/story?id=57979527
  10. Tamanaha BZ. Classical origins. On the Rule of Law: History, Politics, Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2004. p. 7–14.