by Cassady Thompson
In an era of unsubstantiated news and alternative facts, author Lee McIntyre asserts we are living in a “post-truth” world.
During a recent lecture sponsored by the University of West Georgia’s College of Arts and Humanities, McIntyre, who wrote “Post-Truth,” defined the term and share his trace of its development.
In 2006, McIntyre published a book titled “Dark Ages: The Case for a Science of Human Behavior.” Based on his perspective, most of society’s ills - such as war, crime and poverty - stem from a lack of understanding of the root causes of human action. He wrote that a better understanding would ease those situations. To do this, all people needed was respect for facts, truth and evidence within natural sciences.
According to McIntyre, not long after he penned that book, the world changed tremendously. So, in 2013, he decided to write another volume on the topic.
“Science, and by that I mean natural science, was under attack,” McIntyre said during his lecture at UWG. “People were not only refusing to engage in empirical inquiries on some scientific questions, they were refusing to believe certain scientific truths - even when the evidence was right in front of their faces - on topics like evolution by natural selection, climate change, vaccines. Maybe people felt free to challenge the conclusions with nothing more than opinion or ideology. If they didn’t like a scientific result, they felt completely free to substitute their own ill-informed judgments for that of experts.”
In late 2015, McIntyre followed with “Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age,” which centered around the problem of how society has arrived at a place where distortion of proved scientific findings often occurs.
“The answer I discovered is that there’s a slippery slope that leads from outright ignorance to something that I call willful ignorance - which is when you probably know the answer, but it’s in your best interest to pretend that you don’t - straight on to denialism,” McIntyre said. “Denialism is when someone is so in the grip of ideology they can’t imagine there’s any other answer than what they believe on the basis of their opinion, even when the evidence is right in front of them.”
After publishing the last book, McIntyre went on the road to talk about scientific topics like climate change. During this time, he watched in awe as the presidential race grew more divisive and the world continued to change.
“A number of the tactics of science denialism had metastasized to a much more widespread disrespect for facts and truth in general, so I was losing ground,” McIntyre said. “I was first defending social science, then I was defending natural science. Now, all of the sudden, truth and facts were under assault.”
Even after his realizations, the conclusions from his book still were applicable but became relevant to a wider range of topics than solely scientific genres. McIntyre thought members of the public could change the tide, prompting him to write his latest book.
In “Post-Truth,” McIntyre breaks down the forces that have been eroding respect for
truth over time and which have led to an era where much is questioned. He said he
feels people can counter that tide.
“If we can understand these forces, we will see that the same forces involved in science denial have engulfed all of empirical reality,” McIntyre said. “By looking back at them, I think that we cannot only understand post-truth, but learn how to fight back.”
McIntyre is a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and an instructor in ethics at Harvard Extension School. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Michigan.