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Vox - August 2018

The president of the United States is a serial liar.

In May, the Washington Post created a tally of Trump’s false or misleading claims. The number they found was 3,001, which averages out to roughly six lies or half-lies each day in office. That number has climbed to nine per day in recent months.

For some, this is a sign that we’re living in a “post-truth” world — a place where shared, objective standards for truth have disappeared. Trump seems to pay no political price for his lying, and the news cycle is dominated by references to “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Some of this panic is overstated, but some of it feels justified.

So what the hell is going on? Does the phrase “post-truth” make any sense? Has something really changed?

To get some answers, I reached out to Simon Blackburn, a philosophy professor at Cambridge University and the author of On Truth. We talked about what’s misleading about the phrase “post-truth,” and why the real problem may stem from a lack of trust.

Sean Illing

How did we get to this place where the American president is able to lie so shamelessly and so casually without any tangible political consequences?

Simon Blackburn

That’s a very good question, and I wish I knew the answer. For most of my adult life, I lived in what was sometimes called the postwar consensus. There were decent ways of doing politics. There were people who might veer toward free markets, and others who might veer a slightly different way, toward state interventions and subsidies, and so on. But basically, there was a general consensus about baseline facts, and disagreements were rooted in those facts.

Things have changed, though, and people often use the metaphor of a silo. We live in information silos now. The individual is insulated from outside forces and surrounded by people who think and believe the same things he or she thinks and believes. There’s no doubt that Facebook and other social media have played a huge role in that.

There’s always been selection of news — people basically read what they want to hear and gloss over things they don’t want to hear. I don’t think that’s a new phenomenon. But it has become easier to do this, and the insidious power of things like Facebook and Twitter exaggerates it.

Sean Illing

Is the phrase “post-truth” useful? Does it capture something unique about this moment?

Simon Blackburn

I think there are legitimate concerns out there, which I sympathize with, but I don’t think this phrase pinpoints them accurately. The message of my book is that you cannot be post-truth.

You know perfectly well that if you go out in the street and there’s a bus bearing down on you, it’s very important that you believe that there’s a bus bearing down on you. If you’re wrong about that, you could be dead. Your whole life is premised on things like that.

In that sense, we can never really be post-truth.

What we do have, though, is a problem in other domains, like politics and religion and ethics. There is a loss of authority in these areas, meaning there’s no certain or agreed-upon way of getting at the truth.

This is a very old problem in philosophy that goes all the way back to Plato, so it’s not exactly new — although it’s interesting that it’s come to the fore again in the way that it has. ...
Read full interview at Vox