Report on the Senior College Colloquium on Post-Truth

February 23, 2017, 2:00 -4:00 pm

Senior College Centre, Committee Room

Ten participants, including moderator Philip Sullivan and reporter Edna Hajnal.

Six readings were chosen by Philip Sullivan:
How Propaganda in Post-Truth Age Can Endanger Democracy.  Review of How Propaganda Works, by Jason Stanley.  Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani, New York Times International Weekly, Jan. 7-8, 2017

William Davies, The Age of Post-Truth Politics..  New York Times, Aug. 24, 2016
Nicholas Kristof, Lessons from the Media’s Failures.  New York Times International
Weekly, Jan. 7-8, 2017

Farhad Manjoo, Truth Is a Victim in the Internet Age.  New York Times International
, Nov. 12-13, 2016

Yes, I’d Lie to You; Post-truth Politics, The Economist, September 10, 2016

David Frum, How to Build an Autocracy, The Atlantic March, 2017

Five questions for discussion were selected by Philip Sullivan:

  1. Given that certain sections of the press have a long history of misrepresenting the state of affairs by, among other things, focusing on bad news as well as periodically publishing rumours and falsehoods, why is the internet age any different?
  1. Given the slow demise of print journalism, are there aspects of the psychology of news presentation on TV and the internet that contribute to the problem?
  1. It has been suggested that much of recent public discourse has been influenced by postmodernism, which denies of discredits the concept of objective truth. What do you think?
  1. “The media revolution has dealt blow to traditional journalism.” Toronto Star, 4 February 2017. If this is the case, are we losing an important source of high quality investigative journalism characteristic of the better newspapers?

  1. Given the flood of material instantly available on the internet, do we need to develop other reliable sources of information such as asking universities to provide assessments (as suggested by the Toronto Star article).

The shift in perception was discussed. People tend to believe in a perception that fits in with the existing one, and interpret it differently than a neighbour; for example, the Japanese film “Rashomon” in which the same story is recalled and told differently by different people. The internet and other social media show various points of view so a dominant view point, an authoritative statement, is not there. The Centre for Investigative Reporting and Intercept, two non-profits that publish only an article that needs to be published. It was noted younger people get their news from the internet, television (you believe what you see with your own eyes), and the water cooler, not newspapers. This is a qualitative shift.

 During the recent U.S. pre-election campaigns Trump referred to President Obama as the founder of ISIS, and Hilary Clinton’s poor health. Another rumor referred to the pornographic ring supported by Hilary Clinton in a southern pizza parlour. One participant noted, however, that politicians have always wiggled out of their previous statements.

The increasing rise of authoritarianism in Europe, England and the United States was noted. One of the greatest aids to democracy is the decline of trust in institutions and the rule of law. Institutions have traditionally provided checks and balances.  A number of churches traditionally reinforced this trust.   But this trust has declined, with increasing distrust in experts.  Added to this is the phenomenon of media reluctance to report good news.

How accurate are polls? In the U.S. they were right about popular vote, but not about the Electoral College. The site Realclearpolitics tells you what the opinion polls say.

The question was asked, What is truth? Is there an objective truth? Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “’What is truth?’said jesting Pilate , and did not stay for the answer.”   Is there objective truth? Notion of truth in science. Truth and objectivity are not the same and should not be conflated. How do we distinguish truth? Do institutions compel us to question objective truth; for   example climate change?

The increasing use of electronic media by governments to store and disseminate their documents, and the decreasing ability of citizens to access them was discussed, with examples. An example is the change in the pattern of government information such as the destruction of print information when no digital version exists. A partial remedy is that scientists publicize data when governments no longer make it available.

Should we be educating our grandchildren to be credible, critical thinkers? How do we do it? We need other reliable sources of information; for example, universities. Teachers play a critical role, and it is important to improve the education of teachers, especially in mathematics, and to strengthen school libraries. Librarians, too, have a critical role.