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The Truth About Post-Truth Truthiness

Is post-truth the political subordination of reality? Is truth itself any more under threat today that in the past? Have the populists & postmodernists won the day? In response to Dr. Lee McIntyre’s essay, Dr. Michael Shermer asserts that people are not nearly as gullible as some believe.

Words embody ideas, and their changing usage and meaning are tracked by lexicographers in dictionaries, which therein become barometers of cultural trends. In 2006, for example, the American Dialect Society and Merriam-Webster’s both chose as their word of the year the neologism “truthiness”, introduced by the comedian Stephen Colbert on the premiere episode of his satirical mock news show The Colbert Report (on which I appeared twice1), meaning “the truth we want to exist.”2 It was a prescient comedic bit as a decade later three examples of truthiness entered our lexicon.

After Donald Trump’s Presidential inauguration on January 20, 2017, his special counselor Kellyanne Conway concocted the term “alternative facts” during a Meet the Press interview while defending White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s inaccurate statement about the size of the crowd that day. “Our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts to that [the inaugural crowd size], but the point remains that….” at which time NBC correspondent Chuck Todd cut her off: “Wait a minute. Alternative facts? … Alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”3 German linguists deemed it the “un-word of the year” (Unwort des Jahres) for 2017. Later that year the related term “fake news” became common parlance, leaping in usage 365 percent and landing it on the “word of the year shortlist” of Collins Dictionary, which defined it as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.”4

Such words (or un-words) are often invoked as evidence that we are living in a “post-truth” era brought on by Donald Trump (according to liberals) or by postmodernism (according to conservatives). Are we living in a post-truth world of truthiness, fake news, and alternative facts? Have the populists and postmodernists won the day? Is all the political, economic, and social progress we have achieved over the past several centuries in reversal—the abolition of slavery and torture, the decline of homicide, crime, and violence, the cessation of the European Great Powers wars, and the expansion of the moral sphere to include civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, worker’s rights, and gay rights for more people in more places more of the time? Are we lurching backwards to the Middle Ages when bigots lighted faggots to torch women as witches?

Skeptic 24.3 (cover)

No. The Fall 2019 cover story of Skeptic by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, “Why We Are Not Living in a Post-Truth Era,” explains why, starting with this question: Is the statement “We are living in a post-truth era”…true? If it is, then it isn’t! That is, if you argue that the statement is true then you are making an argument, which means you are committed to determining whether the statement is true or false, which means we have not passed into a post-truth world. Similarly, is the statement “humans are irrational” rational? If it is, then it can’t be because, as Pinker asks rhetorically, “If humans were truly irrational, who specified the benchmark of rationality against which humans don’t measure up?”5 As Pinker reflected in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, “Mendacity, truth-shading, conspiracy theories, extraordinary popular delusions, and the madness of crowds are as old as our species, but so is the conviction that some ideas are right and others are wrong.”6

In this issue of Skeptic the philosopher Lee McIntyre, author of the book Post-Truth,7 challenges Pinker, starting with a definition of post-truth as the “political subordination of reality,” which he ascertains to be “a tactic in the authoritarian toolbox.” McIntyre’s definition is much narrower than the way Pinker and I use the term, confining it as he does to political propaganda, which he says “is not meant to convince you, but to show you who’s boss.” The message, he says, referencing Jason Stanley’s book How Propaganda Works8, is “I am so powerful that I can dominate your reality, and there is nothing you can do about it.” To reinforce the political nature of post-truth, McIntyre also invokes Tim Snyder’s observation in his 2017 book On Tyranny that “post-truth is pre-fascism,”9 along with Hannah Arendt’s observation that “the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”10

Post-truth as political propaganda is certainly one use (or misuse) of truth that neither Pinker nor I discount, but McIntyre then accuses Pinker (and others) of merely knocking down one or more of four post-truth straw men: (1) that truth doesn’t matter, (2) that no one really cares about truth anymore, (3) that no one can find the truth, and (4) that if we were actually living in a post-truth era, we should just give up. Instead, to steel-man the problem McIntye asserts that “the claim that we live in a post-truth era is properly based on the idea that truth today is under threat.”

Is it? There certainly are people who, pace Hannah Arendt, cannot seem to distinguish between fact and fiction, true and false, and this shortcoming can lead not only to fascism or communism, but also to Holocaust denial, evolution denial, climate denial, vaccine denial, GMO denial, and more. But is it really that people cannot discern reality, or is it that they are motivated to spin the facts to support some other agenda? Holocaust deniers are anti-Semites. Evolution deniers are religious fundamentalists. Climate deniers mistrust big government. Vaccine deniers distrust big Pharma. GMO deniers detest Monsanto. It isn’t the truth about the facts under dispute, but an underlying motive. Consider an interview reprinted in McIntyre’s book, which he presents as a type specimen of post-truth, in which CNN’s Alisyn Camerota engages the former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich on crime rates. The exchange is revealing:11

Camerota: Violent crime is down. The economy is ticking up.

Gingrich: It is not down in the biggest cities.

Camerota: Violent crime, murder rate is down. It is down.

Gingrich: Then how come it’s up in Chicago and up in Baltimore and up in Washington?

Camerota: There are pockets where certainly we are not tackling murder.

Gingrich: Your national capital, your third biggest city…

Camerota: But violent crime across the country is down.

Gingrich: The average American, I will bet you this morning, does not think crime is down, does not think they are safer.

Camerota: But it is. We are safer and it is down.

Gingrich: No, that’s just your view.

Camerota: It is a fact. These are the national FBI facts.

Gingrich: But what I said is also a fact. … The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics that theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are. People are frightened.

Camerota: But what you’re saying is, but hold on Mr. Speaker because you’re saying liberals use these numbers, they use this sort of magic math. These are the FBI statistics. They’re not a liberal organization. They’re a crime-fighting organization.

Gingrich: No, but what I said is equally true. People feel more threatened.

Camerota: Feel it, yes. They feel it, but the facts don’t support it.

Gingrich: As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and let you go with the theoreticians.

As I read it, this isn’t an example of the post-truth equivalent of, as McIntyre describes it, a “chilling exchange in the basement of the Ministry of Love in the pages of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.” Camerota and Gingrich are simply talking about two different matters: crime rates and peoples’ perceptions about crime rates. The difference represents a cognitive illusion due to the availability bias, in which one assesses a problem based on the most immediate and salient available example, usually from the evening news that features individual crimes, especially homicides. Camerota is a journalist focusing on the long-term decline of crime, whereas Gingrich is a politician trying to garner support by appealing to peoples’ fears about crime, citing the equally true statistics about recent upticks in crime in a handful of U.S. cities, most notably Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., which Camerota acknowledges. Both facts are true, so this is not an example of recent post-truthiness but of good old-fashioned spin-doctoring, which has been around at least since the 1940s, when George Orwell noted: “Political language— and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”12 The problem can be traced back even further, as when Edmund Burke commented on the language surrounding the French Revolution:

The whole compass of the language is tried to find sinonimies [synonyms] and circumlocutions for massacres and murder. Things are never called by their common names. Massacre is sometimes called agitation, sometimes effervescence, sometimes excess; sometimes too continued an exercise of a revolutionary power.13

McIntyre says that the purpose of post-truth “is political, not epistemological,” but is not the former subsumed in the latter? It’s all epistemological, inasmuch as everything turns on what constitutes reliable knowledge, and that is a very old problem indeed.

Even the concept of post-truth is not new. The Oxford Dictionaries has tracked its use back to 1992, the year we founded Skeptic magazine, the early years of which were devoted to the “science wars,” which were fought over the nature of truth and whether or not science was the royal road to it. Many thought not, coming to believe that there is no objective reality to be discovered and no belief, idea, hypothesis, or theory that is closer to the truth than any other. In his 1996 Skeptic article “More Higher Superstitions,” Norman Levitt (coauthor of the book Higher Superstition14) describes the problem in language that could have been written in 2019:

Science studies…overlaps what is nowadays called cultural studies, a tendency that has effaced traditional scholarship in a number of areas, and it has absorbed many of the radically relativistic attitudes that predominate in postmodern cultural anthropology. The central doctrine of science studies is that science is “socially constructed” in a way that disallows traditional notions of scientific validity and objectivity. On this view, scientific theories are merely narratives peculiar to this culture and this point in its history. Their chief function is to create stories about the world consonant with dominant social and political values. Thus, they are no more “true,” or even more reliable, than the myths, legends, and just-so stories of other cultures. All are equally culture- specific.15

Post-truth claims were just as prominent in the 1990s as they are now, and no less criticized, even parodied. Recall that this was the decade of the wildly popular television series The X-Files, a conspiracy-laden mosh pit of aliens and UFOs, monsters and demons, mutants and shape-shifters, urban legends and government cover-ups, and all manner of paranormal piffle. So trendy was the show that The Simpsons caricatured it with an episode titled “The Springfield Files,” in which Homer has a close encounter of the third kind after downing ten bottles of beer. X-Files stars Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny (Scully and Mulder) guest star as investigators of the alien abduction, and Leonard Nimoy, host of the 1970’s more-or-less nonfiction version of The X-Files called In Search of…, voiced the introduction, announcing: “The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It’s all lies. But they’re entertaining lies, and in the end isn’t that the real truth? The answer is no.”

So post-truthiness is not new, but the availability bias dialed up to eleven through social media led the Oxford Dictionaries to name “post-truth” as its word of the year in 2016 after it documented a 2000 percent spike in usage over the previous year, characterizing it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” As the dictionaries’ editor Casper Grathwohl noted: “We first saw the frequency really spike this year in June with buzz over the Brexit vote and again in July when Donald Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination. Given that usage of the term hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time.”16 Even the veteran CBS anchorman and 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley succumbed to the temptation to think we’re living in a post-truth era. On the final day of 2019, reflecting on the message of his new book Truth Worth Telling, summed up what has happened to truth in the decade of the 2010s:

This is the thing that worries me the most about our beloved country. We have gone from the information age to the disinformation age. I think our viewers and our readers now have a responsibility that they’ve never had before, and that is that they have to be careful about how they choose their information diet. This is going to be a problem for the rest of our history, in particular for democracies.17

Not only is post-truthiness not new, but the response to challenges to objective knowledge are as robust today as in the past, if not more so, having moved far beyond the pages of niche magazines like Skeptic and Scientific American, which defend science, reason, empiricism, and fact checking, and is now routinely addressed in national news magazines and newspapers. Despite President Trump’s constant reference to the “failing New York Times” in his Twitter feed,18 for example, the circulation of the Grey Lady has skyrocketed since Trump was elected. In the 4th quarter of 2018 alone, for example, the New York Times added 265,000 digital subscriptions, turned a profit of $55.2 million, and saw its newsroom staff grow to 1,600 people, the largest number in its 167-year history.19

Today, as dictionaries track the upswing in post-truth language, and as political pundits pronounce the end of truth and with it the Republic (if you can keep it), the Internet of ideas has responded with tools to combat the illiberalism of unreason: real time fact-checking. As politicians engaged in the old-time art of spindoctoring the truth in speeches, fact-checkers at,,, and tallied their errors and lies, the latter cheekily ranking statements as True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, and Pants on Fire. As PolitiFact’s editor Angie Holan explained: “journalists regularly tell me their media organizations have started highlighting fact-checking in their reporting because so many people click on fact-checking stories after a debate or high-profile news event.”20

Finally, the idea that post-truthiness could invade the brains of gullible citizens is gainsaid by new research by cognitive scientists that demonstrates that people are not nearly as gullible as we’ve been led to believe. A 2020 book by the cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier, Not Born Yesterday, presents a mountain of evidence “against the idea that humans are gullible, that they are ‘wired not to seek truth’ and ‘overly deferential to authority’, and that they ‘cower before uniform opinion’,” quoting Jason Brennan in his book Against Democracy. In fact, Mercier reveals through both laboratory research and real-world examples that “far from being gullible, we are endowed with a suite of cognitive mechanisms that evaluate what we hear or read.” And far from defaulting to believing everything we hear, Mercier notes that “by default we veer on the side of being resistant to new ideas. In the absence of the right cues, we reject messages that don’t fit with our preconceived views or preexisting plans. To persuade us otherwise takes long-established, carefully maintained trust, clearly demonstrated expertise, and sound arguments.”21

Mercier begins by showing why evolution could not have created animals that are so gullible as to be routinely exploited by others, as that would ultimately lead to reproductive failure and the extinction of extreme gullibility. The balance in communication between belief and skepticism led to an evolutionary arms-race between deception and deception detection, along with cognitive mechanisms “that help us decide how much weight to put on what we hear or read.” Mass persuasion, for example, is extremely difficult to pull off, and most attempts at it fail miserably, because when scaled up from two-person communication to large audiences, trust cues do not scale up accordingly. Most preachers, prophets, and demagogues fail, but because of the availability bias we only remember the biggest names in the genre, such as Jesus and Hitler. But even these examples fail upon further inspection. In his own time Jesus was a disappointment at starting a new religion (which might not have been his mission in any case), and even the apostle Paul barely got Christianity rolling. It wasn’t until the 4th century that Christianity began to number in the millions, which sounds impressive until we consider the power of compound interest, in which a small but steady growth can yield an enormous figure given enough time. Invest $1 at a constant yearly interest rate of 1% in the year 0, if the dividends are reinvested by the year 2020 the investment would be worth over $2.4 billion. Mercier cites statistics compiled by the sociologist of religion Rodney Stark, who estimates Christianity’s growth rate at 3.5% over the centuries. If each Christian only saves a few souls in a lifetime the religion could easily compile tens of millions in a matter of a few centuries, and over two billion by today. Perhaps this is why the dismal conversion rate of, for example, Mormon missionaries on their two-year missions, is not a concern for the church, as the success rate can be small if the process goes on long enough (coupled to high birth rates, of course, which most religions encourage).

As for Hitler, Mercier presents compelling evidence revealing that most Germans did not accept Nazi ideology, nor most of the planks in the regime platform, and even the anti-Semitism so famously on display in Hitler’s writings and speeches was only effective on Germans who were already anti-Semitic. The euthanasia of the handicapped in the 1930s was resisted by most Germans and got so much bad press that the Nazis made the program secret and issued orders to never speak of it, a policy carried through the Final Solution and the Holocaust, which was shrouded in secrecy and mostly carried out in Poland, far from the prying eyes of German citizens. Hitler’s anti-communism appealed to right-leaning Germans but was rejected among industrial workers. By 1942, most citizens did not believe the declarations of victory issued by the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, instead relying on secreted BBC reports of how the war was really going for Germany (not well). As the Nazi intelligence agency Sicherheitsdienst (SD) reported: “Our propaganda encounters rejection everywhere among the population because it is regarded as wrong and lying.”22

To the commonly asked question “How could so many highly educated, intelligent, and cultured Germans become Nazis?” the answer is: “Most didn’t.” The entire regime—not unlike the Soviet Union and North Korea—was held aloft on pluralistic ignorance, in which individual members of a group don’t believe something but believe that most others in the group believe it. When no one speaks up—or are prevented from speaking up through state-sponsored censorship or imprisonment—it produces a “spiral of silence” that can transmogrify into witch hunts, purges, pogroms, and repressive political regimes. This is why totalitarian and theocratic regimes restrict speech, press, trade, and travel, and why the route to breaking the bonds of such repressive governments and ideologies is free speech, free press, free trade, and accurate and trustworthy information.

In a wide-ranging conversation for my Science Salon podcast, I asked Mercier directly, “are we living in a post-truth era?” His answer was clear:

In many ways it’s better than it’s ever been, in that people are more informed than they used to be, and because of that they tend to be more consistent in their points of view. Fake news, for example, is a very marginalized phenomenon. Only a few percent of Twitter or Facebook users actually saw or spread fake news, and it doesn’t appear to effect those who see it. But everyone has heard of fake news, so on the whole I think the information environment is improving, slowly and perhaps not as much as we would like it to be, but I think things are better than they used to be. People still want accurate opinions and they care about the truth. Even people who support Trump—studies show when you show them that something about Trump is fake news they accept that, even while maintaining their support for Trump.

In one of my final Scientific American columns I coined my own neologism in the Colbert tradition: Factiness, or the quality of something seeming to be factual when it is not.23 But how do we know when something is factual and not factiness? We employ science and reason! There is progress in science and culture, and some ideas really are better than others. The post-Enlightenment ideal that beliefs should be tested in the laboratory and marketplace of ideas with the goal of generating objective and disinterested knowledge may seem Sisyphean, in that we are always in danger of backsliding into truthiness and factiness in which propaganda, superstition, and self-serving sophistry can slow our progress in pushing the boulder of knowledge up the mountain of ignorance, but that is precisely what we’ve been doing for millennia.

Per aspera ad astra—with difficulty to the stars. END

About the Author

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of the Science Salon Podcast, a regular contributor to, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His latest book is Giving the Devil His Due: Reflections of a Scientific Humanist. As a public intellectual he regularly contributes Opinion Editorials, book reviews, and essays to The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, Science, Nature, and other publications. He appeared on such shows as The Colbert Report, 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, and Larry King Live (but, proudly, never Jerry Springer!). He was a monthly columnist for Scientific American. His two TED talks, seen by millions, were voted in the top 100 of the more than 1000 TED talks. He holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University in the history of science.

  1. On August 21,2007: and on July 11, 2011:
  2. Colbert, Stephen. 2005. “The Word—Truthiness.” The Colbert Report,
  3. Interview with Kellyanne Conway. January 22, 2017. NBC Meet the Press.
  4. Definition of “fake news.” Collins Dictionary.
  5. Pinker, Steven. 2019. “Why We Are Not Living in a Post-Truth Era.” Skeptic, Vol. 24, No. 3.
  6. Pinker, Steven. 2018. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. New York: Viking, 375.
  7. McIntyre, Lee. 2018. Post-Truth. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  8. Stanley, Jason. 2015. How Propaganda Works. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  9. Snyder, Timothy. 2017. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York: Tim Duggan Books/Penguin Random House, 71.
  10. Arendt, Hannah. 1951/1994. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, 474.
  11. Quoted in: McIntyre, ibid., 3–4.
  12. Orwell, George. 1946. “Politics and the English Language.” Horizon, April.
  13. Burke, Edmund. 1790/1967. Reflections on the Revolution in France. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.
  14. Gross, Paul and Norman Levitt. 1996. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  15. Levitt, Norman. 1996. “More Higher Superstitions: Knowledge, Knowingness, and Reality.” Skeptic, Vol. 4, No. 4, 79.
  16. Editors. 2016. “’Post-truth’ declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. BBC News. November 16.
  17. Pelley, Scott. 2019. Inter view. Reliable Sources. CNN. December 31.
  18. For one example among hundreds see his tweet of October 3, 2018 at 4:53 a.m.: “The Failing New York Times did something I have never seen done before…”
  19. Associated Press. 2019. “New York Times subscriber numbers are skyrocketing in the Trump age.” MarketWatch. February 6.
  20. Quoted in: Glaisyer, Tom. 2016. “Cranking up the Truth- O-Meter: Giving a Boost to Truth in Politics.” Democracy Fund. January 13.
  21. Mercier, Hugo. 2020. Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 257, 270–271. Quotes from Brennan are in: Brennan, Jason. 2019. Against Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 8.
  22. Kershaw, Ian. 1983. “How Effective was Nazi Propaganda?” In D. Welch (Ed.), Nazi Propaganda: The Power and the Limitations (180–205). London: Croom Helm, 199.
  23. Shermer, Michael. 2018. “Factiness: Are we living in a post-truth world?” Scientific American, March.
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