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Baggini’s Consolations for a Post-Truth World

Interview by Hugh D. Reynolds.

One of the problems we face is not the absence of truth, but its overabundance.’

Julian Baggini has done more than most to drag philosophy out into the public domain. Working beyond the academy, he engages audiences other thinkers find hard to reach. Having trained in the analytic tradition (with a PhD in the philosophy of personal identity), he co-founded The Philosophers’ Magazine, and has since become one of Britain’s leading public intellectuals. His books’ subtitles suggest how he delivers serious ideas to the general reader: What Does it Mean to be You? A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. The Ultimate Philosophy Quiz Book. A Journey into the English Mind. The Possibility of Free Will. How to Eat and Think. Philosophy Behind the Headlines. From Minor Moans to Principled Protests… The subtitle of his latest work A Short History of Truth (Quercus 2017) promises Consolations for a Post-Truth World. But to what extent can philosophy save us from false news? And should it carry some of the blame for maneuvering us into this fine mess in the first place? In this candid interview, he discusses varieties of truth, changing intellectual attitudes (including his own) and how careful attention – rather than argument – may be what really matters in philosophy.

3:AM: A Short History of Truth, should help us endure the apparent crisis of truth. You write: ‘If there is a crisis of truth in the world today, the root of the problem is not the inadequacy of philosophical theories of truth.’ Yet, you suggest philosophers aren’t entirely blameless in that crisis, how so?

JB: To a certain extent all philosophers have been involved in a systematic questioning that undermines confidence and certainty. Philosophy as a whole unleashed skeptical forces which, outside of the tightly controlled environment of a rigorous philosophical debate, led a lot of people to throw their hands up in despair and think ‘what’s the point?’. A lot of the public perception of philosophy is that it leaves you with no answers, and more confused than you were at the beginning.

More specifically, there have been a number of philosophers – perhaps more in continental Europe than in Britain – who have reveled in the dismantling of truth. I think they did so with good ethical motives, and for good philosophical reasons. I can see the sense in what they were talking about; the idea that, as a matter of fact, truth is often claimed by elites in order to further certain agendas. They crowd-out alternative perspectives – particularly those of the powerless. But the undermining of truth contributed – in the weird, indirect way that philosophy contributes to the culture – to a rejection of the idea of truth as having any kind of proper meaning at all.

I think a lot of these people, Foucault for instance, would have been horrified that Trump has emerged as a person taking advantage of this skepticism. But that is what happened. It’s a wake-up call.

3:AM: So there’s no direct connection between the philosophical community and the wider populus?

JB: I don’t think there is ever a direct connection. The connections are extremely complicated – that’s always the way with philosophy. I’m very aware of this because I’ve been working on a book on ideas in global philosophy – in the classical traditions – and you always find some kind of relation between the dominant philosophies in a culture and the folk philosophy – the way people think – but it’s not a straight-down dissemination. It’s partly bottom-up. Thinkers are the products of the cultures they grew-up in. They aspire to thinking purely objectively and universally, but they are often reflecting ways of thought that are embedded in a culture.

3:AM: The book is structured in terms of different brands of truth – encouraging a more nuanced understanding of truth. Are you combatting the misappropriation of those skeptical ideas?

JB: I thought the one thing that wouldn’t be useful in addressing the issue would be to give people sketches of the dominant competing theories of truth. I didn’t think that was where the problem was. By the time I’d finished the first draft I realized what I was really saying was: more than having the right theory, it’s important to have the right attitudes towards truth.

This is exactly what Bernard Williams said in his Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy (Princeton 2002). There are these virtues of truth, which he identified as sincerity and accuracy. Williams’ view was: if you begin with a sincere desire to arrive at the truth and you are as scrupulous as possible about trying to get your facts straight, then you have a basis for arriving at a more truthful conception of the world. I think that’s right – and I’d broaden it out a bit to include other virtues (e.g. skepticism, rather than cynicism).

3:AM: In the first chapter, Eternal truths, you write: ‘One of the problems we face is not the absence of truth, but its overabundance.’ You make a case for maintaining divergence into two streams of truth: revealed, religious truths, and those more grounded in science. I can see that this is a pragmatic, perhaps vital split to reduce conflict, but isn’t it permitting a kind of truth bypass?

JB: There are lots of very sophisticated religious believers who make religion out to be a kind of primitive science – and it really isn’t. They’ll talk about Stephen J. Gould and the two Non-Overlapping Magisteria (see his Rock of Ages (Random House 1999)). I think that they are prescriptively right and descriptively wrong.

A lot of religious belief – even the majority – involves making factual claims about the world which do come into conflict with science and history. For Christians, a test of this is the Empty Tomb. I ask Christians: ‘are you saying that it does not matter – as a matter of fact – whether or not Christ’s tomb was empty and that he was resurrected?’ At that point, I find that, to a lot of them, it really does matter, despite all the fine talk about not wanting to confuse science and history with religion.

Having said that, it is the right door to push against. There are believers who are already there or half the way there. Rather than say ‘let’s forget about religion – let’s get rid of it’ – I think we should try and force people to walk the talk: to take more seriously the idea that, whatever religious truth is, it’s not the same thing as science and history. People find that easy to say, and difficult to do.

[All images: Neo Rauch]

3:AM: In discussing Authoritative truths you urge: ‘Don’t think by yourself but do think for yourself.’You point out the risks of error in ‘daring to think’. Has it become more difficult to be audacious in thought? Does it require more intellectual courage these days?

JB: It has become both more difficult and easier to think for yourself. It’s become easier because it’s become fetishized as what we must do: ‘Think for yourself; you’re entitled to your own opinion’. It’s become very easy to do it badly and quickly.

It’s more difficult to do it in a way which appreciates our own limits and bears in mind the need to draw on other people. This is a fundamental tension in any kind of conception of philosophy which puts value on the individual thinking for themselves. You can see why it is quite attractive – even coherent in lots of ways – to favour a view in which you just accept that some people have insight which you don’t.

There’s always a kind of arrogance. I did an editorial for the Philosopher’s Magazine many years ago about this, where I was saying: people seem very arrogant when they say ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’, but actually – in practice we all believe we’re right. I mean we don’t believe anything we believe to be right to be false, by definition!

We have a staggering arrogance in our own belief. That can be tempered by not being 100% certain; by being provisional. No matter what the debate is, very few people have the modesty to suspend judgement on a whole range of things; most intelligent people have an opinion and are expected to have an opinion by other people – but it always requires making a personal judgement that goes way-beyond your expertise. We do it all the time.

It would be good if we were encouraged to have fewer opinions. To be more willing to say ‘I just don’t know’. Sure, sometimes you have to come down one way or another for practical matters – but being aware that that’s the case is enough.

For example, let’s say I want to take a view about whether I need to lose weight or not. There’s conflicting advice on this. I can suspend judgement – but that would be burying my head in the sand. I come to a judgement based on my very imperfect knowledge of the science. I have to do that – but it doesn’t mean that, in doing so, I have the right answer. I just think: ‘it’s the way it seems; it’s the best judgement I can make; it could be wrong. Fingers crossed!’

3:AM: That’s an issue close to my heart – and belly. I’ve become both skeptical and cynical about features in the press on what not to eat. This crops-up in your chapter on Esoteric truths, you say: ‘We need to row back on our cynicism without in any way decreasing our skepticism.’ So, how should we recalibrate our skeptical faculties? What tips can you give from your own practice?

JB: I am very Aristotelian in approach – not in detail – so I always find I’m saying things that get people frustrated like ‘It’s a matter of balance and judgement’. To a lot of philosophers these are terrible words because they’re admitting of vagueness and uncertainty. The more I’ve done philosophy, the more I’ve become convinced that that is the way it is.

3:AM: Is it useful to apply your philosophical training in these circumstances? Should the public go off and read techniques in The Philosopher’s Toolkit to help them make their life decisions – or are there more general strategies to nurture skepticism?

JB: Again, I think attitudes are key. The Philosopher’s Toolkit [written with Peter S. Fosl] (Wiley Blackwell 2003) was a textbook, but I also wrote a more popular book – now entitled in in the UK: Do they think you’re stupid? (Granta 2010) – that gives one hundred critical thinking tools. Over the years though, I’ve become more skeptical about the value of learning these tools by themselves. I’ve come across too many people for whom the thinking tool is a nice bit of kit which they’re keen to show-off and use rather than apply appropriately…

3:AM: …a kind of epistemic grandstanding, something like that?…

JB: … yeah; instead of a proper skepticism, they’re just looking for the fallacy they can identify in order to skewer the position. That can lead you astray.

I remember a professional philosopher at the time of the scandal around a study purporting to show a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The editor of The Lancet had said, had he known about the funding of this paper, he would never have published it. The philosopher turned around and said something like: ‘Aha, we know what this is: genetic fallacy! The origins of this information is irrelevant to its validity’. Well that’s fine – but you’ve got to think: ‘these doctors aren’t stupid, what we know from psychology is that when there is a vested interest in research it can distort it’. That’s very important to know. It’s very easy to end up throwing these tools around just to score points – or to boast how smart you are.

I think the appropriate kind of skepticism is this: you’ve got to be asking questions all the time, you’ve also got to make sure that you’re doing so in the spirit of genuinely wanting to find the answers – and that also means being open. I battle with this: I know I tend to be very skeptical and as a result, I veer towards the dismissive. But being aware of the tendency, I like to challenge my own skepticism and make sure it’s not just knee-jerk.

You need to be skeptical towards yourself as well. When you’re only skeptical outwards you’ve got an unbalanced skepticism.

3:AM: When it comes to Reasoned truths, you worry that, rather than revealing logical relations between our assumptions, rationalism – getting behind mere appearance – can exaggerate them. ‘Reason works best in a blend’; you don’t like it pure. Are we equipped to make that blend though?

JB: Occasionally you read a book and think: ‘This nails something that’s been bothering me for a while’. This happened to me with Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber’s, The Enigma of Reason (Harvard 2017).

They made a point which seems to me exactly right: we really prize logic, but logic works precisely by stripping away all extraneous detail to get to the logical part of the structure of the argument. But that process of stripping away is removing, from the actual phenomenon being discussed, complexity, ambiguity, nuance… and a lot of these things are really important to understanding the phenomenon. When you try to translate any kind of real-life problem into a neat logical form, you’re almost always simplifying it. We need a kind of blend – we need to use not just tools of logic (which are important and valuable – I’m not denying that) but also tools of judgement, and of inductive and abductive reasoning which can also inform.

Are we equipped to make the blend? Well there’s lots of evidence we’re not very good at thinking full stop. And I think that’s kind of true. On the other hand, we’re not that bad – we’ve done quite well – certainly science has done well. Science, of its nature, likes to find tractable problems – and many philosophical problems aren’t so tractable.

To me it is part of the perennial spirit of philosophy to recognize that we are only doing our best. We are always groping about in the dark whilst trying to make things as clear as we can. I think it’s important to acknowledge that; not so as to give up, but so as to appreciate the fact.

Many of the great philosophers came to very different conclusions. That tells you something about the limits of human reason. It’s not just that 80% are stupid and the other 20% are smart, it’s that being really smart is a multifaceted thing. It’s not just about having one tool called reason, and applying it. It’s about having many tools of reason and applying them.

Some people are better at applying certain tools over others. Certain tools are more appropriate to some situations than others. We’ve got to appreciate that it’s very unlikely that we’re all going to agree on a right approach and a right answer.

3:AM: Though you mentioned him quite early in our conversation today, I was surprised you managed to get to page 65 of the book before naming Trump. There’s a helpful distinction you make between ‘creating a truth’ and ‘being creative with the truth’. If some of the truths Trump wants to create come to pass; will history look more favorably on his creativity with the truth?

JB: Talking about creating truth tends to alarm people, because truth is meant to be ‘just out there’. It doesn’t take much thinking to appreciate that we sometimes change truths on the ground – sometimes just by words. A new law will change what is possible. I think – perhaps because the paradigm we follow tends to be scientific, and all about discovery –the creative element of truth is one upon which we don’t focus so much attention. This is particularly so in anglophone philosophy, perhaps because we associate it too much with those ‘pernicious’ continental trends.

In the case of Trump I think you’ve got to accept that a lot of what’s going on in political discourse is based upon judgement. How the economy works – how people work – what will come to pass – what will not come to pass – what is possible – what is not possible. There is this whole modal dimension. There’s a lot in politics that is making a judgement about what might be and can be and would be.

Trump frightens a lot of people, he frightens me, but there is a bizarre possible world in which it turns out as he’s vindicated, though most of us think the evidence is against it.

What’s the best way to deal with a country like North Korea? Well, the logic: ‘be tough and unpredictable and write mad tweets in the middle of the night’, does not strike most of us as being sensible. If the end of this story is the collapse of the North Korean regime in a way that does not lead to disaster in the peninsular – then some of us may have to turn around and say, on that one, Trump was right.

A lot of the time we build our political commitments on the basis of what is possible – and yet, we don’t really know what will happen. We have to bear in mind the extent to which all these political programmes are attempts to create different realities, new realities. They’re not just about describing the ones that are there.

3:AM: But these agendas aren’t always advertised as such. Rather than being open about an ambition, the message is often stated as eternal truth.

JB: That’s true, but there can be sense to that. If I’m a CEO and I say, ‘Misogyny will not be tolerated’, that’s a more powerful statement than ‘It is my sincere hope and our intention to eradicate misogyny from this company’. Sometimes saying things in that more categorical form, has a real function. Although, if you dig beneath it, it is actually one of J.L. Austin’s illocutionary acts; you’re trying to make something happen rather than describing something already happened. The fact that it has the grammatical form of a description is fine.

3:AM: In your chapter on Relative truths, you write: ‘If what is true for me is not true for you then either one of us is wrong, or both of us have only one hand on the truth and need each other’s help to see the whole of it.’ Are you suggesting there’s a dialogic or deliberative aspect to truth seeking?

JB: Again, Mercier and Sperber write about this: the image of reason that we’ve inherited is a distorted one that comes from the image of the Great Philosopher. It’s not uniquely Western but it’s particularly evident in Western culture.

We talk about Confucianism [or Ruism] coming from China, but in China it’s called Rujia [a family or school of thought]; not named after a person at all. Confucius himself was trying to preserve the knowledge of the ancients. The background assumption about philosophy in China is one about tradition, and not individuals. Particular individuals are recognized, Confucius, Mencius, all these people, but it’s not really about them.

We have this thing about the individual intellect working alone and privately, but actually, there’s a huge collaborative aspect to philosophy. The tradition of the research seminar, where people sit and pick-apart each other’s papers; peer review; discussion. It is a collaborative exercise. I think the main problem is, it’s a collaborative exercise with too narrow a range of collaborators, and I think that we need to reach out – not just beyond our disciplines, but beyond our own cultures. That’s something I’ve been lately converted to, because there is a kind of arrogance to thinking there aren’t resources there. There need to be more broadening.

This is going to sound like an advert for myself, but I made a career out of this sort of thing. I don’t believe I’m in any way a great original thinker, but a lot of the time, I am trying to synthesize and bring things together. Bringing these things together outside the narrow academic silo. Whether I do that well or not, I think it’s a hugely important task. Academic structures don’t reward that.

3:AM: You are an independent philosopher, independent of institutions, but are you still dependent on that ecology?

JB: Yes, definitely. I’m not one of these people who is sour about academia. I’m very happy not to be in academia, very lucky not to be in academia, but I am an absolute parasite. While I was writing this book on comparative philosophy I was drawing on some fantastic scholars – university based people. The academy is absolutely necessary, but there should also be a role for those bringing it together. It’s such a frustration sometimes. I talk to these fantastic people doing comparative philosophy, the Japanese for example, yet none of my analytic friends know of their existence. I want to get them in a room talking!

There’s this wonderful East-West Center based in Hawaii. It deserves some kind of award as a model of collaboration. It’s not just a department around which people study, but the centre of an extended community – including people who are not graduates or members of the faculty there – it works beautifully.

3:AM: As you say in your chapter on Powerful truths: ‘We must be careful not to confuse the frequent capture of truth by power with an equation of truth and power.’ Many of the powers I perceive are collective, social forces and movements. ‘Failures’ of democracy, collective ignorance, willful blindness of the masses, crowd mentality. Can these really capture or uncover truths too?

JB: Wasn’t it Bertrand Russell who used the phrase ‘The superior virtue of the oppressed’? [Within his Unpopular Essays (Routledge 1950)] There is always this temptation amongst people that see themselves as progressive, and on the side of the weak. They demonize the powerful, but over-romanticize the weak. I think we should recognize that. If you take seriously the idea that people are always going to use truth claims as a means of powering their own agenda, that is going to happen whether you’re weak or powerful.

I think that a lot of social movements, political movements, powerful ones – certainly they form, collectively, an idea of the truth which becomes hard to question. It becomes a dogma, and from the inside it starts to look like common sense.

At the risk of getting myself shot-down: there is a lot to be said for Noam Chomsky, but – and it’s a big but – I remember hearing him speak in London, and the thing that bothered me a lot was that, as he was talking he so often said: ‘of course… and of course… of course… ‘.

That seemed significant to me; it revealed something about his view of the world. Maybe he’s smart enough not to get bewitched by it, but certainly a lot of people who quote Chomsky have been caught up in that ‘of course’ thinking. So, they will say, no matter what happens ‘of course’ it’s just because of global financial elites trying to assert control. I think there’s no ‘of course’ about it.

When you start hearing ‘of course’, that’s a sign that someone has taken a conception of the truth, and it’s become beyond question. We all do it. I do it myself. One of my revisions to the book I’m writing had a sentence about how people would be horrified by a certain misuse of American pragmatist philosophy. Then I thought, hang on a minute, I’d written that sentence assuming they would be horrified – because most people I know would be – but they wouldn’t all be. In little ways you find yourself assuming that your understanding of how things are just is the way things are.

3:AM: If you know your audience does that make a difference?

JB: You can use it, because it’s going to be effective when you use it. When Chomsky uses it, it’s a great rhetorical ploy, because if you say ‘of course’ it’s a way of saying, ‘don’t even think you might be wrong – don’t even question it – this isn’t even something worth worrying about – it’s just the truth right?’ So ‘of course’ you can get away with it – but it’s whether you should. And I think a lot of the time – our responsibility is not to pander to what our audience expects, but to challenge them.

I remember something Steve Fuller said a few years ago that has stuck with me: there is this romantic idea that your responsibility as an intellectual is just to speak the truth as you see it. Steve thought, that’s arrogant and self-centred. Actually, you should be more appreciative of what needs to be said on any occasion.

I don’t think that’s ever an excuse to say something you don’t believe is true – but sometimes the emphasis has to be different. For example, if I’m talking to an audience of hardline atheists, I’ll be trying to unsettle them a bit more, whereas, if I’m speaking to an audience of believers, I’ll be giving them more of the pros of atheism. It’s about having a sensitivity to context.

Never say a falsehood because you think it’s expedient (except in extremis; say if you need to do it in order to save lives). But most of the time we don’t get The Truth (with capitals on both words), we never state The Whole Truth, it’s always ‘Which aspects of the truth are we going to talk about and why?’

We have to be honest that we’re always being selective in that way. Try and be selective in a way which respects those virtues of sincerity and accuracy. If you’re being selective in order to distort – that’s different from being selective in order to emphasize for a certain purpose.

3:AM: ‘Our moral judgements only carry weight when they accord with the facts both of human nature, and the world.’ Isn’t it a bit defeatist – anti-progressive – to suggest morality is limited by human nature, when we could be demanding more from each other as humans? Can we not curb or remould our own natures?

JB: If we are to hold out for a standard of morality which is completely transcendental and has no relation to humanity at all – I think that is an impossible task; I don’t know how we’d even begin to know what such a thing was. On the other hand, if we say we’re simply going to see what people do and then say that is right – we’re never going to get anywhere. We wouldn’t have progress.

So, it has to be rooted in human nature – but we don’t know how plastic that is. There’s a sense in which it’s always reforming itself. It there was any such a thing as original human nature, it’s now irrelevant. We’re beyond it.

Firstly, we need a kind of moral sympathy, as David Hume and Adam Smith called it, in order to care at all. Secondly, in order to know what a good human life is, it has to take into account certain aspects of ourselves, which are deeply contingent.

Take one of the most common aspects. Most people – not everybody – but still, for most people, their ideal life involves an intimate relationship with another person; one which often has, or once had, a sexual basis. From an abstract point of view that makes no sense at all – there’s no logic about it; why shouldn’t people choose to live together with someone they just like? ‘Of course’ if we were too unquestioning about it, and we said ‘well, that person has got to be someone of the opposite sex, and it’s got to be for life, and children must be involved, and divorce is terrible’ etc… Then we’re stuck. But if you don’t recognize the importance that kind of bond has for human beings – purely contingently – you can’t really understand what is needed to live a good life.

3:AM: One of your worries in the book is that we may be ensnared in webs of holistic truth: ‘[…] we might all be trapped in the version of the truth we have spun for ourselves.’ Yet, you’re not wholly persuaded by Max Planck’s view that new scientific ideas take hold only when those who hold the old ones die off. Thinking of Planck’s pessimism, about changing minds within a lifetime: can you give an example or two of issues you have shifted your position on? Not just where you’ve expanded your web, but where you’ve re-worked its threads.

JB: That’s always an embarrassing question, and it reminds me that it’s extremely difficult to change minds. It should be a professional embarrassment to most philosophers. The official view is: we follow the argument wherever it leads. But as it happens, most people stay pretty much on the same turf all their lives – though there may be a few flips. I guess part of the problem in answering is that a lot of changes are gradual, and one forgets them. I did go from believing in God to not believing in God – which was a fairly major thing.

3:AM: Was it your belief in God though? It hadn’t been imposed on you?

JB: It wasn’t imposed on me. I had it because of the way I was brought up, but it wasn’t’ forced on me by my parents or school. When I went to secondary school the eco-system went non-religious – but I chose to continue with religion. Later, I did change my mind, but that was still fairly early.

The changes do tend to be more gradual – and I think that’s probably because there aren’t many things that can flip a worldview on its head unless you’re starting with something that, in retrospect, was such an egregious mistake.

Some of my understanding of what philosophy and ethics is has changed very slowly. One thing that has changed is this for quite a long time I bought-into the idea that philosophy is basically about arguments. I’m increasingly of the view that it isn’t. The most interesting things in philosophy aren’t arguments. The thing that I think is underestimated is what I call a form of attending. I think that philosophy is at least as much about carefully attending to things as it is about the structure of arguments.

Descartes’ cogito is essentially about… I am, I exist… it’s not really an argument. It’s an observation about the impossibility of asserting your own non-existence. Hume’s ‘argument’ against Descartes was based on introspection. It was attending to his own experience and realizing that there is no I, only a bundle of experiences. These are two of the most important ideas to have come out of Western philosophy, and they’re not arguments, they’re about attending.

It’s a shift in approach which, interestingly enough, hasn’t changed my positions in philosophy. When I read Derek Parfit I did embrace the bundle view of the self and gave up whatever view I had before, but it’s not like I was deeply committed to a philosophical position before. I was just finding my way.

3:AM: Had you written this book ten years ago, how would our appreciation of truth back then differ from today? What about ten years from now?

JB: I think there’s a really clear difference. Around ten years ago, my former colleague at The Philosophers’ Magazine, Jeremy Stangroom, wrote a book with Ophelia Benson called Why Truth Matters (Continuum, 2006). Back then the whole discourse about truth was very much a lot of anglophone philosophers and scientists attacking the postmodern; defending truth from that point of view. These people were seen, in lots of ways, as reactionaries. What they were attacking was extremely popular.

Now, I just think that the skepticism about truth has almost completely flipped – from being something associated with generally left-leaning progressives to being something which is a tool of right-wing populists and demagogues. I think a lot of those people writing books ten years ago would now think those books are no longer needed, they’ve kind of been vindicated.

Ten years hence. I think it’s very hard to tell. I like to try and be optimistic. I think that internet technologies are making everything so transparent. The arms race of deception and spin against the public trying to keep up with it – I think the forces of spin have to lose. In the corporate world people are finding this. Corporate social responsibility has been on the agenda for a very long time – and a lot of people say it’s a kind of green-wash or white-wash – but because there’s nowhere to hide anymore, people are coming around to the realization that the only way to be seen to be good is to be good. You can’t fake it.

3:AM: What if you own the means of communication? We’ve got an overabundance of information; an overabundance of truths. Where will that transparency come from when tech-organisations, and states like China, control media?

JB: The point is, there is an arms race and I don’t think anyone can control it. China is not that successful really. It has its Great Wall, but most people who want to can find a way to access information, through virtual private networks for example. The other day I was being told by John Lloyd [journalist; contributing editor to the <em>Financial Times</em>] – who worked in Russia for a long time – that Putin makes virtually no attempt at all to control the internet – it’s not like China – that’s not the way they deal with it. He controls the mainstream media, indeed, but can you really keep the other stuff out? I don’t know.

I could be wrong; there is a pessimistic scenario. Let’s not make this a prediction, let’s make this a hope that the free transfer of information is going to make things sufficiently transparent that bare faced lies will be revealed. You have to hope for a growth in the collective wisdom on this. That can happen; youngsters understand a lot more about how social media works than a lot of older people give them credit for.

Whatever the truth is about the extent to which truth is respected in the future, it is going to depend partly on what we do. More important than making predictions is doing things which help bring about this respect.


Hugh D Reynolds is a teacher, writer and learning project manager based in Bristol, England.Philosophy, science communication and culture are often at the heart of his research and writing – but he tries to keep a broad and curious outlook.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 11th, 2017.