In my work as a study tutor to predominantly Arabic students I'm often prompted to reflect on the differences between a traditional faith-based society and a more secular one. I'm a secularly raised, secularly educated, atheist westerner, so it's really difficult for me to imagine not being required or encouraged to think critically, which is often what my students need help with the most. (Indeed, I struggled with choosing the word 'atheist' to describe myself here because, even though I feel absolutely no belief in any god, I'm reluctant to make 100% claims of any kind - I usually prefer to keep an open mind when possible, especially if the belief involves having to prove that something doesn't exist. I have used the word because I have no belief in any deity. I reserve the right to change my mind though, as I believe we all should, if presented with enough evidence to do so).
It has often seemed to me that the students I work with - while highly educated in their subject area, and sometimes a decade or so into extremely responsible careers which are shaping their countries' economic, political and scientific futures - are entirely unprepared for postgraduate study as it is in this country; in terms of self-motivation, independent study and critical thinking. Let's be clear at this point that I'm absolutely ignorant of what postgraduate study looks like in Saudi Arabia, for example, and that I'm basing my opinions here on my interaction with students, the questions they ask me, and the problems they have while studying. Perhaps an example would be a good idea at this point. A Saudi student I'm currently working with is studying for an MSc. He has worked for the military for over ten years, and teaches marine navigation and ship captaincy at a naval academy. A few weeks ago he asked me what critical thinking was, because one of his lecturers had commented that he wasn't demonstrating it in his written work. I gave him a few non-academic examples, which he dealt with well. He seems, however, to be unwilling or perhaps unable to apply the idea to academic study, and often asks me where to find 'the answer', or what his conclusion 'should be'. He is worried that he will be 'wrong'. It is my impression that he doesn't feel confident coming to a conclusion by himself, but prefers someone in authority, or a written text, to tell him what his opinion should be. He does not seem to mind if the written text or authority figure has evidence for their claim. Now, I do not suggest for a minute that students from societies governed in line with an organised religion are the only ones who prefer a straight answer to a question. I do not believe that all students educated in the UK, for example, have the tendency to think critically. However, I do notice in the majority of my interactions with Arabic students, and less so in my experience of being a student (during which time my peers have been mostly British or European) that there is a noticeable difference in approach. I feel fairly confident, too, in saying that critical thinking is probably not encouraged in societies which have traditionally relied on religious texts for their law-making and social policy.
So it's with this experience in mind that I begin to consider what post-truth could mean outside of the usual Trump/Brexit/fake news context. Lee McIntyre (2018) writes about the path from the 1950s Tobacco Industry Research Commitee, which Ari Rabin-Havt (2016) claims was "created to cast doubt on scientific consensus that smoking cigarettes causes cancer", to the more recent misconceptions of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, in which 'the backfire effect' - identified by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler (2010) - caused partisans to believe more strongly in WMD after receiving a correction telling them that no such weapons existed, as well as the ongoing denial of climate change. We could consider, too, the recent phenomenon of flat-earthers - have they existed since before Pythagorus, Aristotle and Eratosthenes but are now able to share their ideas due to the increased communication channels of the internet? Or is this a recently reconsidered idea which might be linked to post-truth? It certainly seems to fit with what McIntyre is saying.
I still need to finish reading this text, so this post is not intended as a summary of what McIntyre has written. However, the things I want to think more about as I read, as I interact with students from other cultures, and as I continue exploring the alternative 'truths' of the Ghost Box, are these:
Firstly, is it possible that the logical conclusion of post-truth might look like a return to faith-based society, in which facts are overlooked in favour of "truthiness" (a term coined by Stephen Colbert in 2005, to mean that something has a feeling of being true, even without evidence to support it) or misinformation distributed to create a particular result or further a particular cause? I don't mean societies would become 'religious' again in the traditional sense. By faith-based, I mean a society in which the information you are told, and taught not to question, and perhaps even punished for questioning, is described as 'truth', despite evidence to the contrary. And how would that compare with traditionally religious societies?
Secondly, how does that affect the reading of my reluctance to investigate the apparent 'facts' of the Ghost Box? What are the similarities between not looking for evidence to explain whether or not a wedding occurred, and the wider human tendency of confirmation bias? In a post-truth society, would it be morally acceptable to enjoy mystery, or would it be the duty of those who disagree with the manipulation of fact-dismissal to search for 'truth' in all aspects of their lives?
More on this at a future date.
(And yes, I'm aware of the irony of talking about confirmation bias when I've said I'm approaching this topic in light of my experiences and with a tentative conclusion already forming - I'm keeping as open a mind as I can and am absolutely willing to alter any part of this if and when necessary)
McIntyre, L. (2018) Post-Truth. Cambridge, MA: MIT
Spherical Earth discussed in The Independent