Skip to comments.Do We Live in a Post-Truth Era?
Posted on 02/05/2013 3:47:27 PM PST by neverdem
Experts manufacture whatever facts an activist, politician, or bureaucrat needs.
"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts," the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) famously quipped. But when it comes to social and environmental problems nowadays, nearly everyone thinks he is entitled to his own facts, and an army of experts is on hand to manufacture and promote the carefully curated truths they require. The Progressive Era dream of empowering nonpartisan experts to solve social, economic, and environmental problems has failed spectacularly. What happened?
Breakthrough Institute founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger grapple with this question in their recent essay "Wicked Polarization: How Prosperity, Democracy, and Experts Divided America," which in turn highlights insights from a 1973 paper(PDF) by the urban planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber. Rittel and Webber drew a useful distinction between "tame" and "wicked" social problems. Tame problems are the sorts of issues that are routinely addressed by scientists and engineers: sanitation, higher agricultural productivity, electrification. They aren't necessarily easy, but they can be clearly defined, relevant information can be gathered, and the effectiveness of proposed solutions can be tested. Solving such problems resulted in improved health and greater affluence, leaving the public and policymakers to focus on less tractable social and environmental problemsthat is, wicked ones.
The hallmark of a wicked problem is that the way an expert conceives of it determines the solutions she recommends. For example, Rittel and Webber observe, "'Crime in the streets' can be explained by not enough police, by too many criminals, by inadequate laws, too many police, cultural deprivation, deficient opportunity, too many guns, phrenologic aberrations, etc. Each of these offers a direction for attacking crime in the streets. Which one is right?" Forty years later, each theory still has its devotees.
Rittel and Weber conclude that people's judgments "are likely to differ widely to accord with their group or personal interests, their special value-sets, and their ideological predilections." When claims about a social or environmental problem do not agree, the duo noted, "The analyst's 'world view' is the strongest determining factor in explaining a discrepancy, and, therefore resolving a wicked problem."
In the years since the planners' paper appeared, Nordhaus and Shellenberger point out, "wicked problems would proliferate along with experts in think tanks, universities, and government agencies who set out to define them." Partisans can find copacetic experts to affirm what they already believe about vaccination, genetically modified crops, drug policy, nuclear power, salt consumption, public transportation, international trade, AIDS, R&D subsidies, school curricula, synthetic chemicals, automobile safety, organic crops, fracking, and so on, practically ad infinitum.
Progressives who believe that corporations are unfairly denying workers a living wage can point to research by analysts at Institute for Research on Labor and Employment to argue that higher minimum wages do not increase unemployment. Free marketeers can turn to the Employment Policies Institute for evidence that boosting minimum wages increases unemployment among the youthful and poor. The pro-immigrant Migration Policy Institute can report that Washington "spends more on its immigration enforcement agencies than on all its other principal criminal federal law enforcement agencies combined." The Center for Immigration Studies, which favors strict immigration enforcement, can denounce the study as "bogus" and "riddled with false statements, cherry-picked statistics, and inappropriate comparisons." Climatologists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville can assert that the atmosphere "has not warmed noticeably since the major El Niño of 199798giving us about a decade and a half of generally stable temperatures." Researchers associated with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research can report that the warming rate has been "steady" since 1979.
Rittel and Webber also observe that "many societal processes have the character of zero-sum games"that is, they are processes in which one group's gains result only from another group's equivalent losses. That fact, I suspect, explains why wicked problems are proliferating.
For decades, an increasingly large percentage of our economic output has been moved from the positive-sum game of markets and private property to the zero-sum game of government and politics. According to the Office of Management and Budget, total government spending in the U.S. rose from 17 percent of GDP in 1948 to 35 percent in 2010. As public choice theory predicts, the more resources government bureaucracies control, the more lobbyists, crony capitalists, and entitlement clients will appear seeking to divert handouts into their pockets. Such would-be beneficiaries need experts to construct the facts that they use to justify to political patrons and agency bureaucrats why they deserve a share of the government's largesse. To the extent that we live in a "post-truth era," it is in good measure because it pays so well to dissemble, exaggerate, and spin for government grants and favors.
Ultimately, Rittel and Webber conclude, "There are no value-free, true-false answers to any of the wicked problems governments must deal with." Nordhaus and Shellenberger agree. "The problem is not that we are in a post-truth age," they suggest, "but rather that we have not learned to adapt to it. Perhaps a good place to begin is by recognizing our own biases, perspectives, and agendas and attempting to hold them more lightly."
That would indeed be a good start, but Rittel and Webber hit on a better way to adapt. One "approach to the reconciliation of social values and individual choice," they note, "is to bias in favor of the latter. Accordingly, one would promote widened differentiation of goods, services, environments, and opportunities, such that individuals might more closely satisfy their individual preferences." Instead of entrusting decisions to purportedly "wise and knowledgeable professional experts and politicians" who aim to impose the "one-best answer," individuals should be allowed to pursue their own visions of the true and the good.
The institution best known for increasing the differentiation of goods, services, environments, and opportunities and for enabling people to express their differing values is the free market. Markets don't need to be run by experts. Any entrepreneur with a new idea, service, or product can pursue and try to profit from what they believe to be the truth.
I’m thinking since the early 1900s. but, it could forever.
When have us pions ever been told the truth?
My view is that the MSM went from “strong liberal bias” to “rabid journ0list support squad” in early 2008.
It has made a difference in public opinion. Evidenced by Baraq getting re-elected with a horrific record.
Yes, clearly, and conservatives are being sucked into it as well.
As more and more conservative types show up in print, blogging, media and so on, many more flaky researchers and dishonest types are showing up.
There are some people who think that outrageous lies and false information of their own, can counterbalance the outrageous lies and false information that comes in floods and gushers from the left, it is getting harder and harder to find truth and honest numbers anywhere.
I would put the start date around the time of someone redefining what the definition of ‘is’ is...
It's easy to see what is in control of today's America and the rest of the world for that fact.
I agree. MSM is running the country.
I think that was one of the communist goals.
They did well.
We have it on pretty good authority that “The Father Of Lies” governs this world! The outcasts and denizens of the lowest layers of our society now govern us.
The last 100 or so years was just the prelude, the culmination of ‘Progressive’ ideals.
We let it happen by scuffing off the idea that Communism was still alive and well.
Knock Knock, who’s here?
There is no absolute truth being taught in education. We are living in what is called the postmodern age. If you want to know what is being taught (began in the 60’s) go here:
otherwise just google postmodernism. Nothing is real except what is in your mind.
logically your mind would not exist without the molecules making up your brain, but hey, who am i to argue.
Thanks for the link.
God may guide with truth and love. But Bailey is an atheist-libertarian. His idea of free market includes amoral free agents who mock God’s commandments against fornication and adultery. That means high divorce and illegitimacy rates. That means the collapse of civilization.
They may have it locked up in a cage now, but they won't be able to keep it in there forever.
Yes, since the MSM and entertainment industry became the Ministry of Propaganda for the Rat party.
Yes and no.
The truth is immutable, but mute-able.
I don’t know when it started or who is responsible, but I know that I don’t trust a single thing said by anyone affiliated with government. Don’t care who they are, what agency, what branch, elected or civil service ... not one world that comes out of their mouths, or is written in any medium, do I trust. At all.