“Post-truth” doesn’t have to mean factual relativism

Most pieces about the “post-fact” or “post-truth” world express concern regarding the possibility that it’s now commonplace – or even somehow acceptable – to make stuff up instead of offering arguments and evidence for your claims.

My contribution to the discussion was to point out that truth has never mattered as much as we might prefer. But the fact that people don’t care to (or find it difficult to) escape their filter bubbles doesn’t need to entail giving up on facts and the truth entirely.

Dr Julia Shaw has a different, and rather odd, response to the post-fact world.

Her piece argues that “it’s ok that society is post-fact. Facts are so last century”, on the grounds that science never actually proves anything, but that through experimentation and replicability, we achieve results that are robust enough to be called “facts”.

Well yes, but what the heck does that have to do with the “post-fact” world, and how does that make one a factual relativist? This is either a shameless example of clickbait, or a shameful example of serious confusion.

A relativist would claim that truth itself depends on perspective. And while it’s true that what we regard as true depends on our perspective, the truth itself does not, even if defined the way she defines it (which is also the way that I would define it).

This is because even though science can’t achieve logical certainty about any “fact”, the scientific method can result in a conclusion that everybody (who isn’t compromised) would regard as true, because of the strength of the evidence. You’d universally be regarded as irrational if you were to have the contrary perspective about that conclusion.

Perhaps her confusion is in thinking that “relativism” means “relative to the evidence”, which would be fine (if misleading), but the tweet and article indicates that she means “proper” relativism, given that they reject facts and “the truth” entirely.

As far as connecting this to the “post-fact” world is concerned, the link is tenuous at best. The point about scientific reasoning, even on her terms, is that there’s a method and a process whereby we arrive at a conclusion – that’s not the case in the “post-fact” world.

In conclusion, her position seems particularly confused in light of the fact that she doesn’t seem to believe in it herself. Here are three examples:

What we do is collect evidence that supports or does not support our predictions. Sometimes we do things over and over again, in meaningfully different ways, and we get the same results, and then we call these findings facts. And, when we have lots and lots of replications and variations that all say the same thing, then we talk about theories or laws. Like evolution. Or gravity.

How do you determine what “supports or does not support our predictions” if the world is genuinely post-fact? The claim here is that we gather evidence, and make an assessment of its role in supporting a finding. But you say you’re a factual relativist, so how do you make that assessment, and on what criteria?

Scientists slowly break down the illusions created by our biased human perception, revealing what the universe actually looks like.

If the universe actually looks like something, would that not be a fact? Or does the word actually mean something else for a relativist? I’m sure that it does, or at least that it could, but that would mean that the entire Scientific American article could well be a chocolate cake recipe, for all we know.

But let’s make it our job as a society to encourage each other to find replicable and falsifiable evidence to support our views, and to logically argue our positions.

Sure. But again, how could one falsify anything unless there was a possibility of using a word like “fact” meaningfully, even if the common usage of scientific “fact” as indicating certainty is incorrect?

The piece has nothing to do with a post-fact world, Dr Shaw is not a relativist … and these are both facts.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.