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Should ‘post-truth’ depress us?

BEYOND KNOWN TRUTHS: “Thinkers like Kurt Gödel (in picture), John von Neumann and Alan Turning were all high priests of mathematics who, rather than be constrained by the truths of the discipline, sought to go beyond them.” Photos: FLICKR, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

BEYOND KNOWN TRUTHS: “Thinkers like Kurt Gödel (in picture), John von Neumann and Alan Turning were all high priests of mathematics who, rather than be constrained by the truths of the discipline, sought to go beyond them.” Photos: FLICKR, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS  

If science could build itself on foundations that were post-truth, there is no reason why we cannot restore our faith in reading, opinion, analysis

The Oxford English Dictionary has offered its own contribution to the prevailing global gloom. As part of its annual exercise of choosing its ‘International Word of the Year’, it has opted for ‘post-truth,’ defined as “…relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The choice of words was clearly political. “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,” Casper Grathwohl, the president of Oxford Dictionaries, said in a statement. The bleakness is amplified by the OED’s word of choice last year, ‘emoji’, which isn’t even a word. Post-truth suggests a crippling pointlessness.

Of the information age

In the age of information, when knowledge is only limited by one’s tenaciousness in rappelling off hyperlinks, when the objective and subjective are accessible at a scale unprecedented in human history, and when free expression is seen no more as a privilege but as fundamental right that even dictators must at least pay lip service to, it is paradoxical to even conceive that truth — or a description of the world as it really is — has ceased to be important.

Scientists are the apostles of objectivity. For a while, it seemed, they alone had laid out a path that would lead one to the truth. This path, of framing a hypothesis, conceiving of and then carrying out a controlled experiment, framing this in the language of mathematics and then — the truly revolutionary step — subjecting it to an open peer review by experts would lead us to the light. The success of this scientific method, in it becoming the only game in town, is that every sub-field of knowledge — economics, psychology, journalism, political science, ethics — must in some way borrow the methods of science. Economics has become intensely mathematical, psychology is now no longer deemed credible unless it subjects itself to statistical tests or controlled experiments, and even journalism now relies heavily on ‘data’ and ‘analytics’.

Interestingly, science’s reliance on mathematics and the latter’s pre-eminence rose in the 20th century after it was proved that mathematics didn’t rest solidly on the foundations of logic. There were mathematical truths that couldn’t be proved by mathematics, and there were logical truths that couldn’t be logically proved. This wasn’t oracular insight that blazed through from the heavens but was shown by one of mathematics’ most devout disciples called Kurt Gödel. As a twenty-five-year-old, in a paper whose implications weren’t widely understood at the time of publication, Gödel shattered the illusions of mathematicians and logicians of his time and laid the base for a ‘post-truth’ science. Two books, one fiction and the other non-fiction, deeply engage with Gödel, and show how his freeing of truth and mathematics from rigid structures was key to the development of computing. A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin gives a biographical but fictionalised account of Gödel and the so-called Incompleteness Theorems. “Mathematics is perfect. But it is not complete. To see some truths you must stand outside and look in,” Gödel explains to a gathering of Viennese intellectuals, who are grappling with such questions as the nature of reality and the role of logic in determining truth.

Science writer James Gleick, in his seminal The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, explains how Gödel’s insights helped clarify the notion of how a computer program could be written. Rather how truth, till then assumed to exist only within the province of the human mind, could actually exist in machines too. “It was, as Gödel said afterward, an ‘amazing fact’ that our logical intuitions concerning such notions as truth, concept, being, class, etc are self-contradictory… its power arising not from the edifice it struck down but the lesson it contained about numbers, about symbolism, about encoding.”

The hero of Gleick’s Information is not Gödel but Claude Shannon, the brilliant inventor who showed that information could be conveyed in the language of bits and bytes. However, Shannon’s insights built upon a path that built upon the lineage of Gödel, John von Neumann, Alan Turning, all high priests of mathematics but those who rather than be constrained by the truths of mathematics sought to go beyond it and blazed the trail to a world of computing, information and logic that redefined ‘truth.’

Post-truth, when seen this way, doesn’t necessarily point to bleakness but rather suggests that we may be on the edge of completely overturning our sensibilities on what constitutes ‘objectivity’ or ‘knowledge.’ It is now argued that algorithms have, instead of making the world a connected entity, ended up erecting echo chambers that slot us into hermetic opinion bubbles. It is as if everyone’s truths are so true that no debate can lead us to new insight. If science could build itself on foundations that were post-truth, there is no reason why a more humble introspection cannot restore our faith in reading, opinion, analysis and, of course, truth itself.

jacob.koshy@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 11:26:30 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/Should-%E2%80%98post-truth%E2%80%99-depress-us/article16668435.ece

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