For several months, nearly every day, the BBC headlined either outrageous or idiotic statements made by Donald Trump. Thankfully, more recently, the BBC stopped headlining these
statements lies. Mostly.
Since Trump’s election, I’ve heard repeatedly that we now live in a post-truth world. A world where news isn’t based on fact. A world where people can say whatever they want without being fact-checked.
But that doesn’t change because of one election. You don’t go from a society that values truth one day (not that society ever did, really) to a post-truth society overnight. So the question is, how did we get here?
I believe that part of the reason we now live in a post-truth world is due to the education system. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of other factors to consider. Some with probably larger impacts than education. Like social media. Or the Internet.
But, seeing that I’m a high school student, I find the education system is an easier target.
Specifically, the humanities.
One of the reasons that I find the humanities distasteful is because of how teachers have primarily taught students to write essays, to debate, and to argue. Humanities rarely focus on “minor details” such as facts.
Instead, we are taught over and over that the most important thing we need to learn is how to create an argument, and then how to back that argument up with facts. This maxim sums up my studies in humanities. In fact, my teacher has told us numerous times that we are free to defend any position in our essays, provided we can back it up with facts.
Sounds like a logical way of doing things, right? I mean, in this system, facts are a major portion of the assignment, are they not?
Of course they are. But the problem with this system is that while it appears to value facts, it doesn’t. It values arguments.
Think about it. Argue first, find facts later.
Sounds antithetical to a statement uttered by Sherlock Holmes.
It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data.
As students, we are told to build a theory, an argument, or a philosophy first—and then, once we have our nice little idea, to go find the facts to legitimise it. In the real world, people are supposed look at the facts and come to a conclusion, in school we are told to come to a conclusion then look up the facts.
Of course, part of the reason this is done is to “encourage” critical thinking. To allow students to think for themselves.
Except that such a method—that is, looking for facts to support one’s conclusion—is one of the biggest problems that characterises the post-truth world—and the Trump presidency. It seems Trump and his team spend a lot of time “finding” data that would support their statements. Of course, other times, they don’t spend any time researching at all, and just fabricate events.
But on some rare occasions, their evidence turned out to be accurate. Even mathematically viable.
However, in most of these cases, they did not portray the full picture. Because while it’s easy to zoom in on the facts you need to back up your argument, sometimes the whole picture presents a very different story.
And I think that by encouraging students, the generation of the future, to go “think” for themselves and find evidence to defend their arguments, it promote a somewhat tunnel-visioned idea of research. It promotes cherry-picking.
And while teachers do their best to ensure their students are given a broad perspective to prevent selective research, the fact is, as long as teachers award marks for arguments backed up by carefully curated evidence, we’re not going to get anywhere.
That’s the real problem in a post-truth society. It’s not that we don’t have some measure of truth. We do.
But the thing is, a lie is an absence of truth. And this means that the truth is only the truth when it is the complete truth.