Post-truth, Alt-facts, and Asymmetric Controversies (Part III)

The Truther Paradox

By Michael Lynch

Editors’ note: This is the final installment of a three-post series by Michael Lynch. ‘Part I: Between Liars and Truthers’ and ‘Part II: Uncivil Epistemology’ were previously published on the blog. 

President Trump sent out a flurry of tweets on March 4, 2017, accusing former President Obama of tapping his phones during the 2016 election campaign. His accusations were quickly denied by Obama and FBI Director James Comey, among others. With no immediate evidence to support the wiretapping allegation other than some sketchy reports in right-wing media, Trump’s embattled spokespersons sought to furnish non-literal versions of what he could have meant when he tweeted, “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower.” According to these defensive accounts, Trump didn’t really mean that Obama directly ordered wiretapping, or that the wiretapping occurred in Trump Tower, or (as marked by the inverted commas) that the surveillance took the form of actual wiretapping. Trump himself did not back away from his accusation and called for an investigation. Although it is too early to tell how the episode will play out, it has the makings of another “truther” campaign: a persistent reassertion of a conspiracy theory in the face of repeated denials and a lack of supportive evidence. Trump is, of course, famous for taking a leading role in the “birther” movement, which promoted the ‘theory’ that Obama’s credentials as an American born citizen were fake despite a steady stream of evidence to the contrary.

As I noted in Part 1 of this series of posts, the neologism “truther” grammatically complements the established term “liar” by turning “truth” into a verb and “truthing” into an act that implicates the reputation of the person who “truths.” However, in current usage, a “truther” is not someone with a reputation for truth-telling. Far from it: with Trump as the paradigm case, a “truther” is someone who loudly purports a “truth” and doggedly pursues it despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Liars and truthers thus become indistinguishable for those of us who disbelieve their assertions. There also is a peculiar paradox associated with the actions of a truther.

The liar paradox, classically illustrated by the statement “all Cretans are always liars” said by a Cretan, is a logical puzzle that is largely irrelevant in everyday life because a “liar” is not someone who always lies, but someone who is reputed to lie frequently and conspicuously. To be effective, a liar must practically establish just enough trust to set up the lie. And, if done skillfully, the lie is protected by deniability.

 A “truther” is someone who loudly purports a “truth” and doggedly pursues it despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Liars and truthers thus become indistinguishable for those of us who disbelieve their assertions

In the so-called post-truth era inhabited by trolls and gaslighters, a different paradox arises. The maxim of the truther, variously attributed (or misattributed) to Joseph Goebbels and Adolph Hitler, and allegedly conveyed by the controversial lawyer Ray Cohn to his protégé Donald Trump, is “if you say it aggressively and loud enough [and also often enough], it’s the truth.” This advice is most effective in a polarized situation when the opposing party adheres to a decorous respect for “reality based” argumentation. However, when the opposition also drops all pretense of decorum, resolution of the argument can only be achieved by other means. Instead of being a logical paradox enclosed within the frame of a proposition—if ‘true’ it must be ‘false’—the truther paradox invites a dead-end confrontation. Each of the opposing parties attempts to adhere to Cohn’s maxim, and each mirrors the other’s aggressive “truthing” in the manner of the simultaneously-shouting-heads that we see all-too-often on cable TV news. All possibility to pursue political truth—to agree upon baseline “facts” before airing rival arguments about their implications—is negated by the mutually assertive and unyielding “truthing.” This is not post-truth, since each party vociferously claims to be telling the truth. For the bystander, knowing nothing else about the dispute other than the local exchange, the paradox is that the disputants cannot both be telling the truth. But then the question is, as often in politics: Cui bono? Who benefits from such a standoff?

Such mirroring took substantive form during the first 100 days of the Trump administration (and for many hundreds of days before that). Trump and his minions turned charges of lying and fake news back upon their “establishment” critics. In one of his March 4 tweets, Trump deployed analogies to McCarthyism: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” He further tweeted: “How low has President Obama gone to tapp (sic.) my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” Trump’s analogies exactly mirrored repeated charges his critics had made against him. Trump also mirrored his opponents’ calls for investigation, offering a distraction from their pursuit of his campaign’s possible collusion with Russian agents.

It would be a mistake to liken such strategic and polemical mirroring to the “symmetry”, which once held pride of place as a methodological postulate in Science & Technology Studies. Trump’s “symmetry” is a discursive strategy with asymmetrical aims, rather than a principled methodological stance. David Bloor’s symmetry postulate pertained to the form of explanation and not the substantive truth of the knowledge to be explained. Bloor proposed that “social” explanations could be devised for “true” cases of scientific and mathematical knowledge that are currently well-established, in contrast to a “sociology of error” that applies only to dubious beliefs based in ideology, vested interest, or superstition. Symmetry was a subject of much debate in and about STS, but the assumption of error was neither a pre-condition nor a consequence of the sociological explanations Bloor proposed. Presumably, a scholar may continue to hold that particular theories or facts are true, while delving into the historical origins and social distributions of their credibility.

The polemical symmetry so vigorously prosecuted the Trump administration is no less asymmetric than the discourse of the “reality based community” it confronts: alt-facts are presented as true, and alt-right sources as more reliable than the “fake news” and “lies” promulgated by their “establishment” counterparts. Asymmetry is implied in the staged confrontation between established versus marginal voices, where the politically and economically powerful assume the posture of epistemic underdogs. The indiscriminate proliferation of allegations of lying and of purveying “fake news” devalues  truth-telling and further degrades public trust in the word of politicians and the media, to the apparent advantage of the more cynical of the contending parties. The current political situation might better be characterized as post-trust rather than post-truth.