In light of Brexit, and the United States election campaign that gave us President-elect Donald J Trump, Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” its 2016 word of the year. In keeping with the disdain for veracity that it embodies, the word of the year is not even one word, but rather two.
British conservative politician and Brexit supporter Michael Gove got one thing right this year when he said “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts”. Events have proved him correct, and not only in Great Britain.
Brexit, the US election and the parlous state of public leadership in Australia are not anomalies. They represent a dire crisis of public confidence in expertise, knowledge and evidence. And they present an uncomfortable challenge for universities and civil societies.
As we seek to lead and elevate debate on the most important issues facing society, such as climate change, refugees and migration and inequality, I discern a common thread. That is, the triumph of tribal conviction over knowledge.
Humans find meaning in belonging to a group, adhering to an ideology, identifying with a religion, culture or merely a conviction. Such tribalism defined so many of the unsavoury themes that galvanised the Brexit and Trump votes.
And it made it all too easy to sneer at the “leavers” and the “deplorables” as racist, sexist, anti-intellectuals. Yet the failure of the left to understand Trump supporters, Brexiters and Hansonites on their own terms is also a symptom of tribalism.
Every one of us is vulnerable to thinking that the ideas we hold dear are reasoned or principled positions. But how many of our ideas are adopted and defended as part of our tribal identity?
Today, in the challenge-free spaces and echo-chambers of our social media feeds, we are arguably becoming ever more vulnerable to tribal convictions. Almost half of us now get all our news from Facebook, for example; information that is digitally targeted to align with our interests. As a consequence, that “information” reflects, and so reinforces, our biases far more than it informs.
In this atmosphere, it takes a special kind of intellectual honesty to interrogate our own ideas as rigorously as we do other people’s, to listen to other arguments, and to discard our own bad ideas. But this is the only way to break the self-reinforcing binds between tribal identity and conviction.
My own research field, the evolution of sexual behaviour, fights not one but two long-running tribal conflicts. Creationism still represents the textbook example of tribal conviction trumping honest understanding. Darwinian natural selection confronts the Creationist urge to see humanity as a special part of a grand plan that divinely orders the living world.
However, any student of natural history understands that adaptation is neither grand nor planned, and that imperfect patterns emerge from the bottom-up as individuals strive to maximise their own fitness at the expense of others.
A more vexed contemporary tribal conflict lies in the tensions between biological and cultural explanations of human behaviour. This polarises nature from nurture, genes from environment and the biological from the social, as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives rather than interacting dynamics.
These represent merely the latest in a long line of false dichotomies that go back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle.
Together, these false dichotomies build what neuroscientist Stephen Pinker calls “the last wall standing in the landscape of knowledge”. As always, when humans cling to conviction as a signifier of belonging, we find it easier to huddle on our own sides of the last wall, than to venture into the vast, less familiar landscape of knowledge and discovery.
Back to the facts
Biology and the social sciences are now moving beyond their tribal infancy and surly adolescence toward rediscovering one another. When used together, they reveal a more nuanced, complete and, ultimately, more useful view of sex, reproduction and why they grow so complicated.
More broadly, places of learning and research must similarly find their way in this apparently post-truth world, to help us navigate past the old tribal certainties to effectively address the many complex challenges humanity faces. This demands a willingness on all sides to explore uncomfortable ideas.
It also demands that we seek out the areas of genuine, productive disagreement. Rather than allowing those who benefit from obfuscation, inaction and division to grow rich and powerful by framing issues to suit their own interests, universities must use their wealth of expertise to define and lead public debate.
Evolutionary biologists have long known not to debate creationists; their calls for debate amount to cynical time-wasting. Likewise, scientists should focus on the productive debates that will help us to save our world, not time-wasting tribal titillations with those who deny reality.
As we put this post-truth year behind us, my hope is that next year brings a resurgent courage to apply the intellectual tools, developed over centuries, for separating good ideas from bad. And that we begin to again recognise that subjective experiences, compelling storytelling and tenacity of conviction do not alone make an idea worthwhile.
Scientia Professor Rob Brooks is Director of the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre and the Academic Lead of the UNSW’s Grand Challenges Program. He will speak about the post-truth world at UNSOMNIA: What keeps you up at night?, the launch event for the Grand Challenges Program on December 1.