What is the truth about 'post-factual politics'?

Sunday 23 October, 12.00 - 13.15 , Cinema 1 Keynote Controversies

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Video and audio of this debate are available at the bottom of this page.

The US presidential campaign and the Brexit referendum result both fuelled concerns about the rise of ‘post-truth politics’, with many painting 2016 as the dawn of a post-factual era’. After all, Donald Trump has called fact-checking an ‘out-of-touch, elitist media-type thing’ and his seemingly cavalier relationship with truth seems to stretch far beyond even the most cynical spin-doctoring of mainstream politicians. Brexit leader Michael Gove’s now infamous claim that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’ continues to provoke outrage. Many asked pointedly if he would dismiss the expertise of doctors when ill. Many in the science world have taken his remarks as a rejection of empirical research and a challenge to the efficacy of evidence.

But never mind ‘populist politicians’; what to do with ‘ill-informed voters’? Almost the whole global economic, scientific and financial establishment lined up to warn of the consequences of Brexit, but 52% of the country ignored them. Why, when data and quantitative information is everywhere are, did people seemingly ‘vote with their hearts’? Some blame the media for running attention-grabbing half-truths in their headlines. Others argue it is up to the experts to go on the offensive in order to get their insights across. But when one expert advocates using ‘our skills not only as subject specific experts, but as teachers, to try to nudge society towards a democratic process based on true critical thinking,’ is an important point being missed? This appears to assume that if only the public understood expert advice they would follow it; that there is no room for legitimate disagreement or debate. In fact, those who see experts as a new ‘priestly’ class argue that far too much of political life is being outsourced to experts - whether at the Bank of England or the government’s ‘Nudge Unit’, and that huge swathes of decision-making have been removed from democratic accountability. Some argue this political privileging of expertise is the real threat to expert knowledge, representing an erosion of knowledge as an end in itself. Increasingly, academic and scientific research is expected to serve a social or economic purpose; ‘policy-based evidence’ in support of an implicit political agenda. Indeed, might some of the bemoaning of a ‘post-truth’ politics reflect disbelief that the experts’ own liberal-cosmopolitan worldview has been challenged?

What is the future for experts in an era of ‘post-truth’ politics? Have experts been over-reaching into areas where what is needed is not so much facts as political principles? Or if the facts are dismissed, will society sink into the mire of prejudice and superstition, with policy little more than a non-evidence based shot in the dark?