Battle against fake news, 'alternative facts' can only be won if primacy of reason, science are restored

  • When people bemoan the rise of alternative facts and post-truth, they should take into account that human beings are fundamentally emotional rather than rational creatures.

  • The victories of reason were hard won. Now those gains have been squandered in some measure.

  • On both Right and Left, there is the pre-modern questioning of science and reason.

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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We seem to be living in mad times. Even by the now normalised standards of madness, however, the past week or so has been madder than usual. It would be a long and sad litany to list all the incidents in the news that tested the bounds of sanity. A few threads of underlying unity run through several of the notable incidents. Apart from the usual staples of communal hatred and violence, there is one more. It is a deep conviction in “alternative facts”, such as the version of history presented by former Union minister and current BJP Member of Parliament Anantkumar Hegde, in which he asserted that India’s freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi was all a “drama”.

A similar conviction in “alternative facts” underlies the admiration for Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse, and inspires the repeated statements that offer cow urine as the cure for everything from cancer to, in the latest instance, novel coronavirus. Swami Chakrapani Maharaj, president of the Hindu Mahasabha, recently said that “consuming cow urine and cow dung will stop the effect of infectious coronavirus. A person who chants ‘Om Namah Shivay’ and applies cow dung on body will be saved [sic]”. A yagna would have to be conducted to eradicate the disease, he added.

The belief in such “cures” remains widespread across large parts of the world. For a person who has no trouble believing that chanting ‘Om Namah Shivay’ and applying cow dung on their bodies is an effective preventive for coronavirus infection, a statement describing India’s freedom struggle as drama should be easy enough to believe. The exercise of critical reasoning that would be necessary to question these and other similar statements may not appeal to such minds.

The problem of “alternative facts” and laments of us living in a “post-truth” world can be heard across the world at present. It is a widespread problem in the US, where President Donald Trump himself has led the charge against facts. The rise of lumpen Right-wing populists around the world owes much to the rise of people’s faith in these “alternative facts”.

The terminology, however, is in my opinion wrong on one count: it is not a case of a “post-truth” world emerging but one of a “pre-truth” world resurging.

As historian and author Yuval Noah Harari pointed out in his popular book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it ‘fake news’ in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath)”. Human beings have been conditioned to revere plenty of quite questionable accounts over millennia.

 Battle against fake news, alternative facts can only be won if primacy of reason, science are restored

A demonstrator in Sao Paulo protests against fake news. Getty Images

The turn towards reason and scientific scepticism was a historically recent one for the world. Its heyday is usually traced to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason, which together transformed worldviews and the world, roughly between 1500-1800. The modern world was invented in those years, by thinkers such as Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, Voltaire, John Locke, Adam Smith, and many others.

The West reacted to this overabundance of reason through a resurgence of romanticism. A latter-day manifestation of this has perhaps come in the form of the postmodern turn away from science. Postmodernists explicitly attacked science and the scientific method, leading to what are called the Science Wars. Their ideas included sophisticated ad hominem attacks on scientists, interpretations of the efficacy of science for its success in serving “spiritual needs” apart from material ones, and the reduction of science to a more “equal” status as just one narrative among many.

In today’s Indian context, they would have ended up equating chanting ‘Om Namah Shivay’ and applying cow dung with going to a hospital and getting a medical test done.

The ideas of all ways of viewing the world being equally valid, and of everything being just narratives, were ideas that have been adopted and weaponised by the Right-wing around the world. Most people in large parts of the world had not experienced modernity before they were hit by post-modernity. They transitioned seamlessly from one regime of alternative facts to another without the disturbing Age of Reason in between.

Today when people around the world wail about the rise of alternative facts and post-truth, they should take into account the reality that human beings are fundamentally emotional rather than rational creatures. The victories of reason were hard won. Now those gains have been squandered in some measure, and we are back to debating whether there were test tube babies and internet during the Mahabharat era a few millennia ago, whether the theory of evolution is wrong, and whether climate change is real.

The world has changed beyond recognition between 1800 and now. The pace of change has accelerated steadily since World War I in 1914. Different religious traditions and cultures provide some people a sense of identity and belonging in this rapidly-changing world, just as being part of communities such as LGBTQ does for others — though of course the two categories are not mutually exclusive. The point is that on both Right and Left, there is a general drift towards identity politics. And on both Right and Left, there is the same pre-modern questioning of science and reason.

Without stepping away from group identity politics and restoring primacy to individuals, the trend of sectarian battles between adherents of different faiths of Left and Right will continue, with more victories to the populist Right in countries around the world. And without restoring a hierarchy of ideas in which reason and science have primacy, the battle against fake news and “alternative facts” will not be won. Fact-checking and data are useless when no one wants to believe facts unless they like them.

Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

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Updated Date: Feb 07, 2020 10:57:12 IST