Word of the year – “post-truth”
Oxford Dictionaries have declared “post-truth” to be the Word of the Year for 2016. They define ‘post-truth’ as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. While the first usage with this meaning appears to date from 1992, it is not surprising that the word has become popular in 2016 with spikes in the frequency of use around the time of the referendum vote on membership of the EU in June and during the last months running up to the US presidential election.
The wider implications have been explored in a thought-provoking briefing in The Economist, “Post-truth politics – the Art of the Lie”. This argues that ‘post-truth’ is different from the history of lies told by politicians. Previously, political lies sought to mask the truth or create a false view of the world. In the ‘post-truth’ world, truth is used to reinforce prejudices with assertions that ‘feel’ true but have no basis in fact – what has sometimes been called ‘truthiness’.
Society will no doubt evolve to cope with this. There may be more responsibility placed on social media platforms to manage what’s published by organisations and to be accountable for ‘fake news’. In more traditional media, some newspapers have already changed their language. The New York Times has stopped using polite expressions such as ‘misrepresentations’ and has called President-elect Trump a liar. Similarly, broadcasters, like the BBC, may need to adopt a more deliberative rather than combative format, as the Electoral Reform Society has recommended.
But what does this all mean for people hoping to apply evidence to make the public sector work better? Some of Prederi’s recent experience has given my colleagues and I a few clues.
Immediately after publication in October 2013 of our report on the costs of visitors and migrants to the NHS in England, there were papers keen to misquote the data – from both a pro-immigration and anti-immigration perspective. Then during the 2015 General Election Nigel Farage repeatedly applied the cost of the normal use of the NHS by visitors and regular migrants (about £1.4 billion) to the cost of the deliberate misuse of the NHS by ‘health tourists’ (probably around £60-80m). He did this again during the Referendum debates in 2016. It was good to see fact checkers, like Full Fact, pointing out these misleading claims.
I recently had a further lesson based on our work. The National Audit Office used the report as evidence in their assessment of the progress made by the Department of Health’s Cost Recovery Programme. I was called by the BBC to help them understand the numbers and ended up speaking on World at One on Radio 4. This was followed in the afternoon by an interview on the BBC News channel. The W@O interview started with the same conflation of health tourism with normal use of the NHS – which I corrected. But I also realised that rather than knowing the numbers, I would have been better having some catchy shorthand ways of putting the numbers in context. The News channel interviewer commented “that’s a lot of numbers” when I was stumbling through the detail.
My conclusion (which I know is easier said than done) is that rather than getting bogged down in the detail of rebuttal, we need – like the New York Times – to be bold enough to call a lie a lie. And when the ‘post-truth’ peddlers are, for example, going to talk about “giving the NHS the £350m the EU takes every week”, we must resist the temptation to resort to implausible exaggerations of the counter-arguments – which is how some in the Remain campaign presented the Treasury’s analysis of the impact of Brexit. Instead, we need to have our own slogans ready. The difference? Ours will be fact-based and ‘pro-truth’.