History, critical thinking and the ‘post-truth society’

Published in Editorial, Issue 1 (January/February 2017), Volume 25


The extraordinary developments of the year just ended—Trump’s election, Brexit—have given rise to a new sound-bite, the ‘post-truth society’, where there is no responsibility or accountability for statements made (e.g. that the UK can exit the EU and still maintain access to the single market but without free movement of people), where facts count for nothing, and the vilest of racist and sexist abuse is tolerated. It is indeed ironic that this situation has arisen at a time of unprecedented access to information. Yet the proliferation of media outlets, the internet and especially social media has created an ‘echo-chamber’ effect: increasingly, people only hear what they want to hear within sealed, polarised world-views.

This ‘post-truth’ world holds particular dangers for Ireland, but discussion has been narrowly and pragmatically focused on issues like trade (in the light of Brexit) or corporate tax rates (in the light of Trump’s plans to ‘repatriate’ US multinationals). This is understandable but misses a point touched on by Dermot O’Doherty (Platform, pp 14–15, quoting John Fitzgerald) that the successes (yes, there have been some) of recent Irish economic development have had more to do with the fostering of innovation and technical skills than with beggaring our neighbours (and ourselves) with low corporate tax rates. And in citing J.D. Bernal’s The social function of science he reminds us that there is a moral and not just a pragmatic aspect to this.

While Dermot’s piece is primarily concerned with science, technology and innovation, it is not unconnected with the arts and humanities (and history in particular), which reflect on the human condition and foster critical thinking. Even in a so-called ‘post-truth society’ the Earth still spins on its axis, the world is still governed by the same social, economic and environmental forces as ever, and the problems we face are still amenable to and demand collective rational human agency.

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