In 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” as their International Word of the Year. They write, “Post-truth has gone from being a peripheral term to being a mainstay in political commentary, now often being used by major publications without the need for clarification or definition in their headlines,” and illustrate this with a (admittedly, sort of vague) graph showing the sharp rise of its use over the previous year (though there are no numbers on the Y-axis, so whether we’re talking dozens of uses or thousands, I guess we’ll never know).
Over the past decade, and with a rise in the prevalence of online news reporting, there has been more and more hand-wringing over the presentation of “facts” and “truth” by politicians and media outlets—with good cause, of course. The current sitting president of the United States has a particularly egregious reputation for spouting statements that are, shall we say, less-than-true. The fact-checking website Politifact has rated over 800 statements made by the President, finding only 14% of them “true” or “mostly true.”
So, what does it mean to live in a “post-truth world”? Oxford Dictionaries proposes this definition of “post-truth”:
Post-truth is an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.
This definition, though, begs the question: what even is a fact?
Just the Facts, Ma’am
There are many definitions of fact, and I’m not just talking about alternative facts, either. There are subtle differences in the definitions of the word fact across the Oxford English Dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and the Cambridge Dictionary. The definition most useful for our purposes here is the second entry in the Merriam-Webster definition:
a piece of information presented as having objective reality
Notice that this definition does not say, “a piece of information grounded in objective reality,” or “information based on objective reality”; it says, “a piece of information presented as having objective reality.
I like this definition because it reflects actual contemporary usage of the term fact. Claiming to have “the facts” is something both Democrats and Republicans (and other political parties) do. Calling on a fact is a powerful tool in persuasive communication, and not just in politics. Any argument based on something the author claims is a fact has a certain persuasive appeal to it.
A rhetorical appeal, that is.
Logos, The Housing Market, and Aquaman
Back in ye olde ancient Greece, appeals to facts, logic, or rationality were called appeals to logos. When people say things like, “It just makes sense,” or “It’s common sense,” or “It’s the rational thing to do,” those are all appeals to logos. If something is the rational thing to do, it’s obviously the best thing to do, right?
Two things. First of all, just because a person claims something is the “rational” thing to do, or claims something is a “fact,” doesn’t mean that thing is, in fact (haha), rational or a fact. One of my favorite examples of this comes from Youtuber Hbomberguy in his video about climate change. He critiques a claim from Ben Shapiro; Shapiro argues that even if water levels do rise enough to make living in low-lying coastal areas impossible, that the people who live in those places would just sell their home and move. Put that way, it seems rational, doesn’t it? You’re worried that your home might one day be underwater, so you should probably put it on the market and get the heck out of town, right?
But as Hbomberguy so eloquently says, “Sell their houses to who, Ben?! Fucking Aquaman?!” People will have to move, yes, but it’s the selling part that’s not as rational as Ben seems to think it is. Underwater real estate is not exactly a seller’s market.
The fact is (lol), anyone can call anything a fact. That doesn’t make it actually grounded in reality.
Second, what is rational to do in any given moment is actually highly debatable.
Marshmallows and Avocado Toast
One example of this contested nature of so-called rationality comes from psychology. In 1972, a psychologist at Stanford University named Walter Mischel began a study on patience in children. In this experiment, he sat a kid down at a table, put a marshmallow in front of them, and told them not to eat it until he returned. He said that if the kid waited, he would come back with another marshmallow. Then, he conducted follow up studies that linked the child’s ability to wait for the second marshmallow (their patience, or what he called “delayed self-gratification”) with measures of success in life—higher grades, higher SAT scores, etc.
This kind of talk around “delayed self-gratification” is often deployed against people who, for whatever reason, don’t do things like save for retirement, supposedly because of all those lattes and avocado toasts. According to this logic, it’s rational to save for retirement, or to buy a house, and if you millennials would just delay your self-gratification (i.e., stop buying lattes and avocado toast), your finances would be in a better position. It’s only logical. It’s common sense.
But is it?
In 2012, researchers Celeste Kidd, Holly Palmeri, and Richard N. Aslin published a variation on the traditional marshmallow experiment. In their version of the study, they created two conditions: a reliable condition and an unreliable condition. In both conditions, kids were initially given some well-worn art supplies, but told if they waited a bit, the researchers would bring back some better, newer art supplies. In the reliable condition, researchers left the room for two and half minutes and then actually came back with better supplies. In the unreliable condition, when the researchers returned, they told the kid they were sorry, but they couldn’t find the better art supplies, and asked if the kid could just use the ones they already had.
And then they did the original marshmallow task.
Which group of kids do you think were better able to wait for their second marshmallow?
If you guessed the kids in the reliable condition, you’re right. The researchers had already proven themselves to be reliable to the kids, so they were better able to wait than the kids to whom the researchers had proven their lack of reliability.
Given these two scenarios, which decision is a more rational decision, the decision to eat the marshmallow, or the decision to wait? Essentially, the researchers argue that both of those decisions are rational given their respective circumstances. If you don’t trust the researchers to come back with more marshmallows (a reasonable assumption given their previous behavior), it’s actually a more rational decision to go ahead and eat the marshmallow.
The Power of Logos
Appeals to logos are powerful. In a cultural climate that prizes rationality and common sense in the way that we do in the United States, it’s natural to want to appear rational, to do the rational thing. But appeals to logos are just like appeals to ethos and appeals to pathos in that they are tools of rhetoric that can operate both for us and against us. Hopefully being able to deconstruct them and find the underlying messages in the communication you encounter will help you in your own decision-making process.
But what if you want to use appeals to logos to construct your own persuasive communication? That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms, one I’ll hopefully get to next time.
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