“Post-truth,” the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016, is 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.” But as people discuss Brexit, Trump and other phenomena that seem boosted by a disregard for the facts, there is a steady discussion of this being a post-truth era. But saying we’re in a post-truth era assumes that we were formerly in a truth era, which is unfortunately not the case. In fact, we have always been in a “pre-truth” era, and this lies at the core of the shaky old foundation for our civilization.
Humans have for millennia, when confronted with questions they couldn’t answer at the time, sought answers they could live with. Such answers were often the results of coincidence, such as when a natural tragedy occurred after some seemingly immoral act or when rain appeared to result from appeals to an invisible power—in such cases causation was determined when it was really no more than correlation. Alternatively, answers were the result of great creativity, such as the many varied origin myths of various faiths. Today, it’s surprising to see the continuation of some of these ancient and outdated ideas that are no longer consistent with what we know based on scientific research and critical thinking.
Science, of course, is just a systematic process for observing our world, contemplating questions that arise, considering possible answers to those questions, deriving tests to see whether or not such possibilities make sense, and if so, determining ways to replicate the tests, so everyone, regardless of their beliefs, can see what was learned. Science is the best method humanity has yet to derive for finding answers that can be verified and gives us the closest thing to truth that can exist in a world constantly susceptible to new information and learning.
Humanists base their understanding of reality on sound science, tempered by compassion for the world around us and a conviction that humans are basically equal and deserve to be treated as such. And through this approach, the essence of humanism is the search for truth in all things, not just in the traditional sciences but in ethics and everything related to how we live our lives. Humanism provides a new foundation for civilization. Through his extremism and his unwillingness to even pretend that he’s paying attention to facts, Trump is unwittingly helping highlight the need to build on this foundation and usher in a real era of truth.
President Trump has been dismissive of the overwhelming consensus on climate change. He ignores the data surrounding immigration and continues to press on building a wall that immigration experts consummately believe will not be effective. Trump continues to advocate for a ban on individuals from seven countries, citing them as national security threats despite none of the countries having exported anyone that has committed an attack on American citizens. Phenomenally, Politifact has rated 70 percent of Donald Trump’s statements as being some degree of factually incorrect, compared to Barack Obama’s 25 percent incorrect rating. Seeing that evangelicals, who voted in droves for Donald Trump, found Hillary Clinton too “untrustworthy,” despite holding the same truth rating as Barack Obama, suggests a disconnect from reality. Many Americans apparently prefer to believe the most untrustworthy politician in a generation, while simultaneously doubting an individual who had a track record of accuracy.
The social problems our country faces aren’t appearing on the scene only now because Trump was elected—systemic oppression and xenophobia doesn’t happen overnight—as these beliefs have been a part of our culture for a very long time. There is a resistance in our culture to change and growth that frequently leaves us mired in bigotry and the mythology that supports it, instead of building consensuses. This is perhaps best evidenced by renowned bigot Pat Robertson, who recently said that the pro-equality platform of the Obama administration was the result of a “desire on the part of some, and I think it’s satanic, it really is spiritual, to destroy America... We were heading that way. Obama was bringing it on. Another four or eight years of Obama-style government and we would have been consumed with a socialist mentality and the freedom that we’ve enjoyed would be blotted out so God gave us a reprieve.”
So while Trump didn’t invent the regressive ideas he promotes, he and his cohort are ushering in a new acceptability for backward thinking. The only silver lining to this is that Trump is dealing at such an extreme level that most Americans recognize the morally retrograde nature of his approach and are already seeking something to replace it.
Enter humanism as a new foundation for better thinking. While the country rests in its state of “post-truth” society, rejecting facts, data, and scientific conclusions, it cannot progress. But humanism can be our path toward an era of truth. Humanism accepts the scientific method as a cornerstone of its ideology—the idea that skepticism leads to a search for the truth in every facet of life. This is why humanism is the answer to the “post-truth” era. Adopting a reason-based approach to our society built not on dogma and blind adherence to messages from thousands of years ago, but on the embrace of doubt, the scientific method, and our constant endeavor to innovate, will advance our species far beyond religion.
We aren’t now living in a “post-truth” era, simply because we never yet lived in a “truth” era. But Trump’s extremity of words and actions point us toward a better path forward in understanding the difference between fact and fiction. Recognizing the value of reason over dogma and embracing the positive tenants of humanism gives us our best hope of someday achieving an era of truth.