A study reveals the use of rationality-related words has been on the rise since 1850, but started declining around 1980 in favour of more emotive language.
A new study has highlighted how the public’s alleged disdain for scientific facts and apathy towards ‘truth’ is a result of processes that began unfolding decades ago.
This would fly in the face of the accepted genesis for our ‘post-truth’ age, which entered our lexicon in 2016 to describe a socio-political landscape that had succumbed to impulsive irrationality in the face of unvarnished facts to birth Donald Trump and Brexit.
That post-factual inclination seems even more entrenched in the face of a global pandemic, with anti-vaxxer sentiment and conspiracy theories raging across cyberspace and having real-world consequences.
But the triumph of subjective feeling over dispassionate facts in public discourse stretches back much before any wily reactionary populist came on the scene. After all, public distrust of elected officials can be traced to a number of events prior to 2016, from the 2008 financial crash to debates over imaginary weapons of mass destruction.
Now, a study conducted by scientists from Wageningen University and Research (WUR) and Indiana University notes that over the last four decades, public interest has undergone an accelerating shift from the collective to the individual, as humanity slipped into a ‘post-truth’ era driven more by emotional register than rational dialogue.
To make the case, an analysis of word use in millions of books in English, Spanish, French, Italian, Russian and Chinese were undertaken covering the period from 1850 to 2019. What researchers found was that words associated with reasoning, such as ‘determine’ and ‘conclusion’ rose since 1850, while words associated with experience like ‘feel’ and ‘believe’ declined.
This pattern has reversed over the past 40 years, paralleled by a shift from a collectivistic focus to an individualistic one as reflected by the ratio of singular to plural pronouns like ‘I’ replacing ‘we’.
“Interpreting this synchronous sea-change in book language remains challenging,” writes study co-author Johan Bollen of Indiana University.
“However, as we show, the nature of this reversal occurs in fiction as well as non-fiction. Moreover, we observe the same pattern of change between sentiment and rationality flag words in New York Times articles, suggesting that it is not an artefact of the book corpora we analysed.”
Presuming what the drivers of long-term patterns from 1850 until 1980 “remains speculative,” said lead author Marten Scheffer of WUR.
“One possibility when it comes to the trends from 1850 to 1980 is that the rapid developments in science and technology and their socio-economic benefits drove a rise in status of the scientific approach, which gradually permeated culture, society and its institutions ranging from education to politics,” noted Scheffer.
What changed from the 1980s onwards?
What precisely caused the reversal of the trend in 1980 remains difficult to pinpoint, although one postulation the study’s authors make is to link it to fundamental economic changes that took place during that period.
The ushering in of neoliberalism and its policy prescriptions of deregulation and financialisation, which were wedded to the tenures of US president Ronald Reagan and UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s, elevated the primacy of the individual and the ‘entrepreneurship of the self’ at the expense of the collective and public interest.
This ethos was (in)famously inscribed in Thatcher’s dictum that “there’s no such thing as society.”
So, is it fair to say that structural changes in the economic realm played a determining role in the corresponding shift in cultural phenomena?
“Maybe ‘determinant’ is too strong a term, but I can imagine that inequality, especially if it's perceived as unfair, has a strong effect on many things that we consider perhaps part of ‘culture’,” Scheffer told TRT World.
“For instance, it may affect trust in institutions, but also ‘generalised trust’ in other people. This has major implications for how well countries do in challenges that require collective action.”
Scheffer points to a recent paper published showing that countries where more than 40 percent agreed that “most people can be trusted” end up doing much better in controlling Covid-19.
The technocratic impulse, then, to ‘fact-check’ is rooted in a plea for a nostalgic period prior to our current ‘post-truth’ era – one which happens to rest on set of post-truth premises as well, one where economic liberal values – that of private property, self-interest, formal political freedom without material equality – are innate to human nature.
To subscribe to a time when belief in rationality reigned over subjective truthmaking is to act as if the Iraq War or insider trading on Wall Street never took place.
What is apparent is that technology, particularly the advent of Web 2.0, has amplified the underlying trends of atomisation and neoliberal subjectivity reflected in our language.
The authors found that the shift from rationality to emotion in books kicked into high gear with the rise of social media, when across languages the frequency of fact-related words plummeted while emotion-laden jargon surged.
“Patterns seem to be surprisingly similar everywhere,” Scheffer said, adding that those changes especially accelerated once social media appeared on the scene around 2007.
“Whatever the drivers, our results suggest that the post-truth phenomenon is linked to a historical seesaw in the balance between our two fundamental modes of thinking: reasoning versus institution,” said co-author Ingrid van de Leemput from WUR.
And if that’s true, she believes the trend might be “impossible” to reverse.
Science and/or ‘facts’ themselves cannot always be considered a priori truth either, given its vulnerability to politicisation. A scientific fact of yesteryear like eugenics, offers a case in point.
“Instead, societies may need to find a new balance, explicitly recognizing the importance of institution and emotion, while at the same time making best use of the much needed power of rationality and science to deal with topics in their full complexity,” van de Leemput said.