In 2005, television host Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness”, which refers to a statement that someone claims is true “from the gut” but has no basis in logic or fact. Colbert used the term to describe conservative pundit Glenn Beck’s assertions that, when he visited the National Archives in Washington, he held George Washington’s inaugural address in his hand. A representative from the National Archives claimed that this never occurred. Beck later confirmed these allegations, claiming that he lied because he “thought it would be a little easier.” This type of fabrication has permeated throughout our political discourse—a pertinent concern for University of Toronto Philosophy Professor Joseph Heath. In his latest book, Enlightenment 2.0, Heath argues that, in our social environment, logic and reason have taken a backseat to emotion and knee-jerk intuition.
The first part of the book discusses the psychology of reason and emotion, the second part describes why we are decreasing our reliance on logic, and the third section outlines how we can reverse this trend: by renovating our external environment.
In arguing that logic is used less and less, Heath describes what popular communications used to look like, citing the following coffee advertisement from 1866.
“The Universal Practice of mixing Chicory and other adulteratives with Coffee, has very much damaged in public estimation, what ought to be the most delicious of Beverages…it is evidently important that all the gases and fluids extracted by roasting should be carried off as quickly as possible in order to prevent their returning again to the Coffee, which is the case in the confined cylinder. This object is admirably accomplished by the new and patent “conical Cofffee Roaster” as used by Fell & Co.”
The ad claims that coffee can taste bad but, thanks to the conical roaster, Fell & Co can still produce a decent cup. In the world of coffee advertisements, this qualifies as a cognitive workout. In the 21st century, caffeine addicts need only to look for a Starbucks sign and follow their senses. Coffee companies have shifted away from appealing to an average person’s sense of logic and towards his/her knee-jerk desires. The same shift, unfortunately, has occurred in our political landscape.
Heath argues that rejection of reason started on the left with 1960s counterculture and 1980s postmodernism. The political right, however, has dominated the attack on reason—with Ronald Reagan serving as the movement’s pioneer.
In his first presidential campaign, Reagan repeatedly referenced the “Welfare Queen of Chicago”, a woman who, ostensibly, had thirty addresses, 80 aliases, and twelve Social Security cards, and successfully defrauded the social security system out of thousands of dollars annually. While the person in question, Linda Taylor, did exist, some of Reagan’s points about her were exaggerated. In a world based on reason and fact, this allegory would not hold water; in a world based off of gut instinct, the Welfare Queen narrative helped create widespread (but largely unfounded) resentment towards social security and those who use it.
According to Heath, Reagan’s popularity, combined with the development of CNN and the 24 hour news cycle, marked the start of America’s near-irreversible path towards acceptance of fabrication. Fabricated narratives, like the “Welfare Queen”, exploit a variety of cognitive biases: short sightedness, ability to see patterns when they don’t exist, and ability to confirm our own estimates (regardless of whether or not they are correct).
For some communications experts, it comes as no surprise that human cognitive biases are easily exploited. NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that humans are largely intuitive creatures that only use rationality when we feel a need to justify our emotional reactions. In Haidt’s view, reason is like a rider and intuition is its rowdy horse, leaving the rider unable to steer its less-than-humble steed. But Heath disputes this notion and extends the analogy by saying that reason can briefly jump off the horse and set barriers guiding its path. In social terms, this means that humans can channel our unwieldy, knee-jerk, intuitive side by letting our rational side make alterations to our social environment. One way of doing so is the kluge, a method of changing a situation without fixing the underlying problem.
The term kluge is often used in the computer science world. For example, a programmer might be tasked with fixing a code in which one command spits out the wrong answer. Instead of repairing the underlying problem, one could just write another line of code redirecting the machine to the right answer. Heath argues similar fixes might work in our social world, particularly regarding identity politics.
Many social scientists would argue that humans have an innate tendency towards creating strong group identities with clear lines of membership—in which outsiders often stay outsiders. At worst, these tendencies can lead to nationalism, war, and racial tension. Heath argues that, instead of eliminating such tendencies, we should merely focus on channeling them elsewhere. For example, sports teams allow us to utilize our tendencies for group identity, enabling us to exhaust these motivations when we approach more serious realms, like decisions around race and cultural acceptance. Heath’s faith in kluges seems justified (albeit to a point: the American south has plenty of sports teams, but it also has plenty of racial prejudice).
While Heath offers fresh, in-depth analysis of human interactions, his chapter with suggestions for changing our social environment is very light. He approves of the Canadian Senate merely because it “slows down the legislative process”. As well, for a writer aiming to transform our political environment, Heath shows minimal interest in—and appreciation for—social media. He brashly dismisses twitter as “the verbal equivalent of slap fighting”. While it’s hard to view twitter as an unalloyed good, some public figures have successfully harnessed it to foster in-depth conversations. In 2011, Barack Obama held a “Twitter Town-Hall” that was moderated by the organization’s co-founder, Jack Dorsey. Dorsey selected tweets from participants across the country to form questions for his live Q & A with the president. This was a golden moment for Obama to dispel some of the most common misconceptions about his presidency.
Despite Enlightenment 2.0’s under-developed suggestions, Heath has a rare ability to practice what he preaches. He calls for a “return to reason”; by seamlessly blending academic research with references to coffee advertisements and Frasier, he is showing aspiring writers how to engage a reader’s more intelligent self.
Enlightenment 2.0 is a must-read, not only for its clear writing but also for its eerie prescience. Despite being written in 2014, Enlightenment. 2.0’s key concerns ring true in the 2016 American election, in which Hillary Clinton’s professional demeanor may be no match for Donald Trump’s hateful, bellicose rhetoric. Heath’s recommendations for combatting this style of demagoguery involve tinkering with the social environment that allowed it to flourish. When responding to Trump with reason is impossible, and sinking to his level is disheartening, renovating our social world seems like a worthy option. Let’s hope American progressives find a way to do so before Election Day. The Trump time bomb is already ticking.
Zachary Lewsen is a 2016 Master of Public Candidate whose interests lie in social policy, urban affairs, and public finance. Zachary is currently a Co-Editor in Chief of the Public Policy and Governance Review and a Graduate Fellow at the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance. When Zachary is not researching policy, he’s thinking about it—while watching House of Cards.