In this age of ‘truth decay’, we hear about the rise of a post-truth era, the spread of fake news, the ills of social media and the new infosphere.
Nick Enfield, Professor of Linguistics and Head of the Sydney Initiative for Truth (SIFT) at the University of Sydney, described the roots of the problem, some of its key features, and some directions for designing ways to overcome it.
Three points came to the fore. First, we need to recognise that language has different functions, which can sometimes work against each other to compromise the veracity of information: our statements are sometimes genuinely intended to inform, but at other times they merely signal our allegiances. Second, we need to recognise that our own cognitive habits and limitations play a role in truth decay. We urgently need to promote new forms of cognitive literacy, beyond gestures to critical thinking. And third, our polarised us/them culture is in part fostered by our values around knowledge, evidence, and our own limitations. As individuals and as a society, we need to prioritise intellectual humility.
Nick Enfield is the Professor of Linguistics and Head of the Sydney Initiative for Truth (SIFT) at the University of Sydney.
His research on language, culture, cognition and social life is based on long term field work in mainland Southeast Asia, especially Laos. His recent books include Natural Causes of Language, The Utility of Meaning, Distributed Agency, and How We Talk.
Nick has published widely in linguistics, anthropology, and cognitive science venues, and has written for the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, the Wall Street Journal, and Science. He is a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, the Royal Society of New South Wales, and the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
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