Some are pushing this idea that somehow there is something to the media environment, that does not allow for truth. The Oxford definition of it goes

relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

This is definitely an absurd definition since normative questions are/were always answered on the basis of personal beliefs and emotions, and the facts only relate to descriptive questions. So, what is going on?

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    Is a question about, say, crowd sizes in Washington on inauguration day a normative or descriptive one in your opinion?
    – Drux
    Jan 25, 2017 at 9:20
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    Since you did not specify which link did you use, I do not know if you did read (from Oxford dictionaries itself) this article that goes into more depth. This answer also refers tangentially to the issue.
    – SJuan76
    Jan 25, 2017 at 11:35
  • @Drux I would have preferred some strong metric, or method that could be used to arbitrate. But since such a thing does not exist, I wouldn't be tempted to believe either side. Questions like that become normative if neither side has compelling empirical data.
    – user10244
    Jan 25, 2017 at 12:11
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's about language/english rather than politics.
    – user1530
    Jan 29, 2017 at 20:18

3 Answers 3


Post-Truth Politics

According to wikipedia, the term "post-truth" originates from a 2010 article on Grist: Post-Truth Politics. According to the author, the Enlightenment (pre-post-truth) idea of voting is that each voter gathers facts to reach a conclusion about political issues, forms political opinions based on that work, and then selects a party or candidate which matches their political opinios.

In the post-truth scenario, voters choose a party (or a "tribe") based on personal values. They adopt the political positions of their group, then develop arguments to support their position. These arguments carefully screen out facts which do not support their argument.

Normative vs Descriptive Statements

The question references the ideas of normative and descriptive statements (or questions). In both cases, voters are asked about both normative ("which candidate should I vote for?") and descriptive ("how many people actually attended the inauguration of Donald Trump?*") questions.

The difference is the order of operations: in the truth scenario, political positions are built on evidence and rational thought. In the post-truth scenario, facts and conclusions are molded to fit the argument at hand. Below I use the recent discussion of inauguration attendance as an example of both scenarios.

In the "truth" scenario, people build their normative conclusions on factual decisions. For example, if I conclude that Presiden-Elect Trump's inauguration was not the best attended in history, I may be skeptical of his claims and be less favorable toward him. My political decision (how much I support President Trump) is based on a factual appraisal of how many people attended the inauguration. If the evidence showed that he was correct, I would have evaluated him more favorably.

In the post-truth scenario, people choose the normative positions first, and then tailor their arguments and selection of facts to fit their normative position. Example: If I am committed to President Trump's viewpoint and agree with my party, than I am not open to evidence or argument suggesting that the inauguration wasn't the biggest in history. Or, I may change the frame of the question to something that fits my preconception. No evidence will change my mind.

Some Other Descriptions of Post-Truth

Wikipedia presents some other descriptions of post-truth politics:

  • "campaigners continue to repeat their talking points, even if these are found to be untrue by the media or independent experts"
  • conspiracy theories may become major news topics
  • A situation where public opinion is disconnected from the factual nature of policy

*I'm using the inauguration attendance discussion as an example, not to imply what the facts on either side of the issue are. If you want to discuss the facts try any of the bajillion posts on Skeptics.SE

  • This does not sound accurate at all. I would like to see some evidence for it. People have always put normative questions first IMHO. No one asked if witchcraft really caused a bad harvest. They just went with their biases. Now there seems to be this argument that in the post enlightenment world this suddenly changed. Again deeply inaccurate. At least till 1850 England required swearing loyalty to the Church of England for scientists in public institutions. But something changed post 1900 definitely. And that is better explained by the centralization of the media IMHO.
    – user10244
    Jan 29, 2017 at 12:00
  • That is the definition straight from the source of the term. Your example doesn't seem entirely relevant: those people swearing oaths of loyalty could be acting under wither paradigm. You would have to know more about their decision making process to decide. Jan 29, 2017 at 14:35

I think Harry Frankfurt's explanation of bullshit from this 2014 interview (as well as from his 1986 paper and 2005 book On Bullshit) is relevant here. Perhaps bullshit (by his definition) and post-truth denote the same phenomenon.

[Bullshit] consists in a lack of concern for the difference between truth and falsity. The motivation of the bullshitter is not to say things that are true or even to say things that are false, but he is serving some other purpose, and the question of whether what he says is true or false is really irrelevant to his pursuit of that ambition. The bullshitter is not necessarily a liar, what he says may very well be true and he may not think that it is false [...] Bullshit is somehow a more insidious threat to the values that I am concerned with than lying is because the liar knows what the truth is and he is concerned with keeping people away from the truth. This in itself shows a certain respect for the value of truth and the importance of truth whereas the bullshitter does not care at all.

Now to answer your specific question: Harry Frankfurt on the same occasion offered two reasons for why there is more bullshit in contemporary life than was perhaps around in earlier times:

  1. The intensity of the marketing motive in contemporary society: We are constantly marketing things, selling products, selling people, selling candidates, selling programs, selling policies. And once you are starting out that your object is to sell something, then your object is not to tell the truth about it but to get people to believe about it what you want them to believe them about it. And so this encourages a resort to bullshit.

  2. It is a widespread view in a democratic society that a responsible citizen ought to have a view about everything. Well, you can't know much about everything and so your opinions are likely to be based upon ... bullshit.

  • @DeepS1X You're welcome. Other possible/tangential references: positive thinking (Norman Vincent Peale), truthiness (Stephen Colbert).
    – Drux
    Jan 29, 2017 at 7:37
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    That book is a) very short and b) should be required reading for everyone.
    – user1530
    Jan 29, 2017 at 20:27

you raised an excellent question.

The Oxford definition of it goes

I think it goes beyond just the normative / description nature you mentioned. It is highlighting an era we live in where the truth doesn't matter (or more precisely matters less), and the fluffy (persona, delivery, oratory skills, shock, and the like) matters far more. just like "fake news" - defined as untruth told to further a hidden agenda, either knowingly or unknowingly.

Take the recent discussion on "equality" for example. every decent man is for equality, or fairness, right? but its proponents never detailed, and were never asked to detail, exactly what they meant by "equality".

In the end, the people who badly needed help were energized by it, invested in it, and never got anything out of it. the people who are already taking advantage of their unwarranted advantages are raking in money, fame, and power.

So long as we live in a society where people are crucified for speaking their minds, are demonized for being different and unpopular, where echo chambers are preferred over hard and uncomfortable truth, "post truth" will be with us.

  • Your last paragraph is incredibly self-contradictory.
    – user1530
    Apr 26, 2017 at 20:20

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