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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

America and the Death of Facts: Politics and the War on Rationalism

Abstract

Increasingly, society is moving away from the notion of readily identifiable and agreed-upon facts to one in which all information is reduced to (or elevated to) the status of evidence in support of agendas – be they political, scientific, theological, economic, academic or historical. The Information Age, which was hailed for its potential to unify society, is proving to be a profoundly divisive period, fragmenting society and providing each sector and sect with access to its own set of ‘facts’ that support their views. The pool of accepted facts shrinks and the polarization of society increases – the fault lines fed by a continual flow of purposeful information designed to bolster positions and discredit the opposition. The integrating effects of the legacy media, though much disparaged these days, were designed to address an undifferentiated mass audience with aspirations of objectivity. Facts were the food of a democracy, the nutrients upon which all decisions were to be made. In the absence of some discrete set of undisputed facts, opportunities for compromise, reconciliation and basic governance become rare, demagoguery rises and the bonds of civil society become increasingly strained.