Fake News and The Manifest Truth Delusion: Part 2 of 3

See Part 1 here.

The most well-known dystopian novel of the 20th Century, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, featured a Ministry of Truth, the centre of mind-control, with tentacles sprawling over the news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts. The BBC recently expanded into education and wishes to “partner” with other major British institutions, such as the Royal Society. Ought one to feel uncomfortable with such an expansion and its potential unintended consequences? Could it herald a dilution of mutual criticism between such institutions that entered into such association, laying the groundwork, brick-by-brick for a monopoly on truth-claims?

One coherent reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that the main role of the Ministry of Truth was not to identify truth, but to determine what would be taken for the truth by the public that would conform to the party’s doctrine and mercurial propaganda.

In the novel, O’Brien, Winston Smith’s torturer, tells Winston, “There is a Party slogan dealing with the control of the past. Repeat it, if you please.” Winston repeated obediently: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” O’Brien is alluding to the control of belief, not the control of the external, objective world. O’Brien explains to Winston:

“This is not solipsism. Collective solipsism, if you like. But that is a different thing: in fact, the opposite thing. All this is a digression,” he added in a different tone. “The real power, the power we have to fight for night and day, is not power over things, but over men.”

As Friedrich von Hayek argues in the chapter “End of Truth”, in his book Road to Serfdom [1944], a critique of collectivist planning (which Orwell had favourably reviewed):

“The most effective way of making everybody serve the single system of ends towards which the social plan is directed is to make everybody believe in those ends. To make a totalitarian system function efficiently it is not enough that everybody should be forced to work for the same ends. It is essential that the people should come to regard them as their own ends.”

In Orwell’s nightmarish world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the control of belief meant that newspapers and history books are rewritten, usefully contradicting or omitting what had previously been taken as the truth. Issues previously thought important are suitably reframed as trivial and vice versa. A new language, “Newspeak”, is invented to imprison thought itself within the Party doctrine and its current view of things. Not only forbidden beliefs are beyond your grasp; you cannot conceive counterfactual possibilities except in the most vague and incommunicable form. You are incapable of being aware that they are forbidden. And, if you attempt to say, for example, that all men are created equal, people would think you were uttering the palpable absurdity that all men were the same height or weight. The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the apotheosis of fake news.

The predilection for censorship and the attempt to imprison the mind finds support within some cultural movements facilitated by the mainstream media. The taboo on criticizing Black Lives Matter is a striking case. Are such puritanical movements part of many incremental steps toward totalitarianism and newspeak? Saying “black lives matter” leads a double life and recalls Nineteen Eighty-Four’s “doublethink” and also the difficulty of stating your commitment to equality before the law within Nineteen Eighty-Four’s bizarre world. One life of the BLM motto is as a statement that almost all people accept — of course they do, they are people. The other parallel life is as a pledge of allegiance to a group. Replying that “all lives matter” is framed as the palpable absurdity that you reject the importance of black lives and is taken instead for your pledge of allegiance to groups opposed to black people’s lives. When all along, you only wish to emphasize your egalitarian concern and love for all. This framing of what you have said is as absurd as thinking you had declared that all people are equal in height.

In such a world such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and increasingly our own, doubt about policies and any official “facts” deemed relevant to policy are regarded as disloyalty and even state sabotage, because spreading doubt undermines the belief in the propaganda sustaining the system. The censorship we see on YouTube, Facebook, and other social media platforms of alternative views about climate change, Brexit, and COVID-19 critical of the official state propaganda could conceivably morph over time into an inchoate ministry of truth. Whether these alternative accounts are true or false, someone else decides whether or not we become aware of them. As Edward Bernays pointed out in his classic book Propaganda [1928], there is nothing vicious about propaganda as such. Originally, the word propaganda was without a pejorative connotation and meant simply the propagation of a doctrine or system:

“Effort directed systematically toward the gaining of public support for an opinion or course of action.” (Funk and Wagnall’s dictionary).

Orwell and Hayek agreed that what is vicious is the presence of but one propaganda machine, a characteristic of totalitarian regimes. Both Orwell and Hayek were keen to point out that moves to totalitarianism are piecemeal, step-by-step. Is the idea that one can stamp out fake news combined with moves such as the BBC “partnering” with other currently independent sources of information, the incremental road to the big fake? I’m suggesting that the BBC is taking an incremental step toward totalitarianism. And, paradoxically, in an effort to suppress falsehood, they are in fact incrementally supporting the establishment of falsehood.

What little plausibility a Ministry of Fake News has depends in part on what Karl Popper called the “Manifest Theory of Truth”. The idea of manifest truth is that if anyone just pays proper attention, then when presented with the truth, they would accept it as obvious. If truth were manifest, fake news would be opaque. In that case, the systematic identification and extirpation of all and only fake news would be feasible even if expensive. But it is a delusion. It is an old authoritarian theory of knowledge that can be traced back at least to Aristotle.

Aristotle took it for granted that all our claims to truth have to be justified to count as knowledge. His conception of authoritative knowledge was justified true belief. Aristotle’s position is interesting because, although he held the common-sense correspondence theory of truth, claims of truth for him were bound up through his notion of knowledge with subjective belief, and not objective statements that can be true or false independently of whether anyone thinks of them. This all-encompassing requirement of justification became the metacontext of all western philosophical thought: justificationism. It is the principle that one should accept all and only positions that can be justified by argument or experience. Even criticism itself became defined in terms of showing that a position was without justification.

But Aristotle noticed that if we are to justify the conclusions of our arguments, there was a problem lurking in our need for premises. In a valid argument, if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. That’s fine, but what if someone questions those assumptions? Since all arguments start with premises, we don’t want to be in the position of having to justify each and every one of our premises by further argument as well, because each justifying argument would bring in further unargued premises of its own, and so on ad infinitum. He avoided that infinite regress by simply assuming that we can clearly and infallibly intuit some basic principles of science and those would be our manifestly true starting points. Some premises don’t require justification because they are self-evident. For the infinite regress, Aristotle substituted a dogmatic stopping point. So, when someone questions your argument, you can say, “Well, they are manifestly true to me! Take it or leave it!” You might see why this would appeal to any real-life Big Brother.

Francis Bacon, ironically a major critic of Aristotle on other issues, also hatched an influential version of the manifest truth delusion. Bacon advanced a picture of the ideal scientist unencumbered by biases and prejudices. In Bacon’s view, the scientist could get into a position from which he could see nature directly. Bacon was a proponent of the view that our theories are induced from careful, repeated and varied observation. But everyone, Bacon thought, is naturally impaired to some degree by what he called their “idols” or prejudices, what we are more likely today to call biases. If one could only rid one’s vision of these corrupting distortions to judgement, nature would reveal herself in naked truth. Popper showed that Aristotle and Bacon, and most conventional thought about truth claims, are mistaken.

Karl Popper countered the manifest truth idea by arguing that capturing truth is possible, but it is often a hard-won gem. Truth is captured — if at all — through guesswork followed by ruthless and relentless criticism. This is Popper’s method of conjecture and refutation. In an attempt to solve a problem in explaining the structure of the world, a scientist creates a hypothesis. Typically, the scientist then works out what logically follows from this hypothesis in conjunction with other conjectures, often comprising initial conditions and background knowledge. Ideally, there ought to be many competing hypotheses. At any stage we are always only in possession of conjectured truth. Even the observational test reports are laden with conjectural theory. Science starts, not with unprejudiced or unbiased observation, but with those very prejudices and biases.

What happens when justificationism is itself in the philosophical dock and has to justify itself? It is, after all, a position and therefore demands justification of itself. Again, further vicious infinite regresses or dogmatisms lurk behind the grand posture. On the other hand, Karl Popper’s critical rationalism is untroubled by Aristotle’s infinite regress or dogmatism. Both are dissolved by the proposal to treat all positions — of both noble and ignoble pedigree — as conjectures. Even critical rationalism itself can be held open as a conjectural proposal and attitude without incurring anomalies. Justificationism is repudiated by comprehensive critical rationalism and replaced by the fallible search for truth; truth becomes the standard of criticism, not justification. (See William Warren Bartley [1962], The Retreat to Commitment. 2nd edition, 1984.)

The emphasis on the conjectural character of our “knowledge” is not the post-modern repudiation of realism or the idea or possibility of absolute truth or the embrace of cultural relativism, but an admission of our fallibility and the suggestion that new theories can only come from a leap of the imagination. Indeed, the idea that we are fallible presupposes that there is an objective standard against which our speculative groping may clash.

A prejudice is a judgement before the evidence, a conjecture. The scientific attitude to a prejudice therefore is to formulate that prejudice, make it explicit, and then subject it to unstinting criticism, preferably of observation in a controlled and reproducible experiment.

In contrast to Bacon’s view, our observations are not manifest springboards to theories by induction. Rather, observation functions as a trash can for our prejudices, our pre-judgements. And even the observations are imbued with a viewpoint: a view from anywhere is a view from somewhere. These views are theories, perhaps unexamined or barely formulated. It is often a difficult, highly theoretical task to work out what is happening in the test situation itself. This is clear when you look at experiments that use a particle accelerator, an elaborate device presupposing thousands of subtle assumptions for its proper use. The point is that Bacon’s project of separating nature’s naked truth from the viewpoint or prejudice is impossible. Nature is never manifest.

If you look back at my candidates for fake news, you may grant that they are hardly simple reports of uninterpreted events such as “Trump rides a red bicycle every morning at 10:30 A.M. on such-and-such a street.” They all involve theoretical assumptions. Support for neo-Nazis, for example, is something one has to impute by guess-work to a person on the basis of “reading their mind” from overt behaviour and context. This is clearer with such terms as “dog whistling,” “gaslighting,” and “internalised racism/misogyny” —phenomena that if true must be determined by mind-reading. I’m not saying that one can’t do this. We do it all the time. I’m saying that if some of that behaviour is ignored and context is left out, you are flouting the standards of science. An action made in jest can look exactly like a serious action, especially if it’s bad as a joke. Although less sensational, “Trump rides a red bicycle every morning at 10:30 A.M. on such-and-such a street” is closer to the idea of an uninterpreted news report, but even this involves the conjecture that it is Trump himself and not a security double. But at least it could be checked, as it is a repeatable public event — like a scientific experiment. Much of the time, a journalist has much less to work with, but at least we know the ideal to approximate. However, much of mainstream journalism today sells putative mind-readings instead of corroborable news in the honourable journalist tradition.

Since I’ve made liberal use of the word “truth” and adopted it as the standard of criticism and the control of error and therefore of Fake News, let’s look a little closer at what truth is.

There are three main theories of truth. There is the pragmatic theory, which teaches us that truth is usefulness: a view is true if it advances your interests. Then we have the coherence theory, which teaches us that truth is a consistency: a view is true if it holds together logically with what you already believe. Finally, there is the classical theory: a view is true if it corresponds to the world. This is the main contender for what is our common-sense notion.

The classical theory is a robust and clear common-sense notion of truth. When a court of law asks you to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, everyone understands without any difficulty what they must do. It certainly doesn’t mean, ‘make sure you tell a story that’s coherent with your beliefs and is useful for your case’. But is the common-sense notion free from difficulties? The correspondence theory says that a statement is true if it corresponds to a state of affairs or the facts. But philosophers and mathematicians noticed that when we use the concept of truth too liberally, it breaks down and produces paradoxes. The most famous of such anomalies is the liar paradox, in which a liar tells us that he is a liar. A more formal example is the bizarrely self-referential sentence, “This sentence is false.” If what it says is true, then it’s false. But if it is false, then what it says is true. It’s true if false, and false if true! An inescapable loop!

Paradoxes are sometimes misleadingly called contradictions (e.g. “I am in the capital city Paris, but not in France.”) Classifying this statement as simply false presents no problem. But as we have seen, if you classify the liar sentence as false, you are entangled in a strange anomalous loop.

Theories of truth were beset by such paradoxes. However, The mathematician Alfred Tarski rehabilitated the correspondence view and resolved this and other paradoxes surrounding it. Roughly speaking, Tarski showed that liar-like paradoxes can be classified as false. The important point is that his theory portrays truth as a relation between language and the world. It is therefore outside your head and your subjective states. A set of geometric statements generated by a computer but never read by a human being can be true (or false) on this theory. Even a random collection of pebbles on a beach could form a true or false sentence. Tarski made it possible to use truth in conjunction with a realist view of the world and undermined any post-modern cynicism about truth that exploited its vulnerability to the paradoxes or its connection with human consciousness, belief or intention.

Just as fundamentally, Tarski showed by his theory and definition of truth that we can understand truth independently of any decision procedure, such as a proof or verification, for producing it, endorsing it, or classifying it. For thousands of years in mathematics, truth and proof were treated as synonymous or inextricably linked. In their work in metamathematics, Alfred Tarski and Kurt Friedrich Gödel tore them asunder. There are mathematical truths that are simply conjectures. (For example, Goldbach’s Conjecture “Every even integer greater than 2 is the sum of two primes.” has yet to be proven and may be simply true.) It also followed from Tarski’s and Gödel’s work that there was no general criterion of truth. There is no general mechanical decision procedure for separating truth and falsehood. Ipso facto, despite what the so-called “fact-checkers” may insinuate, there is no general procedure (or fancy algorithm) for identifying manifest truth or falsity and therefore Fake News.

The most that Facebook or YouTube “fact checkers” can claim to have are truth-criteria within tiny domains (such as the 12 times table). Any grander claims fail to match up in reality to their arrogance because of ubiquitous human fallibility and bias in applying even correct criteria and the obvious “expert” disagreement in more subtle and complex realms of knowledge. There is always room for critical comment even from the lone inexpert who may blurt out that the social media king has no clothes.

Tarski’s theory allows us to see truth as outside and independent of people’s subjective states, including intentions to lie or fashion fake news. Once you write down or record a thought, it is outside your head and may develop a life of its own beyond your ken and control. It may be critically evaluated independently of you, even if it’s Fake News.

Continue to part 3 here.

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Conjecture Magazine

Conjecture Magazine is dedicated to progress through ever better explanations, criticism thereof, and avoiding appeals to authority in all its guises.

Dr Ray Scott Percival

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Author of the book The Myth of the Closed Mind and director of the documentary Liberty Loves Reason, starring David Deutsch F. R. S. and Prof. Paul Levinson.

Conjecture Magazine

Conjecture Magazine is dedicated to progress through ever better explanations, criticism thereof, and avoiding appeals to authority in all its guises.

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