In just a little over eight minutes – on the morning of Wednesday, May 29th – the post-truth era came to an end.
Or did it?
That’s when Special Counsel Robert Mueller took the podium and addressed only the facts concerning his two-year-long investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election as well as possible collusion and obstruction of justice.
Some might feel that Mueller struck a blow for truth and reality in a world where we are daily surrounded by opinion, spin and commentary. He seemed determined to follow the old rules no matter the madness that surrounded him.
Others, however, might feel that Mueller presented himself more as an antique specimen, and not a particularly useful one at that. How? By refusing to accept the reality that he was giving his address in a world where he knew his statement would be spun, lied about and exploited by others.
What is the role of someone who speaks only of facts in a tornado of partisan bombast? Is it a breath of fresh air? Or an abdication of responsibility to protect the country’s interests?
Facts vs post-truth
I’m a philosopher who studies the rational foundation for belief. In my book, “Post-Truth” (MIT Press, 2018), I explore the idea that “post-truth” actually goes far beyond the Oxford dictionaries’ definition of it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Instead, I offer the idea that post-truth is more usefully understood as the “political subordination of reality,” in which truth is the first casualty on the road to authoritarianism.
If that is right, what are we to think of Mueller’s fact-based statement?
At the start, Mueller outlined the parameters and limitations of his investigation. Given Justice Department guidelines, he said, he could not charge a sitting president with a crime (left unsaid: even if he felt that he had committed one).
Furthermore, in the interest of “fairness,” Mueller offered that it would be untoward to accuse someone of a crime when there could be no ultimate determination of guilt or innocence at trial.
Thus, Mueller offered no opinion on whether Trump had committed a crime. (Left unsaid: What would be the point?) As he put it, charging Trump with a crime was “not an option we could consider.”
The two things “left unsaid” would not be “factual” statements, but rather opinions, and he was avoiding those.
But then we get to the most intriguing part of Mueller’s statement, where a brief lesson in logic is in order.
What Mueller believes
In deductive logic, there is a relationship called the “contrapositive,” which demonstrates the equivalence between statements like “if P, then Q” and “if not Q, then not P.” Millions of LSAT takers have come to learn this by evaluating the validity of arguments like the following:
1. Premise: If it's raining, the streets are wet 2. Premise: It's raining 3. Conclusion: Therefore, the streets are wet
This is a deductively valid argument, indeed famously so. The lesson here: If you buy the truth of the premises there can be no doubt about the truth of the conclusion. This one is a cinch.
Now compare this argument to a second one: