The Drill finds out the Dowser

An Exploration of Post-Factuality

dandoIn 1992 I organised an exhibition at Littlehampton Museum on the history of a local company, Duke and Ockenden, also known as Dando. The company had been drilling wells and making drilling and pumping equipment since the late 1860s. Even in later years, the company had continued to employ a dowser (water diviner) to find water sources. As part of the exhibition research, I interviewed former employees, and one that particularly sticks in my mind was a retired drilling engineer, then in his 80s. His was contemptuous of dowsing and, with a rather intense look, said to me “The drill finds out the dowser”. In a sense, this encapsulates the tension between empirical fact and what we believe in a post-factual society.

In his appendix to the Rogers Commission Report on the Challenger disaster, physicist Richard Feynman made a similar point. Concluding his scathing critique of NASA’s wilful blindness around the flaws in its solid rockests33-e204t boosters, Feynman remarks “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” He is obviously right; no amount of spin or PR can change the fact that the shuttle Challenger blew up on launch, and, we might think, the evidence from the Report provides a verifiable chain of events through which this disaster was brought about. And yet, the status of factual knowledge seems increasingly precarious in our society, to the extent that the very existence of facts comes into question.

True Enough

It has recently become fashionable to talk of a post-factual age, although this idea dates back, at least, to the 1980s and may, as I will suggest, go back much further. In his book True Enough (2008) Farhad Manjoo offers a quite detailed US perspective on the issue. Here I want to concentrate on two key points that he raises.

First is the question of quantity of information, a matter that should be of interest to all historians and archaeologists. Ostensibly more information should be good; the fact that we know more about the 20th century than the Upper Paleolithic must allow us to give a much more detailed and authoritative clinthill_limoaccount of the former. But does it? As Manjoo points out, this is not necessarily the case. If we compare, as he does, the evidence for John F. Kennedy’s assassination, with that of the 9/11 attacks, there is a mass of information, media etc on the latter, but the only comprehensive first hand evidence, so to speak, of the former is the Zapruder film. Does this make it less likely that there will be alternative explanations and conspiracy theories around 9/11? Far from it; as Manjoo discusses, works such as Dylan Avery’s film Loose Change can draw on a vast array of information to construct an elaborate conspiratorial account around the events of 9thSeptember 2001. In effect, the more information we have, the easier it is to construct contradictory accounts of an event or process and the internet offers a plethora of memetic means to disseminate them.

The second point concerns the nature of events. If I predict that Manchester United will win their next match, there will come a point at which this assertion can be verified. But if I predict that the World’s ice caps will melt due to Global warming, or that the Brexit will benefit the UK economy, it may well be many years, if ever, until these assertions can be verified or refuted. If in 10 or 20 years time the ice caps have not melted, I can still claim that eventually they will. In effect then, processes that have any sort of longer term outcome are open to all kinds of assertions and counter hypotheses, because the point at which fact on the ground can be established recede into the future, indeed there may be no point at which the drill will definitively find out the dowser.

Epistemological Chicken

Although only more recently given a name, I suggest that the conceptual roots of post-factual thinking lie in the emergence of relativism in the late 19th century. Although there are earlier claimants to a relativist philosophy, modern relativist thinking is generally said to originate with Nietzsche (1996 [1886a]: §14) who declares that all human conceptions and descriptions, including those advanced by scientists, are “only an interpretation and arrangement of the world (according to our own requirements, if I may say so!)—and not an explanation of the world.” This world view, we are told, was reinforced by the advent of the new physics of relativity and quantum mechanics; the so-called Heisenberg “uncertainty principle” seems to provide validation of relativism at the most fundamental levels of knowledge.

In more recent years, the development of increasingly radical versions of relativism has led to what Collins and Yearley (1992) regard as a game of epistemological chicken. There are in fact any number of versions of relativism, some of which, such as the methodological relativism traditionally adopted by anthropology, are essentially “soft” in their acceptance of an underlying, observable reality. Conversely, various versions of “hard” relativism, such as the social constructivist and “symmetrical” approaches found in Social Studies of Science and Technology (SST) constitute a rejection of the notion that there can be underlying facts against which relative viewpoints can be judged (see Collins and Yearley 1992 and responses). That facts are themselves socially constructed, and it is here that post-factuality can find epistemological traction.

As Hackett (1984) discusses, such epistemological developments create considerable difficulty for the media. Traditional debates between the notion that news sources might be objective, or that others are biased are undermined by relativism. For in as much as most of our mainstream media carry an overt political bias, it it equally not possible for any of them to be “objective”. In this context, organisations such as the BBC claim to offer “balance” which ostensibly provides a neat way to side step relativism. We do not choose a side, but simply report the different positions involved. This might seem entirely reasonable, even if at times the balance isn’t as entirely balanced as we might like. But beyond this the offer of balance elides the possibility of right and wrong, truth and lies. During the UK Brexit referendum, BBC journalists (it is said) applied the principle reserved for elections of not contradicting the factual claims made on either side. Yet at the same time the corporation offered a web based “Reality Check” service for viewers and listeners to interrogate the actual truth of claims being made.

When it comes to dealing with the role of relativism in the media, James Ettema (1987: 84) observes that: “communication scholars enjoy flirting with the notion of socially constructed reality but are rarely willing to embrace the epistemological relativism that comes with it.” A situation that perhaps applies to all scholars?

When was the Post-Factual Era?

post-fact-graphAs the graph from google trends shows, use of the term “post-factual” had something of a peak in June 2016. However, its origins go back to (at least) the mid 1980s. The earliest reference I have found is in Harpers Magazine for January 1985. Here journalist Frances FitzGerald remarks (1985: 48) “Someone recently called this the ‘post-factual age,’ and I think that there is something to be said for that.” The term is then taken up by Ettema (1987) in the aforementioned article.

But is this really the beginning? FitzGerald (1985: 48) attributes the phenomenon to the advent of television: “Television is very good at conveying impressions, but less good at conveying facts and information”, which is true, yet one might argue that this has always been true of mass media. As Innis (1950) suggests, the availability of cheap paper pulp from Canadian forests, coupled with the advent of independence_seaport_museum_224mass basic literacy in the late 19th century gave rise to a popular press which reached all parts of society in western states. From the very beginning, the capitalist logic of mass media circulation drove the desire for sensation, epitomised in the early yellow press of Pulizer’s New York World and Hearst’s New York Journal. Whilst the oft reported role of these papers in the 1898 Spanish-American war is undoubtedly exaggerated, newspapers with a national circulation did play a key part in creating popular support for the 1914-18 war. This is perhaps most obvious in the fabrication of German atrocities in Belgium in 1914 by the British Press.

That the present is trumpeted as an era of post-factuality goes to Manjoo’s point about quantity of information. In the early 20th century, mass media were limited to newspapers and later radio. In the two world wars, the flow of information could be and was tightly controlled, for example the sinking of the RMT Lancastria at St Nazaire in 1940, possibly one of the worst maritime disasters of all time, was subject to extensive censorship by the British government. Conversely, it is widely suggested that the extensive coverage of the Vietnam war was instrumental in the rise of public opposition to the conflict. The internet era offers yet another qualitative shift in the availability of information, but perhaps this misses the point; is it more the case that at any time it is the means by which we can verify what we are told or what we see/read that underpin factuality?

At this point in writing I serendipitously listened to BBC’s Archive on 4 from 2013; Presenting the Past – How the Media Changes History, described thus:“Change has swept through the way history is presented to the public. Programmes, films and books dealing with the past used to emphasise authority and accuracy as their great strengths. While those elements are still valued, argues historian and broadcaster Juliet Gardiner, the over-riding aim now has become to present an authentic view of the past. But how is that achieved? And what happens when the desire for authenticity conflicts with the facts?”


Lancastria sinking, St Nazaire, 1940

Leaving aside the conundrum of how authenticity can differ from authority and accuracy, this raises the point that the past and future share a certain symmetry when it comes to the post factual. Indeed the programme reiterates some of the issues raised by Manjoo concerning the availability of evidence. In discussing the film Atonement on which Gardiner acted as advisor, she notes that the film makers kept in a reference to the Lancastria being sunk at Dunkirk, as it emphasised the loss of life, even though the ship sank elsewhere and after the evacuation at Dunkirk. Conversely, she says, she was more concerned about the inclusion of black actors among the British Espeditionary Force, and the programme goes on to discuss the tension between colour blind casting and historical accuracy.

Clearly, then, in an age when there can, apparently, be no authoritative account of history, is it legitimate to write the past in terms of current political concerns? Is the past itself post-factual?

The Truth is Out There

There are no simple answers to post-factuality, but as a soft relativist I want to insist on the reality of facts and of the existence of truth. Returning to the question of uncertainty in physics offers some insight. As Barad (2007) points out, Hiesenberg’s interpretation of uncertainty is challenged by Neils Bohr, in terms of what he calls complementarity. Thus, rather than quantum physics offering us uncertain outcomes, it actually implies that the knowledge of one thing precludes another. The classic case is the motion of particles – by knowing the position of an electron, we preclude knowledge of its velocity and vice versa. Which, when you think about it, is pretty bloody obvious. Moreover, in order to know, says Barad, we are reliant on apparatus. Broadly, I would suggest this could mean anything from scientific apparatus, to the media to our 5 senses; what we know is localised by how we know it.

In terms of “objectivity”, this localisation of what we know speaks against totality – there can be no total knowledge precisely because there is no omniscient position from which to know everything. But the mistake here, as Bohr’s ideas suggest, is to assume that locality, or complementarity somehow implies uncertainty; that facts are not truly “known”. And in this context we can see why Manjoo’s two principle problems arise; that the proliferation of information, and the combinatorial possibilities of the future are unresolvable in the context of localised knowledge.

What we can fall back on, I suggest, are the accuracy and authority that Gardiner seems to reject, or at least regard with qualification. The first of these is easier to deal with; the media/internet landscape is one in which inaccuracy seems to proliferate with a kind of feverish intensity – as Manjoo says, people are attracted by the “truthiness” of things that sound true but aren’t, and in Gardiner’s case, the film makers want the Lancastria to have been sunk at Dunkirk, even though it wasn’t. At one level then, the post-factual can be confronted by striving for accuracy as a kind of inoculation against bullshit.

Authority is a more difficult sell. If we consider both the Brexit debate and the US election, the challenge is presented as one directed at elites, and within that expertise. Who needs experts? Similarly, debates about media or aesthetics often revolve around the loss of “gatekeepers” who filtered what was worth knowing or appreciating. And the rejection of authority is not new; it’s present in the ethos of the 1960s or, for that matter, in the Enlightenment. In this context I can only suggest that ignorance is no ground for the rejection of authority; perhaps it is simply best to quote Pope –

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But more advanc’d, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!

from An Essay on Criticism

Or from another perspective, the late Daevid Allen from Gong’s You album; “the more you know the more you know you don’t know what you know.”

As Schofield’s introduction to the book Who Needs Experts (2014) suggests, in the field of heritage we are all experts, a position underpinned by the Nara Declaration. But experts in what? Again perhaps, the question of locality intervenes; everyone has some expertise when it comes to, say, their own physical locality, or the heritage of their family or broader group. Yet authority comes, as Alexander Pope argues, from a deeper draft of the spring, albeit with Allen’s recognition that authority also lends a more nuanced understanding of what it is possible to know. Granted one might point out, with Isaiah Berlin, that the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing, and here we get into a question as to whether depth or breadth of knowledge are the basis of authority. In the end, experience tells. Whatever you think of Carlos Castenada, his Don Juan makes a good point when he warns his apprentice against what he calls “clarity” in the pursuit of knowledge. At some point we may feel that we have gained sufficient knowledge to have all the answers (usually when having just gained a PhD). A sensible person realises that this clarity of vision is itself illusory. And indeed authority is itself time contingent; if you stop working at it, it stops working for you.


Barad, Karen (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Collins, Harry. M. and Steven Yearley. (1992). Epistemological Chicken In Andrew Pickering (ed.), Science as Practice and Culture. University of Chicago Press 301.

James S. Ettema (1987) Journalism in the “post‐factual age”, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 4:1, 82-86

Robert A. Hackett (1984) Decline of a paradigm? Bias and objectivity in news media studies, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 1:3, 229-259,

Harpers Magazine 1985 Can the press tell the truth? January 1985: pp37-51

Innis, Harold 1950 Empire and Communications. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Manjoo, Farhad. 2008 True Enough: Learning to live in a Post-Fact Society. Hoboken: Wiley.

Nietzsche, F., 1996 [1886a], Beyond Good and Evil, W. Kaufmann (trans.), New York: Vintage.

Schofield, John. 2014 Heritage expertise and the everyday: Citizens and authority in the twenty-first century. In J. Schofield (ed) Who Needs Experts. Counter-mapping Cultural Heritage. Farnham: Ashgate.

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