As a GP, a generalist health professional, I know a little about a lot. At my age, I have perhaps forgotten more knowledge than I have retained, or at least it is not as easily retrievable. In addition, some of the knowledge I have had has been superseded by new knowledge, new facts, and newer ways of thinking.
But what is knowledge, its relation to information and how do we ‘know’ something is true? What indeed is truth and how might we recognise it?
This book of 149 pages asks these big questions at a time of fake news, and in what the author calls a ‘post-truth world’. Zoglauer is a philosopher focussing on technology and applied ethics. He regularly refers to Donald Trump and anti-vaxxers as examples of those who deal in false information.
The four sections of the book cover post-truth phenomenology, post-truth epistemology, facticity and truth, and information and knowledge. Most of the content is accessible as the arguments are well-described and the writing is mainly clear.*
The scene is set by considering the modern news landscape with its filter bubbles and echo chambers, conspiracy theories, science denial and pseudoscience. Zoglauer then considers philosophical theories of truth from Nietzsche through social constructivism to objectivity particularly in relation to science. He is certainly not a fan of the idea that a fact becomes a fact only when it is recognised as a fact by people, ie when it is socially constructed; he sees truth relativism as a threat. On my reading, he favours the objectivity of science, based on theories and data, though he acknowledges that as scientific knowledge increases previously accepted truths may turn out to be false.
What intrigues me is the lack of consensus for definitions of truth, information, facts and indeed reality amongst the ‘experts.’ Are there degrees of knowledge? Reading the diverse views of philosophers, sociologists and others I am immersed in different world views some of which have no obvious practical use for day-to-day living. Trust is important: whom and what one chooses to trust and to what degree. To function I have to assume that there is some objectivity and that people around me broadly experience reality in a similar way to myself.
In the final pages of the book, Zoglauer considers whether humanity is now at the end of the enlightenment. He compares the beliefs of pre-enlightenment peoples (of the west), in witchcraft, magic, angels and such like without asking for evidence, with the contemporary flood of fake news in our post-truth society. I was waiting on arguments for or against belief in the existence of gods/God and the relationship with truth but was disappointed.
For me this book is useful in its review of historical and different approaches to truth and knowledge, the issues of the Google universe and the concept of information ecology, defined as ‘the relationship of humans to their information environment’ (p. 111).
There is a useful list of references but no appendix.
* Of interest is the note on the back cover that the book is a translation from the original German with the help of an artificial intelligence. ‘A subsequent human revision as done primarily in terms of content, so that the book will read stylistically differently from a conventional translation.’ Syntactically there are some oddities that do jar but that don’t appear to affect the intended meaning as much as I can tell.
Thomas Zoglauer. Constructed truths: Truth and knowledge in a post-truth world. Springer, 2023.
To complement this book, I recommend the following open access paper that also considers the nature of knowledge:
Greenhalgh T, Wieringa S. Is it time to drop the ‘knowledge translation’ metaphor? A critical literature review. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 2011;104(12):501-509. doi:10.1258/jrsm.2011.110285
From the abstract: ‘Many non-medical disciplines such as philosophy, sociology and organization science conceptualise knowledge very differently, as being (for example) ‘created’, ‘constructed’, ‘embodied’, ‘performed’ and ‘collectively negotiated’ – and also as being value-laden and tending to serve the vested interests of dominant élites.’