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Feb 17, 2017 | 00:00 GMT

Post Truth, Fake News and Challenging Your Ideas

Professionals reading the news

Stratfor Editor-in-Chief David Judson sits down with Jay Ogilvy, chairman of our Board of Contributors, to discuss the idea of Post Truth and how we can cut through the noise to gain truly valuable perspective on the current international environment in the latest episode of the Stratfor Talks podcast.


Ben Sheen [00:00:04] Hello and thank you for joining us for another edition of Stratfor Talks, a podcast focused on geopolitics and world affairs from I'm your host Ben Sheen. Controversies over fake news, bias propaganda, and the legitimacy of information in our current media age continue to cloud political and public discourse on key developments shaping our world. In this episode of the podcast, Stratfor Editor-in-Chief David Judson sits down with Jay Ogilvy, Chairman of Stratfor's Board of Contributors, to discuss the idea of post truth and how we can cut through the noise to gain truly valuable perspective on the current international environment. Thanks for joining us.

David Judson [00:00:49] Hi, I'm David Judson, Editor-in-Chief here at Statfor, and with me today is Jay Ogilvy, who is the Chairman of our Board of Contributors. Really good for you to be here with us in Austin, Jay.

Jay Ogilvy [00:00:59] Great to be here, great to be back.

David Judson [00:01:01] And the topic today for this podcast is a popular one in today's dialog and media ecosystem, which is post truth.

Jay Ogilvy [00:01:11] And when I hear that word, or when I hear alternative facts, or truthiness, my back goes up because I started my career with 13 years as a professor of philosophy, so I hear those words and I see people coming on what I regard as my turf and I want to dive in and wrestle.

David Judson [00:01:34] Well you addressed the issue, or the issues really, in a column you wrote February 1st, and one line in it really stuck with me which was that David Hume woke Immanuel Kant up from dogmatic slumber. I kind of key on that because, well I don't think we're moving to anything that could be characterized as a slumber, maybe hyperventilation is a better word, but are we moving into sort of a dogmatic period of hyperventilation around post truth?

Jay Ogilvy [00:02:03] Yes indeed, and the reason I really wanted to get this column out was that I think the problem is not too little truth, but too many truths. What I tried to lay out in that column was how once upon a time there was a innocence about epistemology, there was a sort of assumption that what you see is what you get. And it wasn't until Descartes came along to introduce what became a really insidious doubt. He asked the almost blasphemous question, could God be deceiving me? And then you got centuries of epistemological wrangling between the rationalists who thought it's all in your head, innate ideas is where knowledge comes from, and then the empiricists, Hume and Locke come along and say, yeah but nothing gets into your head except through your senses, so it's all out there, and it comes in through a clear pane of glass. And then it was Kant who realized that this battle between the empiricists and the rationalists needed to be kind of swept up into his German idealism which said, well, we never know things in themselves, but only things as they are filtered through our categories of understanding. Then following the idealism of Kant you've got Hegel putting all truths in time, nothing's permanent. The way the Greeks thought was not the way the early Christians thought, was not the way the Renaissance, the enlightenment, so once you put truth into history, into time, and really acknowledge that there are new things under the sun, things change. Then this begins to underline a skepticism about a great blueprint in the sky of eternal truths, and you get Nietzsche coming along saying,

Jay Ogilvy [00:04:05] truth, it's a mobile army of metaphors and metonyms, illusions about which we have forgotten they are illusions. Now, when you get that skeptical, we're in trouble. What was on high, truth on high for the Greeks, now becomes a moving series of opinions. So this kind of skepticism that we now know today as post-modernism gives us too many truths from too many different disciplines over too much time, and people get downright nihilistic about truth. Now while all of this is an interesting dialog in the academy, I think we lose track of how much we actually do know.

David Judson [00:04:54] But how do we take this out of the academy and discuss it in ways that can be, maybe better assimilated by we mere mortals who are not students of Kant and Descartes? The abstract arguments about truth are fascinating, they're academic and they're hard to give us hand-holds to kind of navigate this new environment of today.

Jay Ogilvy [00:05:17] Exactly. And frankly, I'm very glad that I got over the wall of the academy and got out into the real world, because some of the academic discussions do get a little bit arcane and iffied. The way I see it is to do another move, somewhat like what Marx did to Hegel. Marx said he stood Hegel on his head. For Hegel, history is the march of ideas, for Marx, history is the march of men and machines, and the means of production. So likewise, I would like to stand post-modernism on its head, and say we're not looking just at the march of particularly French ideas, people like Foucault and Derrida, what we want to be looking at is what the man in the street, the woman in the street believes. And there we find serious differences of opinion, but not much doubt, not much Cartesian doubt about whether in Manhattan, 34th Street is north of 23rd Street. I mean, there's all sorts of commonsensical truths that even people with very different ideologies ought to be able to agree on.

David Judson [00:06:41] I think there's a piece of this debate that frustrates me is that yes, outright falsehoods being propagated by politicians is a bad thing, and we need mechanisms to check that and newspapers need to get better at fact-checking, got to agree totally, but it seems to me that maybe we're not having enough discussion about what somebody has called computational propaganda. That, you know, falsehoods and distortions have always been us. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published in 1903 and totally dismissed as a hoax within a decade, yet it still is used to promote antisemitism around the world, and something like 500,000 copies of it are sold or distributed every year, so this is not a new thing, but robotic-enabled tweets, artificial intelligence as a tool to distribute propaganda and untruth is a new phenomenon, and that's what I think maybe has captured the flag of the debate, but we're still talking about truths and untruths as if there was a sort of an argument that could be litigated, when the problem may perhaps is something bigger, and that's this supersaturated media ecosystem that's global, and in and of itself, subject to technological manipulation, which is moving at light speed.

Jay Ogilvy [00:08:13] And the silos, the silos. One of the things I did in the article February 1st, I did a bullet train ride through history, but then a NASCAR sweep around the university to try to give a sense of how knowledge and the quest for knowledge has proliferated into so many specialties and sub-specialties, and topic-focused institutes that it's hard for a dean to keep up, and I was one so I ought to know. We get into academic disciplinary silos, but also, because of the new media, and the fact that we don't all listen to Walter Cronkite every night on one of just three networks, but instead we've got cable news, and we've got tweets, and we've got emails and blogs, too many of us tend to want to talk to only those who agree with us, and as a result of that, we reinforce falsehoods, and limit ourselves from contrary truths, truths that run contrary to what we would like to believe.

David Judson [00:09:31] Yeah, well I mean, I would say that, I mean, a big part of our methodology here at Stratfor, which I think maybe is one distinguisher from more conventional forms of journalism is that we go out of our way to expose ourselves to views and information that runs counter to our own assessment. We're constantly challenging what we think to be true, and that's kind of a corrective mechanism, I think, that's part of the intelligence process to have a ongoing challenge to assumptions. But, as you say, in the era of Cronkite, maybe the news was in a more narrow band, but we would go to Thanksgiving and have family arguments with family members who felt different about the Vietnam War, or Richard Nixon's impeachment, or any of those topics. Nowadays, we tend to associate more with people who are like-minded, and maybe we don't have those challenges in our daily dialog as much as we used to, and need to.

Jay Ogilvy [00:10:36] I was very taken with Charles Murray's book, "Coming Apart". I think Charles does a terrific job, as did David Brooks with "Bobos in Paradise". Both of them do a terrific job of showing how, particularly the 5%, not just the 1% but the 5%, have just delaminated, pulled away from the rest of society. And that where, in prior decades there was more elbow-rubbing among the middle class and intellectual glitterati, now, as he argues, we go to our colleges, go to our clubs, live in our walled neighborhoods, and there just isn't enough rubbing of shoulders among different types of people in this country today.

Ben Sheen [00:11:32] We'll get back to the conversation with Stratfor's David Judson and Jay Ogilvy in just one moment. But if you enjoy these conversations on the underlying significance and future implications of emerging and world events, take a moment to leave us a review. We really appreciate your feedback, and your review also helps others discover the Stratfor Talks podcast. It just takes a few moments, and you can leave a review on iTunes, or wherever you subscribe to the podcast. Thanks again, and now back to our conversation with Stratfor Editor-in-Chief David Judson and Jay Ogilvy.

David Judson [00:12:04] I mean, I sometimes have thought about this issue in terms of memes, that certain kinds of ideas take on a life of their own. The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976, I believe, to talk about how ideas can act almost like genes in the human body, and be sort of transferred vertically from parents to children, or laterally through culture, that certain ideas, and it's not a necessarily nefarious, but this is one of the things that we've confronted here at Stratfor, that say something like the Arab Spring. It becomes as a narrative or a meme that kind of takes on a life of its own in that the assumption behind all the reporting is that this is analogous to the Eastern European color revolutions of a decade prior, that democracy is nigh, and in fact, other factors are more at work. But, the ignorance of those other factors, or not necessarily wilful of the dynamics of the Middle East, maybe kind of camouflaged some of the realities, and so we were, as a society, we were kind of surprised when the various Arab Springs, virtually none of them had a happy ending, none of them ended in states that were more democratic than the ones that they replaced, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, et cetera. And I think that illustrates, or illuminates one of the obligations that we carry as a forecasting company, as an analytic company, to get outside that echo system, that echo chamber of the mainstream media, and look at things from a different vantage point, which enabled us to say, hold on a second here, the Arab Spring may not have a happy ending.

David Judson [00:14:00] Or, China may not be rising. Or, the European Union may not be moving towards an evermore closer union.

Jay Ogilvy [00:14:08] Or, despite how easy it is to get annoyed with Putin, maybe Russia is not the enemy that we still think it is from the years of the Cold War. Maybe we can get along. I was there in September, and I talked with a lot of Russians. I spent a couple of weeks there, and got outside of Moscow, got to Yekaterinburg, two time zones east of Moscow. And this was my fifth trip to Russia, and my friends and I have gotten very interested in something we call citizen diplomacy, getting beyond the meme of Boris Badenov.

David Judson [00:14:53] Boris Badenov, hadn't thought about Boris Badenov for 40-odd years, yeah.

Jay Ogilvy [00:14:57] Or the big, tough blond Russian in From Russia with Love. We have these stereotypes of the nefarious Russians, and they still do enough to keep the meme going with things like the doping scandal in the Rio Olympics, they're not innocent. But my experience of Russia, and my friends who have adopted what we call track two diplomacy. When track one, the official level of the diplomats gets stuck, we've got to get psychologists together with psychologists, and teachers with teachers, and barbers with barbers. I mean, we can just talk shop and discover we put our pants on one leg at a time, and we are human beings who want a better world for our children and our grandchildren, and we need not be locked in eternal conflict. The presumption of hostility is a very tough meme to break. Similar thing happened with the work that my colleagues and I did in relation to China. We were hired by the US Government to develop some scenarios for the future of the relationship between China and Russia. And in China, at the time we did these scenarios, back in 1996, there was a presumption of hostility at the CIA and Defense Department, such that the very idea that we could develop a scenario in which China would be a stabilizing force in Asia, and not a warring enemy, came as a new idea to them, but it led to a shift of the US policy from containment, which was the policy meme that we inherited from the Cold War with Russia, so a shift from containment to, in Clinton's second term, constructive engagement. That was a big shift, and it was necessary, I think,

Jay Ogilvy [00:17:05] to help China join the world again, to establish more economic relations. Now, I hope my grandchildren don't hate me if they come to find themselves in difficult competition with China, but frankly, I feel that that particular project, which led to a shift of US policy, is something I'd like my grandchildren to know I had a part in.

David Judson [00:17:36] Let me turn on that notion of constructive engagement. How do we, in your view, constructively engage in the pursuit of accurate knowledge and democracy in forming a knowledge in an era when the nature of truth itself, and the nature of facts themselves are the subject of such great dispute with any kind of definition, kind of clarity up for grabs?

Jay Ogilvy [00:18:03] I want to say it's pretty simply really. All these disciplines and sub-disciplines that may have a little trouble talking to one another, have their methods. I mean, historians gather evidence, bring analytic tools to bear, seek consensus among leading scholars, it's not a mystery, basic scientific method, scholarly research methods, it's not a mystery, but it is important that we try to get out of our silos, and I think as you, we at Statfor try very hard to do, to convey what we learn in relatively simple language, not the arcane, iffied language of French philosophers, but closer to the newspaper, but not all the way. You and I have had some interesting discussions, I think, about the difference between journalism and what we do here at Stratfor, which is more intelligence analysis on open-source data. It's not just trying to gather the facts as a journalist would, but we try to combine the front page of the newspaper that reports the facts, with the op-ed page which gets into deeper analysis.

David Judson [00:19:25] And with page three that maybe the facts that are seemingly unimportant that actually have great, or will be leading to the headlines on page one in a week or two weeks down the road. So, I think we'll have to leave our discussion of facts and post truth and all of this epistemology, figure it all out and come to final conclusions about this the next time you come to Austin, Jay. Always good to see you, thanks for today.

Jay Ogilvy [00:19:57] Always good to be here. Thank you.

Ben Sheen [00:20:07] That concludes this episode of Stratfor Talks. If you'd like to delve deeper into this conversation, we'll include a link to Jay Ogilvy's recent global affairs column on post truth in the show notes. If you have a question or a comment about the podcast, or even an idea for a future episode, let us know. You can reach Stratfor Talks at 1 512 744 4300, extension 3917, or by email at [email protected] And don't forget to leave us a review. For more geopolitical intelligence, analysis, and forecasting that brings global events into a valuable perspective, visit us at or follow us on Twitter @Stratfor. Thanks again for listening.

Post Truth, Fake News and Challenging Your Ideas

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