Do We Live in a Post-Truth Era?

Experts manufacture whatever facts an activist, politician, or bureaucrat needs.


"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts," the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) famously quipped. But when it comes to social and environmental problems nowadays, nearly everyone thinks he is entitled to his own facts, and an army of experts is on hand to manufacture and promote the carefully curated truths they require. The Progressive Era dream of empowering nonpartisan experts to solve social, economic, and environmental problems has failed spectacularly. What happened?

Breakthrough Institute founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger grapple with this question in their recent essay "Wicked Polarization: How Prosperity, Democracy, and Experts Divided America," which in turn highlights insights from a 1973 paper by the urban planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber. Rittel and Webber drew a useful distinction between "tame" and "wicked" social problems. Tame problems are the sorts of issues that are routinely addressed by scientists and engineers: sanitation, higher agricultural productivity, electrification. They aren't necessarily easy, but they can be clearly defined, relevant information can be gathered, and the effectiveness of proposed solutions can be tested. Solving such problems resulted in improved health and greater affluence, leaving the public and policymakers to focus on less tractable social and environmental problems—that is, wicked ones.

The hallmark of a wicked problem is that the way an expert conceives of it determines the solutions she recommends. For example, Rittel and Webber observe, "'Crime in the streets' can be explained by not enough police, by too many criminals, by inadequate laws, too many police, cultural deprivation, deficient opportunity, too many guns, phrenologic aberrations, etc. Each of these offers a direction for attacking crime in the streets. Which one is right?" Forty years later, each theory still has its devotees.

Rittel and Weber conclude that people's judgments "are likely to differ widely to accord with their group or personal interests, their special value-sets, and their ideological predilections." When claims about a social or environmental problem do not agree, the duo noted, "The analyst's 'world view' is the strongest determining factor in explaining a discrepancy, and, therefore resolving a wicked problem."

In the years since the planners' paper appeared, Nordhaus and Shellenberger point out, "wicked problems would proliferate along with experts in think tanks, universities, and government agencies who set out to define them." Partisans can find copacetic experts to affirm what they already believe about vaccination, genetically modified crops, drug policy, nuclear power, salt consumption, public transportation, international trade, AIDS, R&D subsidies, school curricula, synthetic chemicals, automobile safety, organic crops, fracking, and so on, practically ad infinitum.

Progressives who believe that corporations are unfairly denying workers a living wage can point to research by analysts at Institute for Research on Labor and Employment to argue that higher minimum wages do not increase unemployment. Free marketeers can turn to the Employment Policies Institute for evidence that boosting minimum wages increases unemployment among the youthful and poor. The pro-immigrant Migration Policy Institute can report that Washington "spends more on its immigration enforcement agencies than on all its other principal criminal federal law enforcement agencies combined." The Center for Immigration Studies, which favors strict immigration enforcement, can denounce the study as "bogus" and "riddled with false statements, cherry-picked statistics, and inappropriate comparisons." Climatologists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville can assert that the atmosphere "has not warmed noticeably since the major El Niño of 1997–98—giving us about a decade and a half of generally stable temperatures." Researchers associated with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research can report that the warming rate has been "steady" since 1979.

Rittel and Webber also observe that "many societal processes have the character of zero-sum games"—that is, they are processes in which one group's gains result only from another group's equivalent losses. That fact, I suspect, explains why wicked problems are proliferating.

For decades, an increasingly large percentage of our economic output has been moved from the positive-sum game of markets and private property to the zero-sum game of government and politics. According to the Office of Management and Budget, total government spending in the U.S. rose from 17 percent of GDP in 1948 to 35 percent in 2010. As public choice theory predicts, the more resources government bureaucracies control, the more lobbyists, crony capitalists, and entitlement clients will appear seeking to divert handouts into their pockets. Such would-be beneficiaries need experts to construct the facts that they use to justify to political patrons and agency bureaucrats why they deserve a share of the government's largesse. To the extent that we live in a "post-truth era," it is in good measure because it pays so well to dissemble, exaggerate, and spin for government grants and favors.

Ultimately, Rittel and Webber conclude, "There are no value-free, true-false answers to any of the wicked problems governments must deal with." Nordhaus and Shellenberger agree. "The problem is not that we are in a post-truth age," they suggest, "but rather that we have not learned to adapt to it. Perhaps a good place to begin is by recognizing our own biases, perspectives, and agendas and attempting to hold them more lightly."

That would indeed be a good start, but Rittel and Webber hit on a better way to adapt. One "approach to the reconciliation of social values and individual choice," they note, "is to bias in favor of the latter. Accordingly, one would promote widened differentiation of goods, services, environments, and opportunities, such that individuals might more closely satisfy their individual preferences." Instead of entrusting decisions to purportedly "wise and knowledgeable professional experts and politicians" who aim to impose the "one-best answer," individuals should be allowed to pursue their own visions of the true and the good.

The institution best known for increasing the differentiation of goods, services, environments, and opportunities and for enabling people to express their differing values is the free market. Markets don't need to be run by experts. Any entrepreneur with a new idea, service, or product can pursue and try to profit from what they believe to be the truth.

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  1. I tend to side with the “experts” that believe nothing should be done. Unfortunately they are few and far between because there’s no money or power in doing nothing.

    1. as Lucille replied I am stunned that a mother able to earn $4584 in four weeks on the computer. did you read this web site

  2. “According to the Office of Management and Budget, total government spending in the U.S. rose from 17 percent of GDP in 1948 to 35 percent in 2010.”

    This is why I always laugh when the libtards claim the post-war era was some kind of progressive paradise economically because some tax rates were more progressive (and not that much more when you look at effective rates). Not only was the spending much lower, the vast majority of it went to the military. The social spending was a fraction of today’s.

    1. Krugman posted an article today claiming that the contraction in the economy in the 4th quarter was the result of ‘austerity.’ They live in a different world than ours.

      1. If you really want ‘austerity’,……..43001.html

        1. What do you mean “austerity”?
          They could gambol all over!

      2. To Krugman austerity is the specter that haunts Europe and like a specter, no one credible has seen the damn thing.

      3. That’s pretty much what everyone thinks. Lower government spending was the dominant cause.

        1. Yet government spending/GDP is higher than it has ever been. Where is the austerity?

          1. Well that’s a lie. It was about 40% at the height of the great recession crisis, but more than 50% during WWII. It’s lower now and at no point has any collapse or crisis resulting from government spending of any kind occurred. If you want to talk about a division problem then you have to acknowledge the denominator. If the private sector contracts and the government contracts as well then we have a major demand glut. Government is the only thing that can make up for a glut in the private sector, and nobody has ever convincingly explained the rationale behind the claim that cutting government economic activity during a private sector glut will somehow increase overall demand–which is a contradiction on its face.

            1. Let’s see your stats.

              According to this article – you are wrong, we have reached the peak.

              Gov vs. GDP

              1. Tony can’t be bothered by facts and inconsistency. He’s too busy maximizing all human happiness for that.

            2. Then to what do you attribute the economic collapse of Greece and the USSR? You are espousing Keynesianism, which essentially says that government spending can dampen a recession by filling in the demand gap. However, there are a couple flaws to this theory. The first being that it does not take into account a government that has a very high debt/GDP ratio, which is one of the indicators of the health of an economy. Where there is room to spend, then that spending “might” help dampen the recession, but when the debt/GDP ratio is very high, the economy acts very differently when the government spends, which Keynesians have not taken into account. The other problem is that it assumes that government spending is the best way to fill in the demand gap. However, this requires the government to target the best markets for spending in order to get the highest demand increase, but we all know the government is not capable of making this determination particularly because government spending is more political than anything else.

            3. The best thing to do where there is a demand gap is significantly lower taxes across the board for the foreseeable future, which makes logical sense. Low demand is a sign that consumers are not spending. If those consumers get more disposable income via a tax cut that they know is not temporary, they will spend more. I mean it only makes sense because the economy is constructed by consumers. However, temporary government spending in a particularly small market, such as construction, just is not sufficient, as evidenced by Japan’s lost two decades and the US’s current slow recovery

        2. That’s because pretty much everyone has no economic education/understanding.

      4. A contraction in the economy would be austerity, but Krugman, like those working for government, see austerity when their spending goes down. And raising taxes to Krugman isn’t austerity because it increases government spending.

        Krugman would change his tune if he wasn’t essentially working for government politicians looking for CYA protection for their votes on raising spending.

  3. The problem with “manufactured evidence” is that opinion stands in as truth. The final step a scientist is supposed to take is to critique his own work. As part of his own work he should answer the questions “Where are the known holes in my work?” and “Where might other holes be?”

    1. You forgot the third question. “How do I keep anyone else from noticing?”

      1. Unfortunately, that bears the same resemblance to science that a barrel shroud does to a rifle sling.

  4. Nonsense. Correct answers to societal problems do exist, but unfortunately idiots who don’t realize this fact, also exist.

    1. The point is how to find correct answers. If everyone is constricted into one answer at a time, especially when the judge is not personally liable for the outcome, finding the correct one is extremely inefficient.

      1. The correct answer is well known. Individual freedom coupled with individual responsibility. These two things, in full doses, will cure pretty much every ill society has contracted.

        1. Constricting people to one answer at a time is the opposite of individual freedom and individual responsibility. IOW 300,000,000 plans are better than one plan.

        2. I think some guy just nailed it.

          1. I think some guy just nailed it.

            A Korean?

        3. More to the point, when a central monopoly government dictates one single answer, there is no way to ever know if it was the best or worst solution, or how to adjust it as the problem changes.

          Very few problems require monopoly answers. The less the monopoly government does and the more it leaves to voluntary associations trying different solutions, the sooner everyone can find out what works and what doesn’t. States are a reasonable boundary for experiments, if you assume you need coercion within geographical boundaries, but most of the experiments could be done by entirely voluntary associations.

          1. More to the point, when a central monopoly government dictates one single answer, there is no way to ever know if it was the best or worst solution, or how to adjust it as the problem changes.

            True if a single answer is dictated for whatever the reason. (Lack of incentive, resources, imagination…)

            Very few problems require monopoly answers.

            Approaches zero.

            The less the monopoly government does and the more it leaves to voluntary associations trying different solutions, the sooner everyone can find out what works and what doesn’t.

            That’s what I said. Thus the 300,000,000 plans.

            States are a reasonable boundary for experiments,

            50 plans are not as good as 300,000,000, but better than 1 plan.

            if you assume you need coercion within geographical boundaries,

            I don’t that need.

      2. the problem, which supports the “Post Truth Era” theory, is that many people would rather dismiss the truth with logical fallacies than accept the consequences of the realization that they are wrong and the truth they’ve lived by is actually a falsehood.

        Someone who has voted for years or decades for Liberals because he believed the welfare state was a form of charity, would be likely to dismiss the truth that the welfare state is immoral for its use of theft and violence rather than accept the realization of his part in the government’s robbery and murder.

        1. People have always lied, denied reality, or just made shit up to acquire power and control. This is not new… only the titles and names have changed.

    2. As do the wicked, who realize that fact but enjoy getting paid in money and power.

  5. How do vaccinations make the list of “wicked” problems. That shit was settled decades ago. If it only takes a few wicked individuals to turn a tame problem into a wicked problem then we are all in a lot of trouble.

    Oh wait…

  6. but… but… GMOs cause cancer and crime has increased steadily alongside increased Immigratiom and Austerity has failed and Bush was worse!

  7. Government is not zero sum, it is negative sum

  8. phrenologic aberrations

    Neoroscience…is there any human problem it can’t solve? Other than mass shootings threatened and perpetrated by its practitioners and students of course.

    1. I hope you’re joking linking phrenology with neuroscience.

  9. Markets don’t need to be run by experts.

    Now that’s just crazy talk. Just ask the experts.

  10. Is this really new though? This is exactly what Pontius Pilate meant when he asked “What is truth?”

    1. I guess I should be thankful that you didn’t pick a scene from Brokeback Mountain.

      1. I was thinkin about makin one of bernake in the toilet scene

  11. You have no real competition as a wide-ranging science writer, Ronald. Thank you for all the good work and clear thinking through the years.

    Once again, of course, your ideas are far too sensible, and admitting of too much liberty for non-elites, to have any chance in today’s authoritarian, one-size-fits-all political climate.

    If there is no change of direction in 2016, I do believe it’s over. I am moving soon from Santa Cruz, California (yep, People’s Republic of…) to northern Arizona. But where do I go after that?

    Truth be told, that is not as hard a question as it was when I was a kid (born 1953), as the U.S. was always one of the top three free countries in the WSJ and Liberty House listings. We are no longer in the top 15 or 20 anymore. We still excel in a couple of critical areas, press freedom and free speech, that are required for my kind of mouth. Still, there are options… boy, did I ever end up off the topic.

    To close the circle, I will simply add another “Thanks, Ronald” to the growing pile.

  12. Perhaps a good place to begin is by recognizing our own biases, perspectives, and agendas and attempting to hold them more lightly.”

    No kidding. Starting with the group with one of the more cult-like level of preconceptions and biases. Government is always bad, and every fact will either confirm that or be ignored.

    1. ON the contrary, libertarian ideas are incredibly easy to test and are tested all the time. People like you have no real principles and therefore can’t recognize their own biases.

      1. How is that? Government does something wrong on occasion, therefore libertarians are always right? What about testing an actual libertarian society? I’d like to see some volunteers take up the challenge to test your many unfounded claims.

        I envision this experimental society routinely developing new rules and controls to account for unforeseen social concerns and resembling a modern society fairly well. The point being, of course, that the only imaginable alternatives to a modern social democratic society are tyrannies or hellholes. If you want to demonstrate the heretofore unknown libertopian ideal, be your guest.

        1. The problem is that you think you’re right…

          But without a choice – freedom – you cannot choose for yourself. You don’t see that you have a right to choose your solution, yet think you also have the right to deny others the identical right to choose.

          But what makes you think you’re more special than everyone else? Your inability to think? That’s what dictators think…

          Only when you are free to choose what’s right for you – which means no coercion (the fundamental libertarian principle) – can anyone compare strategies and policies to determine the one that suits them best.

          One size does not suit all. It never has, and never will…

          1. What are you not free to choose to do that you think you should be?

            1. Dude, are you high? Have you had a lobotomy? How long have you been commenting here? Do you read ANY of the comments? The Slavers steal 40% of my cash and use a substantial portion of it to destroy things (that people have spent their lives creating and building) and MURDER PEOPLE. I’d like to be able to choose to use my money for ANYTHING ELSE.

              1. Days later, T’s missing response is telling.

        2. Tony said:

          The point being, of course, that the only imaginable alternatives to a modern social democratic society are tyrannies or hellholes.

          This is a combination of argument from ignorance and false dilemma.

          short form: choices and reality are definitely not limited to what’s only feasible according to your imagination and ignorance.

          Also, I think it’s quite a Freudian slip that tyrannies and hellholes are presented in an exclusive sense.

        3. “Government does something wrong on occasion

          Yes, clearly it’s EVERYBODY ELSE that is blinded by the religiousity of their own biases.

        4. One can compare more free vs. less free countries and generalize from there. And what you’ll find is that countries with more freedoms and the institutions that protect those freedoms (courts, rule of law, property rights, freedom of contract, etc.) have more prosperous citizens. Thus, we should strive towards more freedom.

          We don’t need to create societies to test their features that make their citizens more prosperous.

        5. I’d gladly sign up for the “Libertopian” experiment. Just tell me one thing – where? Tell me where on Earth we could find a place where a bunch of would-be authoritarians like you won’t be standing there to tell me what’s “good for me…now please remit 40% of your income so we can buy more bullets for the guns we’re going to point at you so we can extract still MORE next year.”
          Until such a place exists, I’m forced to live among you and do my best to minimize the amount of coercive force used in this country.

    2. I’m cold. Can I have that straw man when you’re done with it?

      1. You and Paul Ryan need to take Day 2 of Logic 101.

        1. Right. Because everyone who comments here thinks government is all bad, all the time.

          Is that gym sock just a puppet, or does it get used as a post-onanism rag occasionally?

          1. All the smart, observant ones do.

          2. Doesn’t everything government does involve the initiation of force against citizens? Even funding government requires taking money, by force, from citizens. Then government agents go out and initiate force against others, hopefully to prosecute them for their crimes where they already initiated force against others.

            That is part of the price we pay for liberty, the other part being trying to prevent abuse of power by government employees. And they always want more power and money.

  13. Brilliant. Yet are there any “wise and knowledgeable professional experts and politicians” who aim to impose the “one-best answer”?

    Didn’t the late Professor Buchanan’s Nobel prize for Public Choice prove there’s no such thing as “wise and knowledgeable politicians” and bureaucrats – only ones with their own welfare as paramount? see

  14. “Experts manufacture whatever facts an activist, politician, or bureaucrat needs.”

    And this differs from any other period in human history, how, exactly? Seriously; what has changed is that the populace can, if they want to, find conflicting expertise. For the most part they don’t want to. That, too, is normal.

  15. I think there were always difficult biases in the human history. It starts with the division of the church between its Western and Eastern followers, continues in Medievals with Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno, until our current time when climatologists are trying to convince people we need to spend more on their departments and studies in order to save us from global warming (sarcasm).

    On the other hand, this article points out something that is extremely interesting and has its part of true. We like to be biased, we play zero-sum games and we vote for our politicians even when we know they are lying to us. This is what we need to explain. Ideology is a powerful tool which can be used to promote better life standarts, sustainability and modernization. But we sometimes do it to achieve the contrary.

    Being a vegan, I try so hard to convince people how easy it is to try it. But they don?t listen very much, sometimes get offended because I?m invading their privacy. I?m not disrespectful to others, I just want to provide them with advices that could help them.

    1. I’d like an explanation. So John B., why do you vote for lying politicians?

      I chose to vote for Gary Johnson.

  16. One “approach to the reconciliation of social values and individual choice,” they note, “is to bias in favor of the latter”

    But that would not be in the interests of those progressives who fear that there are people out there who do not know what is good for themselves. The ones who need to be “saved” from themselves.

    It is fascinating progressives and fundamentalist Christians both use the same phrases to explain why they believe the way they do…

    1. “But that would not be in the interests of those progressives”

      Nor would it be in the interests of those who want to use government force to take our money. Nor would it be in the interests of people who want to control others.

      The whole point is that giving freedom and responsibility to individuals, is that it gives us choice where the alternative takes away choice. This thus allows each individual to tackle his own wicked problems. It also allows individuals to choose their own experts/truths and accept the consequences.

      The difference between a progressive and a fundamentalist Christian, is that the Christians give you the choice to walk away and choose your own beliefs. The progressives don’t.

  17. What is particularly priceless about this article is how perfectly it illustrates its own thesis. It’s commendably objective (ie truthful) until it gets to the last 4 paragraphs, when the author slips into the trap of injecting his own bias, starting where he states, as if it’s a fact, that the government is a zero sum game as opposed to the market being a positive sum game.

    I can think of plenty of cases in which the market not only has not been a positive sum game, but has been a negative sum game (for example the housing bubble of 2003-7). Would it really be better world if everyone got to pursue their own visions of the true and good? You know, like the companies that thought it was good and true to convince people to re-mortgage their houses with balloon mortgages based on their imaginary rising resale values? Or the poachers who are wiping out the elephants so a few pathetic rich people can buy ivory trinkets?

    These represent the market in its purest form, and the only thing that can restrain such practices is that nasty old zero sum government we apparently need much less of. Isn’t everyone pursuing their own version of the good and true precisely the definition of anarchy?

    1. The example of the housing bubble is a fight that’s been fought to death. It doesn’t particularly represent your position is a good light. While it’s true that market forces acted in destructive and irresonsible ways, they only did so because government polices (e.g. Fanny ‘n Freddy) both promoted these bahaviors, and reduced their (apparent) risks. Blaming that situation on “pure market forces” while ignoring the government-imposed distortions of that market is the “grownup” equivalent of plugging one’s ears and singing “la-la-la-not-listening”.
      One the macro scale, pretty much ALL the wars, genocides, opressions, repressions and atrocities in human history have been perperated by the forces of government, not the “forces” of commerce. In other words, the hand holding the whip or truncheon or sword or gun belongs to the guy saying “I’m in charge here.” Not the guy saying “I’m here to sell you stuff.” Based on that, I’m rather more inclined to bet on markets rather than “authorities”.

  18. The housing bubble occurred in a market that isn’t free. There was nothing free market oriented about the government bailing out the banks and AIG with our money, rather than letting them go bankrupt. There wasn’t anything market oriented about the government backing the mortgage backed securities that Fannie Mae sold all over the world, when there was no explicit guarantee they would. There wasn’t anything market oriented about letting Fannie sell these worthless securities backed by liar’s loans to people who thought it was a sure ticket to making money regardless if they could afford the loans.

    The bailouts did insure that managers of these institutions kept their jobs in spite of their failures. And it insured their campaign contributions would continue to the incumbent politicians who gave these banks and their managers government favors at our expense.

    The only thing the housing bubble represented, is pure crony crapitalism. It’s far from “the market in its purest form” as you allege. It’s is; however, an excellent example of abuse of government power, in it’s purest form. One where it picks winners and losers. And government power to do this has been increasing. All to the advantage of the politicians and those rich campaign bundlers politically connected to them.

  19. Hayek said 70 years ago that collectivism (socialism)requires that:

    what is moral today…may not be moral tomorrow…
    what is true today…may not be true tomorrow…

    So when a different ideology occupies the White House…metaphysical Truth will make somewhat of a comeback…

  20. Another case for limited government! Let people make their own decisions based on experience and common sense. Government only works from an agenda and we have to pay for it.

  21. as Lucille replied I am stunned that a mother able to earn $4584 in four weeks on the computer. did you read this web site

  22. til I saw the paycheck which said $5401, I accept …that…my neighbour was actualie erning money part-time on there computar.. there aunts neighbour had bean doing this 4 only eight months and resently paid for the debts on their house and got Lancia. we looked here,

  23. from the article:
    “‘Perhaps a good place to begin is by recognizing our own biases, perspectives, and agendas and attempting to hold them more lightly.'”

    “One ‘approach to the reconciliation of social values and individual choice,’ they note, “is to bias in favor of the latter.'”

    In other words, know your biases and react to them, keeping an open mind, except when it comes to individual choice, i.e. the primary bias of this article, this website and presumably most of the intended audience. For those listed, you should just mosey on along without thinking.

    I am frequently amazed at the amount of cognitive dissonance I see in articles here. Further all I ever see as an answer is “the free market”, which in our subsidized corporate/crony/broken-IP-law capitalist system has not existed since long before Ike made his “watch out for the military-industrial complex” speech.

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