Is Robert Mueller an antique? The role of the facts in a post-truth era
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:
1. Premise: If it's raining, the streets are wet 2. Premise: The streets are not wet 3. Conclusion: Therefore, it is not raining
This one, too, is deductively valid, and in fact it follows the form of the contrapositive explained above. If the premises are true, one cannot help but believe the conclusion. It is, in effect, the same type of argument.
But now for the moment of “truth.”
1. Stated premise: "If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so." 2. Unstated premise: We did not say so 3. Conclusion: We did not have confidence that the president did not commit a crime.
Remove the double negative and you get the implication that – without quite saying it – Mueller believes that Trump committed a crime.
‘Logic chopping? Cheating?’
Is this message from Mueller post-truth? Cheating? Too clever by half? Or is it, as the attorneys sometimes call it, “logic chopping,” the practice of using nitpicky, pedantic logic arguments to avoid dealing with the larger truth?
During his statement, Mueller stood with military bearing, refusing to debase himself by using the outrageous tactics of partisanship, personal attack or even overstatement.
Reading from his carefully prepared script, never wavering from what he has allowed himself to say, Mueller could be a prisoner of war reading a hostage statement, hoping his message will nonetheless get through.
Or perhaps he’s more of a schoolteacher, telling us what to study because – Congress – this will be on the test.
Does Mueller matter?
Have Americans’ sensibilities been so dulled by a post-truth environment that they no longer recognize the facts – and what they imply – unless they are presented within the context of politics?
Is America not only post-truth, but also post-logic?
The response to Mueller makes it seem that way. The man-who-stuck-to-the-facts was immediately derided as a partisan hack or as a straitjacketed government functionary. About the nicest thing said about him was in the nonpartisan publication Fivethirtyeight, where staff writer Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux said “In some ways, Mueller’s statement felt out of sync with the current political moment.”
Perhaps the role of a truth-teller in a post-truth world – the “current political moment” – is simply to play it straight: neither to indulge in false equivalance nor to pick a team just because one side is doing most of the lying.
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But telling it straight is only one-half of the equation. Such truth-tellers can insist that we do some of the work ourselves, rather than respond with lazy, thoughtless reflex. They remind us of what we have lost when all is opinion or spin – our independence of mind.
In a post-truth world, where everyone is jockeying for advantage and position, a truth-teller is trying to get our attention.
Is anyone still listening? Are we willing to do the work?