On the Oxford Dictionary’s Choice of “Post-truth” as the Word of the Year.

What a mess: Turns out my enthusiastic use of Facebook over the last years ended in a semantic cul-de-sac. Like millions, I handed over my personal interests, preferences, and personality traits (“which Sherlock Holmes are you?”) to an invisible data-glutton who diligently digested all my information and spewed it back at me in the form of a tailor-made feed where I found little to disagree with. Recently, my time to read newspapers became ever more scarce, while the convenience of finding “all I need to know” on FB lulled me into a false sense of security. Now it is clear that what I had considered to be “the situation” turned out to be an incredibly skewed vision of reality. Like so many after Trump’s election and Brexit, I am shocked to realize that I have no idea any more what is true and what isn’t. As of today, the jargon expression I’d been using for a while to describe this state of affairs has become an official word with a pedigree: post-truth.

What does this mean for scholarly communication? Here, too, the foundations of what is and what isn’t true have been shaken. Peer-review has taken a hit as a bastion of quality control; the reproducibility crisis put a dent into the credibility of STEM research. The humanities and social sciences have been grappling with the post-modernist legacy of “there is no truth” for decades.

What is left? Technology? Possibly, but we need to ask ourselves whether we are building things for the betterment of life or because we want to hand over more and more tasks and thus responsibility for our lives to non-human intelligence. What is at the end of that rainbow? The discussions will have to continue!

Perhaps truth (absolute or otherwise) is over; nevertheless, if we want to co-exist peacefully, we will have to agree on what we consider important and beneficial to all. Rebuilding a social consensus is going to be very difficult and a lot of work. We will have to reestablish the meaning of concepts such as “democracy”, “freedom”, “security”, “privacy”, “community”, or “accountability”. We will have to continue to improve the way we disseminate and vet information and research results. And, as I argued yesterday, we will have to get better at communicating our work to everyone – not just those within our algorithmically curated information-bubbles.

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