Many thanks for all the kind comments yesterday! They were much appreciated!!
Computers haven’t only changed our day-to-day lives in multiple ways, their computational capacities have made it possible to conduct studies far beyond the ability of mere humans. One of my sons sent me an article published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists detailing a research project that would have been impossible to conduct prior to the availability of today’s technologies.
The researchers set out to examine the roots of what they dub–accurately, in my view– our “post-truth era.” In order to do so, they employed “massive language analysis” to document the rise of fact-free argumentation. They analyzed language used in millions of books published between 1850 to 2019–an analysis that required Google nGram data.
What they found is illuminating, to put it mildly.
After the year 1850, the use of sentiment-laden words in Google Books declined systematically, while the use of words associated with fact-based argumentation rose steadily. This pattern reversed in the 1980s, and this change accelerated around 2007, when across languages, the frequency of fact-related words dropped while emotion-laden language surged, a trend paralleled by a shift from collectivistic to individualistic language.
The researchers concluded that this “surge of post-truth political argumentation” is evidence that we are living at a time when the balance between emotion and reasoning has shifted.
To explore if this is indeed the case, we analyze language in millions of books covering the period from 1850 to 2019 represented in Google nGram data. We show that the use of words associated with rationality, such as “determine” and “conclusion,” rose systematically after 1850, while words related to human experience such as “feel” and “believe” declined. This pattern reversed over the past decades, paralleled by a shift from a collectivistic to an individualistic focus as reflected, among other things, by the ratio of singular to plural pronouns such as “I”/”we” and “he”/”they.”
The reversal occurred in both fiction and nonfiction. It wasn’t limited to books, either– they found a similar shift in media (like New York Times articles). The results of the research “suggest that over the past decades, there has been a marked shift in public interest from the collective to the individual, and from rationality toward emotion.”
The bulk of the article is a description of the methodology employed, the care taken to avoid “cherry picking” of data, and a variety of theories about the reason for the language shift. (There is definitely a “chicken and egg” aspect to the shift: did disillusionment with science and evidence drive a language shift? Or did something else prompt the change in language and thus promote an anti-science mood in the general public?)
The researchers concluded with a section they captioned “Outlook.”
It seems unlikely that we will ever be able to accurately quantify the role of different mechanisms driving language change. However, the universal and robust shift that we observe does suggest a historical rearrangement of the balance between collectivism and individualism and—inextricably linked—between the rational and the emotional or framed otherwise. As the market for books, the content of the New York Times, and Google search queries must somehow reflect interest of the public, it seems plausible that the change we find is indeed linked to a change in interest, but does this indeed correspond to a profound change in attitudes and thinking? Clearly, the surge of post-truth discourse does suggest such a shift, and our results are consistent with the interpretation that the post-truth phenomenon is linked to a historical seesaw in the balance between our two fundamental modes of thinking. If true, it may well be impossible to reverse the sea change we signal. Instead, societies may need to find a new balance, explicitly recognizing the importance of intuition and emotion, while at the same time making best use of the much needed power of rationality and science to deal with topics in their full complexity. Striking this balance right is urgent as rational, fact-based approaches may well be essential for maintaining functional democracies and addressing global challenges such as global warming, poverty, and the loss of nature.
This study is fascinating, albeit depressing.
I’ve previously suggested that our current era will be labeled (assuming there are humans and historians left to do the labeling) “the age of Unreason.” The language we use matters far more than we generally recognize; it both reflects and produces our biases.
And right now, those biases evidently elevate emotion over reason and logic. Which explains a lot….