That we’re living in a post-factual world isn’t in serious doubt. What remains to be resolved is the recursive question as to whether evidence that the world is post-factual should be allowed into debates as to whether the world is post-factual.

If you need evidence, (don’t worry — in spite of immense provocation I’m going to make no mention of Donald Trump, on the grounds that hitting the side of a barn does not demonstrate marksmanship) … I say, if you need evidence:

  • When “proving” the horrors of authoritarian government, which are you more likely to cite — a list of Joseph Stalin’s atrocities, or George Orwell’s 1984?
  • When attempting to demonstrate the nightmarish consequences of a social welfare state, do opponents find a social welfare hellhole to make their point, or do they bring up Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World?
  • The Republican party’s most influential economic policy wonk, Paul Ryan, has ideas so deeply rooted in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, that for years he gave copies to his interns to get them on board with his thinking.
  • While political liberals have no obvious equivalent work of fiction to cite, there is Harry Potter and the Millennials (Anthony Gierzynski and Kathryn Eddy, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). Its authors persuasively demonstrate that J.K. Rowling’s series had a strong liberalizing influence: Her audience embraced her protagonists’ widely tolerant pluralism, skepticism of authority and the press, and aversion to violence and torture as acceptable means to even worthwhile ends … not because of any social theory, but because of how the good guys, bad guys, and bumblers in between behaved in the books.
  • Closer to home, it’s pretty clear that Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese has had far more impact on how business executives think about organizational change than any formulation that actually, for example, works.
  • And closer yet to home, Gene Kim’s and Kevin Behr’s The Phoenix Project did more to persuade most industry thinkers that DevOps is real, practical, and important than any real-world DevOps projects.

Not that this is a new phenomenon. If you think otherwise, a title: Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Fiction as proof has inestimable value for the persuader. As characters, events, and, in some fantasy and science fiction, the laws of physics must all bow down and behave according to the author’s whims, in fiction it’s possible to “prove” whatever the author wants to prove. As an example: in The Moral Hazard of Lime Daiquiris, Dave Kaiser and I proved that hiring only seriously ugly employees is a winning business strategy. Nothing to it. All we had to do was … oh, wait, maybe if I don’t tell you you’ll buy a copy.

It isn’t that fiction has no valid role to play in shaping opinion. Because of the way we humans go about the business of thinking, fiction is often the best way to illustrate an idea, especially in an era of limited attention spans. But illustration and demonstration are two very different matters. What makes fiction dangerous is how easily it can nudge an unwary reader across the line that separates the two.

Persuasion through fiction is, to be fair, nowhere near as nasty as persuasion through the utterly vicious disregard for decency shown by the trolls, fake news sites, unrepentant and repeated lies, and conspiracy theories amplified and bounced around the Twitter-verse by Tweet ‘bots.

But given what’s been published on the subject of post-factualism, you might think it’s limited to audiences that read this crap and accept it uncritically because, if its members have even heard the phrase “confirmation bias,” they think it’s something that only the idiots who disagree with them are afflicted with.

While that might be what we’re descending into, I don’t think it’s where post-factualism starts. I think it starts with conflating fact and fiction.

And if you think this is just one of Bob’s occasional social commentary rants, it’s worth pointing out that the world of business is far from immune. Google “Comet Ping Pong pizzeria” if you don’t believe me.

Consider: If a pizza joint with ping pong tables can be the target today, your company could just as easily be in the crosshairs tomorrow.

Which leads to a suggestion: If you don’t already have a social media listening post set up, set one up. Make sure it’s set to monitor darker sources and detect darker material than your average “Your product sucks!” Facebook post.

Meanwhile, don’t wait until a bunch of crazed conspiracy theorists start accusing your organization of violating the Don’t Be Creepy rule.

The time to plan is before you need to respond, not when you’re under attack.