Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

What is a Fact?

What is a fact? Few more thorny questions exist. Consider this, from Hannah Arendt’s essay, “Truth and Politics:”

But do facts, independent of opinion and interpretation, exist at all? Have not generations of historians and philosophers of history demonstrated the impossibility of ascertaining facts without interpretation, since they must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence?

Facts are constructed. They are not objective. And there is no clear test for what is a fact. Thus, when Albert Einstein was asked, how science can separate fact from fiction, brilliant hypotheses from nutty quackery, he answered:  ‘There is no objective test.” Unlike rational truths that are true outside of experience and absolute, all factual truths are contingent. They might have been otherwise. That is one reason it is so hard to pin them down.

Steve Shapin reminds us of these puzzles in an excellent essay in this weeks London Review of Books. Shapin is reviewing a new book on Immanuel Velikovsky by Michael Gordin. Velikovsky, for those born since the 1960s, caused an uproar in the 1960s and 70s with his scientific claims that Venus was the result of a dislodged piece of Jupiter, that comets led to the parting of the Red Sea, that it dislodged the orbit of Mars threatening Earth, and caused the relocation of the North Pole, not to mention the showering of plagues of vermin onto the earth that nourished the Israelites in the desert.

Gordin’s book is about how American scientists went ballistic over Velikovsky. They sought to censor his work and schemed to prevent the publication of his book, Worlds in Collision, at the prestigious Macmillan press. At the center of the controversy was Harvard, where establishment scientists worked assiduously to discredit Velikovsky and stop the circulation of his ideas. [I am sensitive to such issues because I was also the target of such a suppression campaign. When my book The Gift of Science was about to be published by Harvard University Press, I received a call from the editor. It turns out an established scholar had demanded that HUP not publish my book, threatening to no longer review books for the press let alone publish with them. Thankfully, HUP resisted that pressure, for which I will always be grateful.]

For these Harvard scientists, Velikovsky was a charlatan peddling a dangerous pseudo science. The danger in Velikovsky’s claims was more than simple misinformation. It led, above all, to an attack on the very essence of scientific authority. What Velikovsky claimed as science flew in the face of what the scientific community knew to be true. He set himself up as an outsider, a dissident. Which he was. In the wake of totalitarianism, he argued that democratic society must allow for alternative and heretical views. The establishment, Velikovsky insisted, had no monopoly on truth. Let all views out, and let the best one win.

Shapin beautifully sums up the real seduction and danger lurking in Velikovsky’s work.

The Velikovsky affair made clear that there were radically differing conceptions of the political and intellectual constitution of a legitimate scientific community, of what it was to make and evaluate scientific knowledge. One appealing notion was that science is and ought to be a democracy, willing to consider all factual and theoretical claims, regardless of who makes them and of how they stand with respect to canons of existing belief. Challenges to orthodoxy ought to be welcomed: after all, hadn’t science been born historically through such challenges and hadn’t it progressed by means of the continual creative destruction of dogma? This, of course, was Velikovsky’s view, and it was not an easy matter for scientists in the liberal West to deny the legitimacy of that picture of scientific life. (Wasn’t this the lesson that ought to be learned from the experience of science in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia?) Yet living according to such ideals was impossible – nothing could be accomplished if every apparently crazy idea were to be given careful consideration – and in 1962 Thomas Kuhn’s immensely influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions commended a general picture of science in which ‘dogma’ (daringly given that name) had an essential role in science and in which ‘normal science’ rightly proceeded not through its permeability to all sorts of ideas but through a socially enforced ‘narrowing of perception’. Scientists judged new ideas to be beyond the pale not because they didn’t conform to abstract ideas about scientific values or formal notions of scientific method, but because such claims, given what scientists securely knew about the world, were implausible. Planets just didn’t behave the way Velikovsky said they did; his celestial mechanics required electromagnetic forces which just didn’t exist; the tails of comets were just not the sorts of body that could dump oil and manna on Middle Eastern deserts. A Harvard astronomer blandly noted that ‘if Dr Velikovsky is right, the rest of us are crazy.'

Immanuel Velikovsky

It is hard not to read this account and not think about contemporary debates over global warming, Darwinism, and the fall of the World Trade Center. In all three cases, outsiders and even some dissident scientists have made arguments that have been loudly disavowed by mainstream scientists.

No one has done more to explore the claims of modern pseudo science than Naomi Oreskes. In her book Merchants of Doubt written with Erik Conway, Oreskes shows how “a small handful of men” could, for purely ideological reasons, sow doubt about the ‘facts’ regarding global warming and the health effects of cigarettes. In a similar vein, Jonathan Kay has chronicled the efforts of pseudo scientists to argue that there was no possible way that the World Trade Towers could have been brought down by jet fuel fires, thus suggesting and seeking to “prove” that the U.S. government was behind the destruction of 9/11.

Oreskes wants to show, at once, that it is too easy for politically motivated scientists to sow doubt about scientific fact, and also that there is a workable and effective way for the scientific community to patrol the border between science and pseudo science. What governs that boundary is, in Oreskes words, “the scientific consensus.” The argument that global warming is a fact rests on claims about the scientific method: value free studies, evaluated by a system of peer review, moving towards consensus. Peer review is, for Oreskes, “is a crucial part of science.” And yet, for those who engage in it know full well, peer review is also deeply political, subject to petty and also not so petty disputes, jealousies, and vendettas. For this and other reasons, consensus is, as Oreskes herself admits, not always accurate: “The scientific consensus might, of course, be wrong. If the history of science teaches anything, it is humility, and no one can be faulted for failing to act on what is not known.”

Just as Einstein said 50 years ago, in the matters of establishing scientific fact, there is no objective test. This is frustrating. Indeed, it can be dangerous, not only when pseudo scientists sow doubt about global warming thus preventing meaningful and necessary action. But also, the pervasive and persuasive claims of pseudo science sow cynicism that undermines the factual and truthful foundations of human life.

Arendt reminds us, with a clarity rarely equaled, that factual truth is always contingent. “Facts are beyond agreement and consent, and all talk about them—all exchanges of opinion based on correct information—will contribute nothing to their establishment.” Against the pseudo scientific claims of many, science is always a contingent and hypothetical endeavor, one that deals in hypotheses, agreement, and factual proof. Scientific truth is always empirical truth and the truths of science are, in the end, grounded in consensus.

The trouble here is that scientific truths must—as scientific—claim to be true and not simply an opinion. Science makes a claim to authority that is predicated not upon proof but on the value and meaningfulness of impartial inquiry. It is a value that is increasingly in question.

What the challenge of pseudo science shows is how tenuous scientific authority and the value placed on disinterested research really is. Such inquiry has not always been valued and there is no reason to expect it to be valued about partial inquiry in the future. Arendt suggests that the origin of the value in disinterested inquiry was Homer’s decision to praise the Trojans equally as he lauded the Achaeans. Never before, she writes, had one people been able to look “with equal eyes upon friend and foe.” It was this revolutionary Greek objectivity that became the source for modern science. For those who do value science and understand the incredible advantages it has bestowed upon modern civilization, it is important to recall that the Homeric disinterestedness is neither natural nor necessary. In the effort to fight pseudo science, we must be willing and able to defend just such a position and thus what Nietzsche calls the “pathos of distance” must be central to any defense of the modern scientific world.

When science loses its authority, pseudo science thrives. That is the situation we are increasingly in today. There are no objective tests and no clear lines demarcating good and bad science. And that leaves us with the challenge of the modern age: to pursue truth and establish facts without secure or stable foundations. For that, we need reliable guides whom we can trust. And for that reason, you should read Steven Shapin’s latest essay. It is your weekend read.



The Humanity of Shame

One of the great surprises upon arriving at Bard College was meeting Norman Manea. Manea, who was born in Romania, spent four years as a child in a concentration camp, many more as a dissident, and finally relocated to NYC and Bard College. He is a prolific and exciting writer, the author of novels, memoirs and essays, and a generous colleague. The Hooligan's Return tells the exciting story of his return to Romania with Bard President Leon Botstein and his reconnection with his homeland.

In 2009, Manea gave the Wyliam Philips Lecture at The New School for Social Research. The lecture, "20 Years After the Berlin Wall: Monuments of Shame," which has only been published in Spanish as "Monuments de Vergonya." The lecture judges the consequences and meanings of the revolutions of 1989. It is not a moral judgment, but rather a remembering of the lands, places, and languages from which Manea was exiled. At the end of his talk, Manea also makes a fascinating proposal.

Manea begins his lecture with reflections on the revolutions of 1989. For one thing, freedom is not the simple blessing it is often thought:

As slavery has to be learned, step by step, in order to survive its terror and tricks, freedom must also to be learned, step by step, in order to face its chances and competitions, its rewards and restrictions.

In his novels, Manea is ever alert to the way that bourgeois comforts offer a false sense that the freedom to choose amongst restaurants or living accommodations can actually deflect us from the experience of freedom. As have many who lived under the evils of totalitarianism, Manea recognizes that there is a kind of freedom in brutal societies as well:

My dream throughout my postwar life was to find an inner resistance against the ubiquitous external pressure.

Living within yourself, it turned out, was for me the mode of resistance; it formed a center for the moral being, a means of separating from a corrupt and corrupting environment, a hope, however uncertain, for maintaining your conscience with integrity. Reading and writing were a shelter, even if menaced, and the best therapy against the poisonous spread of lies and hypocrisy.

Manea saw also that the outbreak of freedom in 1989 was going to bring dangers as well as hopes.

In addition to a "cheap and manipulated populism," that pervaded the public discourse of the new “democratic” politicians, there were of course the cheap freedoms of revenge, xenophobia, pornography and mass entertainment. This is to be taken in stride, and yet also not. We must always be alert to the morphing of freedom into its opposite:

One of the most outrageous examples of this sort of quick change act occurred in Romania, where a former court-poet of the Ceausescu clan, a fierce nationalist and anti-Semite, Comrade Corneliu Vadim Tudor became the leader of a new extreme right party called, no surprise, Great Romania. Changing only a bit the cosmetics of his old slogans, this noisy old-new agitator was elected a member of Romania’s Parliament, even becoming at one point a serious candidate for the Presidency. Today, comrade Corneliu is a member of the European Parliament. Nobody can say that afterlife isn’t interesting...

We don't have "a real alternative to freedom." We must make do with its defects and shortcomings, since the dangers of the "free system are as bad as the dogmatic remedies ranged against them. Indeed, in the end, the question always comes down to freedom – and it is right that it should.

In the interest of living with freedom, Manea closes his speech with an intriguing proposal, one that he argues would go a long way towards keeping the question of freedom present before our eyes. He writes:

Some ten years ago I proposed something very much non-utopian, and I would like to revisit that proposal. It was in an intervention I made to the famous Walser Debate of 1998 in Germany. As some of you may recall, the esteemed German writer Martin Walser, in his acceptance speech on receiving the Peace Prize of German Booksellers Association at the Frankfurt Book Fair warned against the “permanent representation” and the “monumentalizing of German shame.”

My response was to suggest that every country -- and I emphasize again every country and every people -- should complement its monuments of heroism with monuments of shame. This would mean recalling a nation’s wrong doings towards other countries, other people and also to its own people.

To love our neighbors as ourselves may also imply scrutinizing ourselves with the same objectivity as our neighbor and not to do to others what we don’t like to suffer ourselves. It is probably good therapy to look at ourselves with the same exigency as we look at others, to put ourselves in the shoes of others in order to understand their otherness. Aren’t modesty and humility and self questioning a desirable and sound exercise for being truly human?

There are such monuments to shame. Some that I recall vividly are the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, two of the most extraordinary and provoking memorials I have ever encountered. I have no idea if it is good therapy, as Manea writes, to put ourselves in the shoes of others. But it does make for an exercise in being truly human. 

For your weekend read, I recommend an excerpt from The Hooligan's Return, available here.

Even better, order The Hooligan's Return here.



Arendt Center’s Wyatt Mason, with moving account of Ai Weiwei

Wyatt Mason's The Danger Artist is currently featured as the #1 "single" on Amazon's ebook Singles page.  Mason, the Senior Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, traveled to Beijing to learn about the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. The Danger Artist is his moving and provocative account.

Mason covers Ai Weiwei's politics, gives even more attention to his activism, and his art. But The Danger Artist is really about what it means to live truthfully and vigorously in modern day China and, by extension, the modern world more generally. It is a gripping account.

In The Danger Artist you are privy to evocative accounts of modern Beijing and learn about Chinese politics. But most of all you get to hear Ai Wei Wei speak, as in this quote Mason offers from Ai Wei Wei's twitter feed. Twitter has a distinct advantage in Chinese, as each of the 140 available characters expresses an entire word. Hence Ai Wei Wei tweeted this, semi-masterpiece, as he was recovering from a police beating:

Choices after waking up: 1. To live or to die? 2. To be true or to lie? 3. To be lively or to decay? 4. To love or to be forsaken? 5. To be wise or to be idiotic? 6. To smile or to be humiliated? 7. To denounce or to celebrate? 8. To be more courageous or to be more fearful? 9. To take action or to be brainwashed? 10. To be free or to be jailed? [September 5, 2009 08:50:36]


Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011

We were saddened to learn of the passing of Václav Havel yesterday.

Havel, the Czech writer, intellectual, and former dissident, was a founder of human rights movements, Chapter 77 and Vons. His outspoken support of these organizations resulted in a decade spent in and out of prison.

He was the chief negotiator and instigator in peacefully ending more than forty years of Communist rule in his country, a feat which became known as the Velvet Revolution. He then led his nation after the collapse of Communism, becoming the first President of the Czech Republic from 1993-2003.

The great thinker retained his strong sense of morality until the end, making him one of the world's most revered leaders. His eloquence, optimism and sense of fair play inspired not only a nation, but the world.

"Let us teach ourselves and others that politics should be an expression of a desire to contribute to the happiness of the community," he said. "Let us teach ourselves and others that politics can be not simply the art of the possible, especially if this means the art of speculation, calculation, intrigue, secret deals and pragmatic maneuvering, but that it can also be the art of the impossible, that is, the art of improving ourselves and the world."

Click here to read Timothy Garten Ash's memories of Václav Havel.

Click here to read Havel's obituary in the New York Times.