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.'
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.
Beyond all the silliness attached to the Todd Akin case this week, the only meaningful comment came from Rachel Riederer. In an essay in Guernica, Riederer writes:
The content of [Akin's] statements was, of course, ridiculous and offensive. But the comments struck me most as a rhetorical move, one that’s in wide usage but rarely gets this kind of attention. When asked to defend a difficult and extreme position—his opposition to abortion in all cases, even rape—Akin chose not to explain the values and thoughts behind his position, but to push aside the question with a bogus fact.
The Hannah Arendt Center has been highlighting the ever-increasing tendency of politicians—not to mention academics and others—to replace argument with an attack on the facts. At last Fall's Conference on "Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts," we began with the premise that:
We face today a crisis of fact. Facts, as Hannah Arendt saw, are all around us being reduced to opinions; and opinions masquerade as facts. As fact and opinion blur together, the very idea of factual truth falls away. And increasingly the belief in and aspiration for factual truth is being expunged from political argument.
In essays like "Truth and Politics" and "Lying and Politics," as well as in many of her books, Arendt argued that the modern era is particularly vulnerable to attacks on the facts. This is because we live at a time when people have lost the traditions and customs that are the pillars and foundations of their lives. Adrift, people seek certainties that give sense to their world. In such a situation of spiritual homelessness and rootlessness, it is easy to latch onto an ideology that gives clear and simple expressions of a communal truth. And when facts counteract that truth, it is easier to simply deny the fact than to rethink one's intellectual identity.
It is hard not to think about Arendt's analysis of the desire for ideological coherence at the expense of facts as we suffer through the 2012 presidential campaign. The patent lies on both sides feed ideologically driven "bases" that watch the same TV, listen to the same radio, read the same blogs, and live in the same fantasy worlds. Akin's remarks speak to the power of those worlds, but also to their vulnerability. There are limits to fiction in the real world, and that is important to remember as well.
Michael Weinman - "Pedagogy or demagogy: The dangerous dunamis of the rhetor's art."
Lecture presented by the Arendt Center on the evening of March 27, 2012
Michael Weinman from ECLA of Bard in Berlin spoke Tuesday night and began with a simple claim: "My subject is the power of composed speech." In order to work out the relationship between power and composition (or in other words between ordered discourse and binding force) he opened a trajectory from Aristotle's Rhetoric to Arendt's "Truth in Politics" to contemporary political rhetoric.
Weinman's reading of the Rhetoric focused on the books one and two. In the first book he placed particular emphasis on the role of enthymemes, which he provisionally defined as a kind of syllogism. Within the second book, he highlighted the example of anger as one pathe, one of the "sources of change on account of which people differ in accordance to their judgments." By appealing to common emotion, the speaker can establish a common ground for his argument. In his next step, Weinman developed a parallel between Aristotle and Arendt's idea of storytelling as a means of political narrative that maintains the "factual texture" of the world while still allowing for a limited type of lying that as a "little miracle" demonstrates our freedom in relation to automatic processes.
The third and final step of the talk affirmed a rhetorically committed political practice against purely rational discourse. In Weinman's view, following Aristotle and Arendt, rhetoric must be employed in order to ensure that discursive space "touches the world" (Weinman). In closing he replied to a news article referring to the anger of Americans in the current political situation. While the author suggested that this might not be such a bad thing, Weinman went a step further, saying that anger should be affirmed - not encouraged but recognized as a potential affective basis for discourse that might cut across ideological divides.
The audience posed questions related to Weinman's implicit conception of pedagogy, the specific spheres of relevance of different types of rhetoric for Aristotle, and the relationship between rhetoric and truth.
Recalling the Arendt Center’s conference last fall on the challenge of telling the truth in an age without facts, Weinman’s specification of the "miracle" of the small lie adds depth to the Arendt’s idea of storytelling that creates significance without abandoning greater factual context. In opening this perspective, however, it also raises the question of the precise relation between these necessary small lies and a dangerous greater disavowal of the world as it is.
Michael Weinman is presently a visiting academic at ECLA Bard. He has previously taught at St. John's College in Annapolis, MD, and in the Department of Philosophy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva, Israel.
Weinman has published several books including the recently published, Language, Time and Identity in Woolf’s The Waves: The Subject in Empire’s Shadow and Pleasure in Aristotle’s Ethics.
Watch the lecture here.
Just picturing, imagining realistically the future of "democracy in an age without fact”, two strong, surging, upwelling feelings come to me. The first is an anxiety provoking grief, the feeling of being lost. The second, coming from under the first, behind it but driven more powerfully, is a complex vision of a better world, an enthusiastic hope.
This essay will first examine the institution of fact, as a failed one; it will move on to see how this failure can bring about a positive change in ethics; and finally a project of thought will be proposed around the notion of personal interest.
'Fact', taken in its common usage of 'scientific i.e. immutable', aside from being a great human institution, through science has taken a particularly strong importance in the modern era. It connotes an unquestionable, certain truth entirely justified on a human level – religion, chance or fate are not called on to justify this type of truth; it is a self-sufficient rock of man made creation on which we can found our conception of the world. Hence the blow, the grief felt, when this reliance on fact can be thought of as coming to an end. The foundations are taken away, a world is turned upside down, and we are thrown back into an ether of lack of conception. Thought relying on 'fact' will eventually end up in this state.
Indisputable fact, surely enough, is not what it seems: in the vast majority of cases it is most definitely fallible, and at its best it can be said to be highly probable. Scientific facts are relative to context and can always be refined, and even mathematical certainties are not at the safety of being overthrown come a revolutionary discovery (such has happened a few times the last hundred years), or the invalidation of an axiom. David Hume proved this over 200 years ago when he said that the only reason we think we know that the sun will definitely rise tomorrow morning is our habit of it doing so, nothing guarantees that it will. [necessary? If so explain better] So taking scientific fact as an unshakable base of thought, when it comes down to it, is a mistake, and also a bad move on the human level. Surely enough, when statements are pushed to this level of infallibility, when they become 'fact,' they are unquestionable laws, a modern type of dogma. Such dogma cannot be questioned or argued, it is oppressive, and going against it will provoke social punishments. Even the highest level intellectuals and scientists (the high priests of fact), must take the greatest care when questioning it, going slowly, and most definitely avoiding certain essential ones. Transfer this pattern to the life of an individual, and while fact may give him solid beliefs (and maybe a useful sense of security) it also closes his thinking, making him doomed to make certain mistakes over and over, and to missing the classes of truth in life that his facts have rendered improbable. This greatly hinders an individual's liberty of judgment, a capacity not only needed to a happy life, but absolutely necessary if one wishes to satisfy more subtle needs and wants, the ones which mainstream wisdom does not know how to address.
In short, the loss of the illusive fact, though disorienting, could also be a step towards a better life. Not to mention it is a step towards the truth, and just so in this aspect, desirable. It leaves us much freer to intellectual exploration; ideas and truths can be sought without the fear of outstepping accepted-as-indubitable facts. In a world with issues such as ours, this could prove essential. But still, as people, to be able to think effectively we do need a certain frame of thought. Fact has fulfilled this role, but if we are approaching “an age without fact,” we need a new, more solid and less oppressive, frame of thought. The dangers of not having one would be utter intellectual erring, or worse, the choice by default of an even worse frame of thinking.
In the light of our new freedom of thought, and to fulfill the conditions of a new frame of thought, I would like to see a habilitation of human facts as the center of our thinking. For the sake of explanation we can lump these into two categories, private and interpersonal truths. The first can be true for a person and not for another, they are private, and respectively can only have a corresponding level of validity, but which should nonetheless be respected. The second are true for pretty much everyone, but only in a human and non-scientific way. Interpersonal truths should have about the same validity as scientific truths do today, but of course, due to their interpersonal nature, would be prescribed in a different way. They are not strictly objective. These are the truths dictated by human nature, of human needs and desires. They include positive ones, like empathy and self-fulfillment, but also the negative ones, like hate and greed.
This implies that greater trust must be given to individual judgment, as well as to the human intelligences which are usually repressed or hidden rather than understood. These include the various intuitions, emotions, spirituality etc; the capacities which as living beings are often our greatest source of intelligence. This is a re-centering of ethics around the individual, and not the fact. Though the fact is important, its prominence over the individual has attained a level of absurdity and so should be re-contextualized, and in any case, if a fact is truly important to us, it is because it is somehow linked to certain human values. We implicitly function around human values today, but in too much of an indirect manner.
To prescribe the project I just described seems quasi-impossible, or at least incredibly vague. And I'm pretty sure that it is impossible to create a systematic implementation of it, even if it were clearly defined, because of its very human and non objective nature. It would have to respect each person's individual freedom. In the mean time, in spite of this, I would like to attempt a step forward. We cannot aim directly towards a more human society, but we can make ourselves think in a more human way. Since such a human-centered system would emerge through the free choice of the collectivity of individuals, I think it would surely be beneficial to rethink a big element in the directing of this choice, our private and collective notions of “personal interest.”
This notion which guides our actions and shapes the courses of our lives is generally misunderstood today, and thus wreaks havoc on our world. Thinking about it is easy enough and accessible to anybody, and its practical concreteness makes it a much more approachable project than the abstract human-centered society referred to earlier. In an idealist perspective, we can justify that if the greater good follows from everyone pursuing their profoundly best interest, logically, a project of clarifying these interests would be key to this greater good. In a practical sense, such a reflection would give people better awareness of their actions and goals, and hence the ability to choose them more carefully, and so if nothing else, greater personal awareness and freedom. The feeling of personal interest is probably the oldest guiding thought of people; with the unprecedented level of material ease possible today it deserves some attention and maybe a bit of education (because it is still centered on survival, and maybe desire as a secondary one, not the notion of living a good life).
Presently, particularly in America, this notion has been completely blurred and uniformized, and people are losing their freedom. Without a solid sense of ones personal interests, one will be misguided, attracted by empty or destructive goals, and with one's energies so misspent it will be impossibly difficult to lead an ethical life. Too many people equate a desirable life with wealth, fame, or power, when the pursuit and even obtaining of such things will lead to unhappiness and pain for most people. This goes from people taking out gigantic loans to buy things that they don't need; to wall street traders, whose intellectual capacities could probably do a good deal to make society better, but instead act as essential pivots in participating in making it more unstable; or the student chasing a career that he doesn't really want or will even be suited for (hence, perhaps, a certain proliferation of bad doctors and unhappy dentists...). To generalize a bit, within the limits of American society, personal interest is dogmatically taken to mean 'going up' whatever that entails. To have another conception of personal interest is tagged “alternative” or deviant, is frowned upon or ignored from a distance; in any case it is socially excluded. The freedom of self-definition is replaced by the freedom to social mobility, and in becoming a norm (or a necessary goal) it becomes a limit to the freedom of the self.
The pursuit of upward mobility as the guarantee of a good life (or happiness) is fundamentally flawed. First of all, individually, it will not satisfy anything more than the most basic material and social needs of a person; and second of all, collectively, the number of people at the 'top' of society never increases – and one going up generally implies another coming down: the number of people in desirable positions never actually changes, it is an empty promise for a better society. Also, more people in high profile, high paid positions, structurally implies more people in low profile and underpaid ones supporting their activity – let it be in poor parts of big cities, or on the other side of the world (behind each “Made in China” label there is a worker...).
It should be noted that this essay does not intend or desire a kind of class revolution. The proposed project lacks this controversy. It should be offensive to nobody –it is adaptable to all non-controlling systems of thought, religions, social classes etc--, and even if it does not 'solve' any of the ills of society, it is hard to see how it could be unhelpful. At its most extreme, a rethinking of personal interest would entail a shift from directing life with explicitly external values (wealth, power etc), to personal ones (self-fulfillment, happiness, empathy etc). Practically, the values that would really matter are more along the lines of personal fulfillment, pleasure, integrity, self-respect, etc. Wealth or power, etc, would only be valuable in relation to the latter values, and to the very few people suited for such positions.
I believe in the practical feasibility of this, that a person holds the notions of his fundamental personal interests inside of him, and that with proper research and guidance the individual can find them. This project requires solid guidance and education; self education at early stages of life can easily result in disaster. Guidance should be opposed to directing: to help someone find what is best for him rather than dictating it. The notion of personal interest itself has to be reconsidered for each and every person. Simply superimposing various pre-existing notions of personal interest is a mistake – a particular individual should require his very own one, and even if he doesn't, he should at least be required to make the effort to find which one is his.
I believe that society today does not function properly. The desirable system of society, the one we're looking for, is structuring but not controlling; it organizes people without preventing their well being and hindering their free will. The ability of the leading class to control its people should no longer be such an important value if we wish to attain a human-centered society. It seems like a safety net which we are stuck in. If each individual chooses what is profoundly best for him, the sum of these decisions is what can let a “better world” emerge. Controlled revolution, with its manifestos of predefined values seem like the reiteration of a bad idea. A rethinking of “personal interest,” while not a sufficient condition for a human-centered society (as opposed to economy centered, or ideology-centered ones), definitely seems to be a quasi-essential part of it. But if nothing else, if these goals are completely unrealistic, such a project would give people the added awareness of their own decisions without which they cannot be said to be free.