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.
"It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication that last word which we expect from the Day of Judgment”.
- Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen: 1885 – 1963” in Men in Dark Times
According to Arendt, it is through action – and all action is but acts of speech – that human beings disclose themselves in their whoness rather than merely on the basis of their whatness. Her indebtedness for storytelling comes from a two-fold source: The Greek world on the one hand - the poets and the historians, and on the other the writings of Isak Dinesen.
Arendt devoted no theoretical effort to pass Dinesen under the lens of theory, other than some occasional mention and a literary profile in the book that Auden called her most German book – because of the form of epic legends in which the stories of the anti-heroes, under the shadow of dark times, are told.
Herself a talented storyteller, her books can be read better against this background of storytelling than on theoretical impetus; this is not because Arendt wasn’t a vehement defender of the life of the mind but because of her insight about the inability of intellectual traditions and history to understand and comprehend the events of her century.
Her reading of Dinesen conforms to the difficulties of understanding Totalitarianism. Spanish philosopher Fina Birulés puts in the following words: “While storytelling does not solve any problem and does not master anything forever, it adds yet another element in the repertory of the world, it is a way for human beings to leave a lasting presence in the world, not as species, but as a plurality of who’s”.
The relationship between storytelling and reconciliation is laid out by Arendt through Dinesen: “The reward of storytelling is to be able to let go: “When the storyteller is loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence”. To let go is an act of reconciliation.
Arendt writes the story of this anxiety and melancholy of her own through Dinesen: “That grief of having lost her life and lover in Africa should have made her a writer and given her a sort of second life was best understood as a joke, and “God loves a joke” became her maxim in the latter part of her life”.
Agnes Heller writes that Arendt knows in advance what it is that she wants to find in her storytelling, in spite of – often – finding something unexpected.
Dinesen becomes a reflection of mirrors for Arendt who in writing about Dinesen’s own storytelling that seems artificial and blurs the distinction between truth and fiction, finds the detachment necessary to comprehend the world, temporarily: “To become an artist also needs time and a certain detachment from the heavy, intoxicating business of sheer living that, perhaps, only the born artist can manage in the midst of living.”
The flight into imaginary worlds at the hand of Dinesen’s pen isn’t simply a performance and re-enactment of the Gothic – as is for example William Beckford’s “Vathek” – but rather a coming to terms with the present by telling a story about its burdens.
It is nothing but an anchoring on the present at a time when the foundation of the present itself – the past – seems irrevocably lost. A similar example of storytelling through mirrors would be, for example, Susan Sontag’s review of Anna Banti’s “Artemisia” for The London Review of Books in 2003.
“Artemisia” is a novel written late in the Second World War about the life of Artemisia Gentilenschi, a 17th century Italian painter: Banti, trained as an art historian, is meticulously careful about her treatment of sources on Gentilenschi’s life and writes in what Sontag calls “a double destiny”; according to her, Anna Banti does not find herself in Artemisia and is careful enough to write in the detachment of the third person, only available to the truly committed storyteller in a game of hide and seek: “We are playing a chasing game, Artemisia and I”.
More than a biography or a historical novel, Artemisia is a deeply emotional but sober and detached portrait of a woman in the early 17th century, tainted by the scandal of a rape that disgraced her family and haunted no more by her total commitment to art, than by the immense loneliness of living as an artist in a male-dominated world – but told with more grace than resentment.
The story about Banti and Artemisia that Sontag is telling is one of permanent displacement and loss; not only because of the female story being told but because the original novel was lost under the ruins of Banti’s house in Borgo San Jacopo when the mines detonated by the Germans wrecked the houses near the river, including hers.
Without knowing as much, Susan Sontag is writing about Banti in the same way that Arendt is writing about Dinesen: Behind a story of loss and womanhood, there is an affirmative and rather reckless anchoring in the present – in Sontag’s case, the world after Totalitarianism: The Cold War, Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11 and Abu Ghraib. It is against this background that she is writing about a “phoenix of a novel”, which is in itself a testimony to Sontag’s own work.
What both writers learnt from their own writers is a bitter lesson in contemporary history, as eloquently put by Arendt about Dinesen:
Thus, the earlier part of her life had taught her that, while you can tell stories or write poems about life, you cannot make life poetic, live it as though it were a work of art (as Goethe had done) or use it for the realization of an “idea”. Life might contain the “essence” (what else could?); recollection, the repetition in imagination, may decipher the essence and deliver to you the “elixir”; and eventually you may even be privileged to “make” something out of it, “to compound the story”. But life itself is neither essence nor elixir, and if you treat it as such it will only play its tricks on you.
When Lebanese writer Mira Baz left Yemen in 2011, in the course of the revolution and just before the deadly “Friday of Dignity” massacre, after nearly a decade teaching and writing in the mysterious land – similar to Dinesen’s Africa seen through Arendt and Banti’s Florence seen through Sontag, a sort of paradise lost and not without heavy taxes levied by the status of paradise, she was to become displaced and would turn her poetic travelogue of Yemen into a vast vault of memory.
In March 2012 she wrote – exactly a year after the massacre – about the experience of the displacement, invoking the following lines from Dinesen:
“If I know a song of Africa,
Of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back,
Of the plows in the field and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers,
Does Africa know a song of me?”
After which she writes:
The house and the garden had quickly become my home, where in the mornings I fed my regular guests Bulbuls and Serins, and found serenity when, through watching them, I meditated on existence, on cycles, on life, on everything and nothingness. Out there was Yemen. Within the garden walls, and all the walls, was me, inside my head.
Through reading and writing, life cannot be changed, but it can be made understandable and livable, after the same fashion of John Updike when he described the prose of Bruno Schulz: “The harrowing effect of Schulz’ prose is to construct the world anew, as from fragments that exist after some unnamable disaster”. The disaster is always the turbulence of history and the unnamable is the loss, but here storytelling becomes a privilege, a sign of truth, and the burden of a presence – entering the world once again, even if it had been lost once.
Fina Birulés concludes her timely meditation on Arendt and Dinesen: “The political function of the narrator – historian or novelist – is to teach the acceptance of things as they are. From this acceptance, that might be called as well veracity, is born the faculty of judgment, by means of which, in words of Isak Dinesen, in the end we will have the privilege to see and to see again, and that is what is called Day of Judgment.”