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.


Truthtelling at the Arendt Center Conference

A week after the Arendt Center’s fourth annual conference, “Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts”, Arendt Center Visiting Fellow, Kieran Bonner, reflects on the lecture given by Professor Peg Birmingham.

Professor Peg Birmingham says that to fully understand Arendt’s relation to facts we must remember her distinction between moral action and political action. For Arendt, moral action is concerned with the dialogue between me and myself, and sets as its criteria for action, whether actors can live with themselves. Political action, on the other hand, is concerned with actors’ relation to the world. Political action happens between humans while moral action is a concern primarily within the human, though, as she described it in “Truth and Politics”, sometimes moral action becomes political action.

Her case for this is Socrates refusal to escape from prison and therefore to die for the truth of his position. In the Human Condition, Arendt talks about the relation between the public realm and action. “There is perhaps no clearer testimony to the loss of the public realm in the modern age than the almost complete loss of authentic concern with immortality.”  Political action is fundamentally about public admiration, immortality and glory and the loss of these as authentic concerns points to the loss of the public realm. This loss of the public realm is interrelated with a decline in common sense and, in turn, the sense of worldly reality. “Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear.”  It is precisely this loss that is a consequence of world alienation, an alienation that the rise of the natural and social sciences have contributed to significantly.

As Peg noted, this means that while Arendt was very much concerned with facts, and the need for action to have a public realm bounded by law and history, her notion of fact was ‘neither forensic nor positivistic.’  Two questions emerge for me: What was the status of many of the presentations on the first day of the conference where factual truth was presented as a result of a forensic exercise. I am thinking in particular of Oreskes and Kay’s presentations, in particular. Second, what is ‘factual truth’ for Arendt, if it is neither forensic nor positivistic? Perhaps it is better to explore the second issue first.

Arendt’s concern with truth telling and facts, while implicit in much of her early work, became an explicit concern after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Sam Tanenhaus disputed her claim of doing ‘reportage’ in the ordinary way that is understood by journalists. She does not, as he claims, give us a living sense of what the atmosphere of the court was like. As well, few if any would claim that her presentation was neutral and detached in the way many reports are presented. Does this modify her insistence that it is a ‘report’?

As Jerome Kohn remarked in his presentation, the term banality of evil is only mentioned once at the end of the book. Despite all the historical and statistical facts that she presents in this book, might the phenomenon of Eichmann’s actions and defense point to what she means by ‘factual truth’? The reality of the fact of Eichmann’s actions is both the monstrous deeds he accomplished and the banality of the account he gave. What kind of factual truth is that? As Birmingham said also echoing Roger Berkowitz’s opening remarks, this kind of report strives, following Herodotus, ‘to say what is’.

What kind of truth did presenters like Oreskes and Kay present? Both undertook and successfully accomplished a forensic investigation into their separate subjects, on the one hand the ‘merchants of doubt’ who politically undermined the scientific consensus on global warming, and on the other, an investigation of conspiracy theorists and the patterns they follow. Both supplied much documentary evidence for their claims. In Oreskes case, ‘a small handful of men’ who were otherwise respected scientists in their fields, for purely ideological reasons, sought to sow doubt in the public mind about the ‘facts’ of everything from the dangers of tobacco and second hand smoke to global warming. These ‘cold war warriors,’ for ideological reasons, deliberately misrepresented the consensus in science. What kind of fact are we dealing with here? There is first the forensic investigation by Oreskes and there is secondly the ‘fact’ of global warming. One comes about as a result of sound historical research and on the basis of how scientific facts emerge. The other is the report on the consensus of scientists on the basis of the way science works as an institution.

Are either of these ‘factual truths’ in Arendt’s sense? The fact that Germany invaded Belgium and the fact that Trotsky was a member of the Communist Party—these are historical truths that help give us bearing in the world. While these were worldly facts in Arendt’s time, in that they were witnessed and acknowledged by many people (Stalin notwithstanding), to us they are historical facts. (This is an issue worth pursuing in another context.) The facts of the merchants of doubt and the pattern behind conspiracy theories are facts that need to be taken into account if we are to be able to find our comportment. But these are not facts in the sense that they call on us to think about what our world means. They are not stories that help us bear the sorrows of the world. Rather, as forensic and scientific truths, and while extremely important, they do not, by themselves, reconcile us with ‘worldly reality’.

“At any event, while world alienation determined the course and the development of modern society, earth alienation became and has remained the hallmark of modern science.”

The knowledge gained through modern science, while it certainly adds to our knowledge of the universe, and through its alliance with technology has enabled humans to ‘act into nature’ (with dangerous irreversible and unpredictable consequences ensuing), is not a story in Arendt’s sense. It does not reconcile us to ‘what is.’ Rather, “whatever we do today in physics … we always handle nature from a point in the universe outside the earth.”  If so, then neither the facts of the sciences nor of the social sciences nor of the forensic investigators, are examples of factual truths in Arendt’s sense. The latter is concerned with meaning while the former are concerned with an accurate representation of empirical reality. Worldly reality and empirical reality are very different phenomenon.

I would argue that neither Oreskes’s nor Kay’s presentations are about meaning. They are concerned with empirical reality. The natural response they generate is whether they are accurate portrayers of empirical reality (yes). If so, Oreskes teaches us about dangers to our earth bound existence and the need to take corrective action on global warming. In Kay’s case, he points to importance of pattern recognition with regard to conspiracy theorists claims to truth telling, an important but technical skill. But what’s the story? What sorrows do we humans need to bear? What human condition meaning do we have to confront? The answers to these questions remain to emerge and this was the hunger I personally felt after many of the first day’s presentations. This longing or Eros, I should add, was engaged with many of the presentations on the second day.

Let me dramatize the difference between Arendt’s understanding of a factual truth and the positivistic understanding of factual truth. I will summarize her views on authority, as I see it. For Arendt, the factual truth about authority in the modern world is that it has disappeared. She acknowledges that conservative and liberal political scientists and functionalist social scientists not only deny this worldly fact; they have much data and research to support their conclusions. For the functional social scientist, authority has merely taken another form and for the liberal political scientists authority is inimical to the progress of freedom in modern society. Factual truth for Arendt is a phenomenon, in the phenomenological sense of that term. The reality of the disappearance of authority from the modern world is a phenomenon that we moderns have to bear. This does not mean that authority has disappeared, phenomenologically speaking. That she speaks about it, that she articulates what it is in ways that are intelligible and meaningful, speaks to its phenomenological presence, in spite of its worldly disappearance. To understand what Arendt means about factual truth, we have to understand phenomenological hermeneutics.

-Kieran Bonner

**Click here to watch Peg Birmingham, Naomi Oreskes, Jonathan Kay, Sam Tanenhaus, and Jerome Kohn speaking at the conference.

Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts

The introductory lecture at the Arendt Center 2011 Fall Conference, “Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts” from Arendt Center director, Roger Berkowitz.

Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts

It is well known that Iraqi’s participated in the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States; that global warming is a myth; that childhood vaccines cause Autism; that President Obama is not an American; that a cabal of American Jews collaborated with the U.S. government to carry out the attacks on 9/11; and that the United States does not torture. These are acknowledged facts for millions of educated, indeed often highly educated, people.

Of course, I hope you will agree, these acknowledged facts are open to debate.

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.

Even before technologists have made good on their promises to provide virtual realities, we have created multiple realities using nothing more than the internet, cable news, and human nature.

So what?  Does all this lying, this blurring of fact and opinion, this creating of and defending of alternative and opposing realities –does it really matter? Isn’t that what politics has always been about?

The answer, as Hannah Arendt argues, is that the loss of factual truth in the political realm is an existential threat to politics and also to human life in general. Arendt rejects the classical maxim fiat justitia, et pereat mundus (Let justice be done, even if the world perish); instead she endorses the reformulation: Fiat veritas, et pereat mundus.   Let Truth be done, though the world may perish.

Her point is simple: We cannot give up on truth—even if it means the end of the world!  This is because the loss of truth leads to the loss of the world.  Without truth, without the ability to say what is, there is no permanence, no common world. The danger is that when truth disappears, the world wobbles. We lose our bearings. We lose what holds us together—the common sense and common assumptions—that are the furniture and stability of our human world.

Arendt’s worry is that when truth is impossible, when truth disappears, when the world wobbles, the result is cynicism. As she writes:

It has frequently been noticed that the surest long-term result of brainwashing is a peculiar kind of cynicism—an absolute refusal to believe in the truth of anything, no matter how well this truth may be established.

In other words, the danger from a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will win out—that is highly unlikely. Rather, the danger posed by the demise of factual truth is the victory of cynicism, the belief that it is simply not possible to “say what is.” What cynicism means is that the sense of factual truth from which we take our bearings in the real world is wasting away.


2. Isn’t this an old problem?  Hasn’t it always been the case that people disagree about facts and that facts are turned into opinions?

If one looks back in history, it is quickly apparent that dissensus is the norm, and consensus the exception. Many who bemoan the rise of Fox News and CNBC along with the decline of the New York Times and the Network News as arbiters of a common sense forget that for most of American history workers and elites, blacks and whites, northerners and southerners, read different newspapers and inhabited very different worlds and held often contradictory ideas of what America was. It is actually the consensual politics of Post-World War II America that is the exception, not its gradual breakdown in recent decades.

So what is different in recent times?

Arendt’s answer is that only beginning in the 2nd half of the 20th century do we now routinely encounter the mass manipulation of fact. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Soviet/Stalinist effort to deny that Leon Trotsky ever played a role in the Russian Revolution, to airbrush his images out of old pictures, and to re-write communist party history books. The lie that Trotsky was never a part of the communist party was what Arendt calls a “totalitarian lie,” a lie that seeks to re-create an entire reality. Already in 1950, she understood that such lies were now possible. This is only more true today, as technology affords liars extraordinary means to alter the documentary past.

The mass manipulation of fact does not always aim at such totalizing lies. For example, there has been a concerted effort by some to refute the scientific consensus that human activity is warming the earth. Others seek to disseminate an image of America as a nation that doesn’t torture. To be effective, such claims do not actually need to prevail.  It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to overcome the brute fact that we did, in fact, employ torture as a governmentally sanctioned policy. Rather, the purpose of the mass manipulation of fact that characterizes the modern lie is to sow doubt. Based in cynicism and yielding apathy, doubt immobilizes; thus does doubt neutralize the oppositional power of truth and doubt frees those who pursue naked power stripped from limits imposed by truth.


We must recognize is how profound and prevalent the confusion of fact and opinion is today.  The truth is that the utter refusal to believe established facts is not out of the ordinary today. Indeed, it is the new normal.

We need to now confront and accept the new normal: that our democracy must operate now without even the basic expectation of factual agreement.  We must confront this fact that facts, today, are politicized and thus reduced to opinions. That is Arendt’s point. She writes not simply to decry the decadence of politics, but to call us to face the facts about the loss of facts.

Click here to read the full essay by Roger Berkowitz.