V. The Truths We Live: Facts Are Enough
How more facts wont help us achieve clarity or consensus in a context where what is right is decided by identity
Our civilization prides itself on being rational, post-superstition. In attempting to address society’s many problems we use terms like “data-driven”, we operate on the basis of facts rather than emotion or belief, and somehow in the end policy edges by on narrow majorities that cap virulent and enduring disagreement.
There is a lot of utility in understanding what happened, how it happened. Cause and effect, if it can be reliably established, orients us, tells us what we can expect, tells us what we will get if we act in a certain way, tell us who is at fault. We are particularly drawn to “true stories” that stretch the boundaries of experience. For many people, established fact, is the point on which they wait to tell them what is possible.
There are many levels, however, on which our complacency with regard to the power of facts makes us miss, leads us to think we can expect a certain consensus of what is right when the amount and availability of information about everything is actually pushing us further apart.
In the spirit of this project, which attempts to call attention to dynamics happening in the background that alter how we perceive what is true, this section is not a claim of a truer truth, and instead is merely a consideration of the complexity and unreliability of what reaches us as facts. In the end this will allow us to seriously consider necessary solutions to living in what is now a post-fact world.
When Lies Work Better:
Politics is an arena of human interaction where lies are unhappily expected by the population, who often sees their “democracy” as the choice between one liar and another. Many were shocked, however, during the 2016 American presidential race at: simultaneously, the sheer number of lies that were being told, the disparity in the perception of who was lying more, and how supporters accepted and endorsed candidates knowing of their unapologetic disregard for the truth.
It is seen as a fact by many that the United States is the freest and most democratic country in the world and, at the same time, there is very little confidence in the trustworthiness of the two candidates the election system allows us to choose from. Democracy depends both on choice, and on being informed, and that we have neither meaningful choices nor the expectation of getting the truth, says a lot about the disparity between what we identify with: America, Democracy, and how our attachment is based much more on the words themselves than any reality underneath.
The process of identity makes it so that we cannot shift to keep up with our ideal wherever it is expressed; instead, on the basis of it, we assign its value to familiar structures, even when they are not reflecting it.
A point could be made about the difference between fact and belief, but more consistent facts like gravity aside, when it comes to the slippery social, political, historical facts, is there really that much of a difference?
During the 2016 American presidential election Vincent F. Hendricks of the University of Copenhagen, being interviewed by Jason Koebler for Vice, discussed how the emotions targeted by the Trump campaign (Fear) interact with social media dynamics in a way that information, regardless of its factual nature, becomes true on the basis of likes, retweets, and up-votes.
Moreover, Hendricks reminds how even factual facts are “cherry-picked”, selectively chosen to reinforce a particular political agenda.
The internet makes finding corroboration for any idea or alliance nearly instant, and within one of these so-called “information bubbles” Hendricks argues, we don’t become more nuanced but more polarized, our picture of the world diverging hopelessly from those with whom we must meet to decide our collective fate.
In the 2016 article “Why Trump Can Lie and No One Seems to Care”, which briefly touches on how truth doesn’t matter to people so much as reinforcement, Neal Gabler goes on to talk about how the value provided by the fake facts marks a shift in the public interests from policy and governance to entertainment. Trump’s outlandish statements generate buzz, and the controversy over them is good for news ratings. He gets more airtime, people are drawn into the Us vs. Them narratives he weaves, and through repetition what he says becomes true, and functions as fact in the same way all belief has, by reinforcing the sense of the who we are that unconsciously guides our actions.
These dynamics are not exclusive to any one person, and will not go away if someone or some group is silenced. Some see Trump merely as the fulfilment of a more general phenomenon. To pay attention to him or his opponents, as we are here, is not to individualize certain flaws but to, through them, see our own culture.
Consensus of Truth to the Highest Bidder:
For anyone who has wondered at a particular slant and tone of comment sections around the internet, regardless of where on the political spectrum an article might be classified, you are not going crazy, people are actually paid to create multiple profiles and alternate identities and swarm articles that appear to challenge financial powers and majority groups. The Russian government, the United States military, mainstream news outlets, presidential campaigns, Industry groups, and more, no doubt, have all been exposed or accused of seeking individuals or software to help them generate a disproportionate degree of static around an issue raised by their enemies. It is being called astroturfing and there are multiple layers now with even websites being created for posters to link to and add a deeper sense of validity to their purchased, duplicated, perspectives.
But which ones are right, who is a real journalist, or scientist, or citizen, writing as themselves, what they really believe, and not a consensus simulated by a single agent? While there may be ways to find this out there is no way to prove it to a wide enough audience for it to matter. At this point, at the long end of years of identity, and truth, being manipulated for political and economic interests, the battle lines are drawn.
Established power includes both financial powers as well as the power of majority, as these are the groups in the best position to saturate a certain message. Voices that attempt to challenge the dominant narratives and interest groups are accused, when not of being liars or being to blame, of being biased, and the sheer volume afforded by wealth, influence, and numbers keeps certain perspectives marginalized.
To reference the work of Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky in the United States, for instance, often invites dismissal because by providing counterpoints to the mainstream narratives, these scholars are presumably more biased than if they allowed the prevailing narratives to be the only ones.
With real determination, facts and “facts” supporting any number of conclusions can be assembled, and many see the truth as existing ever in the middle. The “somewhere in the middle” fallacy obscures that what is at stake in a competition of truths is rarely symmetrical. Well-being or profit, social status or subsistence, humor or dignity. The dichotomy of “right” and “left”, what is characterized as two extremes, often overlooks fundamentally different calculations of acceptable costs, who pays and who benefits. A “balanced” or “neutral” perspective, one that stands noncommittally in the middle and thus preserves existing power relations, is by default choosing a side.
If we imagine Science is unbiased, because in theory the results can be reproduced, can we say the same about the people who perform science? To avoid the astroturfing and research-wars that plague the topic of scientific objectivity we will just stick to a few thinking points.
Is a scientist any less likely to be influenced by their identifications than the rest of the population?
Scientific studies, or rather their conclusions, are commonly accepted at face value by members of the public, as “what we now know”, independent of whatever debates might exist between the supposedly unbiased scientists who can review the same material, and in theory repeat the same studies. The belief people have in Science as the only medium from which we can really understand the world is a much bigger force than the backdoor qualification: a theory is never proven. And this general faith, in knowledge classified as science, is based on how “scientific” knowledge functions, not what scientists themselves say it can or can’t do.
It is this faith that gives scientists license to create facts, even when they don’t have the power or intent to do so.
Issues that may undermine the exclusive truth creation power of science, besides ideological or egoic commitments of scientists themselves, include: the faulty assumptions on which a study or even a discipline, depends, the financing sources behind scientific research, whether the context really has been adequately reproduced for an experiment, and whether all relevant variables can be taken into account and controlled for.
These are fairly large ifs. Of course it is hard for people who hold the idea of Science in the highest regard to hear criticisms without pointing to often unreliable pre-scientific belief systems. This is not a comparison between belief systems. This is about how people identify with beliefs and–in regards to how we can know things–allow results that come through those systems to reach us as unquestioned truths. The same forces that effect personal and political beliefs weigh on science, and studies about the same phenomena that show different results prove this.
If scientists, depending on discipline, see the world through the same psychological shortcuts, and focus themselves according to the same incentive structures as the rest of us, if there are things we don’t realize we are seeing through, it will invisibly materialize in how scientific studies are structured, how people interpret and argue results. It wont be escaped just because someone else with a very similar lens has the option to corroborate it.
Looking at how “what we now know” has often fallen to “what we once thought” the world according to social scientists has changed in time with culture. The civil rights era, for instance, happened before anthropologists finally turned around and said race was a social invention. Emerging in earlier times of such a sticky, and profitable, social truth, who would think to pose questions that actually had a chance to discover this?
Powerless sectors of society have a mirror held up to them at all times telling them of their deficiencies, top-down comparisons that reduce their value and justify the status quo. On the other hand, those in power, could be expected to be less likely to engage in self-reflection because if virtue is understood on the basis of being x type of person, or acting in line with the norms of the dominant group, someone in such a position would experience no societal pressure to reflect on their own process because the path of least resistance is for society’s problems to be referred to the reliable scapegoat of some other lesser type of person (immigrants, minorities).
The prevailing context in which people are understood and the truth of a situation is decided based on what someone ‘is’ (justified when we do it, evil when they do it) makes what is true at times inconvenient, makes people selective in how facts are used. The resulting inconsistency turns people in different directions even when they share the same burdens, and in the end to hold to the established truth doesn’t necessarily benefit the majority, it only precludes the sort of self-reflection that is necessary for real progress.
The infinite growth logic of our economy is an example of a collective truth that is ultimately self-defeating. It shows, on a broad scale, how something that is impossible, given that the planets resources are finite and being destroyed faster than they can regenerate, can be absorbed uncritically and irrevocably as fact by a majority of people. It shows, on the more narrow scale, of those who see cause and effect only in terms of the lifespan of their own appetites, who assure us that the economy must always be growing, that “truth” is often just a means to an end.
Facts are not enough because how we see, the unconscious truths and strategies that structure our thinking, determine what we consider to be factual and how we will use it.
The quest for clarity leads ever deeper, not into more knowledge, but toward more awareness, to seeing ourself think, wanting to believe, wanting an orienting truth when no truth is possible. The mind is capable of rationalizing anything, of weaponizing information to justify doing to others what we would not want done to ourselves.
In that sense, isn’t to remember each other, to empathize a much more direct road to clarity in these chaotic times.