“Just the Facts, Mam.”

Fact fistToday, I saw an article floating around social media called “No, It’s not Your Opinion. You’re Just Wrong” by Jef Rouner. It comes at the heels of similar articles, like this one from Vox about professors being afraid of liberal students or this cogent blog post about Twitter by Alex Ried.

As Rouner puts it, “There’s a common conception that an opinion cannot be wrong.” In many cases, this is fine. I mat have an opinion on certain music or food. Having that opinion relies on aesthetic judgement, which may be informed, but has a different standard than scientific “fact.”

As the article points out, however, many people have “opinions” that seem to contradict “fact.” Bringing in the usual suspects–climate change deniers, people who connect autism to vaccines, people who doubt privilege–the article tries to argue that such “opinions” are simply wrong. They are misconceptions. Factual errors.

I think the brusque way the article deals with the problem, typical of most contemporary mainstream rhetoric, dodges some of the deeper complications. In reality, I think we have a major epistemological issue afoot, where our sense of fact, truth, or opinion, and the standards we use to judge these words have become really messy.

Wittgenstein puts the problem of fact v. belief succinctly in On Certainty: “From seeming to me–or to everyone–to be so, it doesn’t follow that it is so.” In other words, how we perceive the word can differ from how the world “is.” And we use things like science and logic to align “seeming and “being” as closely as possible. Berkeley and other idealists aside, most of believe that a world exists, something apart from our own perception. We fight over what that world is like, however. In other words, we argue what “facts” are the right “facts.”

fact-and-opinionThis anxiety over “fact” has tailed philosophy since Socrates. The philosopher was a “lover of wisdom,” someone who sought “Truth” with a capital T. But most people are “philodoxoi,” or “lovers of belief,” going with the flow of public and personal opinion. Socrates argued that reason gave us the right facts, now popularity or power.

But even reason was not enough. The conflict between reason and empiricism forced Kant to make his “Copernican” shift, confining and defining knowledge under strict parameters in a logical-empirical hybrid. 

And still, anxiety over fact has spurred the analytical and Continental philosophers of the 20th Century. It inspires a bulk of Bruno Latour’s writing. It is deeply engrained in the recent “turn” toward the new materialism of Karen Barad or the ontology in the work of Levi Bryant.

I’ve just brushed through a hefty wave of arguments. But I want to point at the anxiety that inspires them: how do we know what’s true. Well, science, might be an answer. Literally, they are the ones who “know.” But as Latour and Steve Woolgar argue in Laboratory Life (1986), science even as the abstracted post-Enlightenment ideal that it should be, is not perfect. It is a specific epistemological and linguistic frame with its own limitations and politics.

bro-do-you-even-scienceWhat about logic and reason? Here, similarly, critiques spring up and limitations appear. Logical positivists, language philosophers, and other analytic thinkers have hit brick walls, unable to make appealing worldviews or solve tricky paradoxes. For example, the Frege-Geach problem. And many continental thinkers have major critiques.

But I think social media presents a different problem.

Take the science issue again. While Latour’s arguments still resonate–especially in “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”–we hit a more immediate issue: information and rhetoric.

Taking information first. In a world of easy-to-find citations, widespread pseudoscience, real science funded by major companies with certain agendas, “science” is confusing. I can find well-argued empirical points from both sides, equipped with evidence. Further looking, I generally think certain sides are stronger, but still, the seeds of doubt get planted. I get enough evidence-counter evidence to second guess what “fact” really is or where I can find it. Here, Latour’s work is particularly helpful.

But rhetoric provides another part. Earlier I mentioned that I did not like the brusque rhetoric of the article. Similarly, Tweets have rhetorical limits. YouTube videos have limits. Some of these are material–like the character limits of Twitter or our attention span–but I think a more pervasive limitation is cultural. When I encounter many of these online communications, I get a sense that people aren’t trying to know. They are trying to convince. And, beyond authorial intentions, emotionally charged pieces spread more through the algorithms of social media and human bias, as the video below articulates.

I’m not sure where this trend to convince comes from. I imagine confirmation bias plays a role. Perhaps fear. Perhaps some odd form of ignorance. Available technology magnifying our ability to argue. But I also think language plays a role.

Read YouTube comments, for example–but even many articles in themselves–and one rarely gets a sense of, “hey, let’s try to figure this out together.” More often, it may be the motive to expose an issue and fix it (“This is wrong, and we need to fight it!”) or the motive construing something as an attack and marshaling evidence against it (like almost every video or comment aimed at feminists).

In these spaces, the rhetoric is often dismissive. Or laden with citations that people don’t read. Or filled with ad hominem attacks. Or insular and tribal. Or filled with pathos. Not always. But I’m often overwhelmed by how pervasive these trends are.

In my opinion (a key signifier), the internet creates a public sphere, but we are not a “public.” We have no common ground. For Habermas, we needed reason. Well, not everyone agrees with reason because it has limits and potentially oppressive politics. The same with science. We can’t agree on a common scientific authority. In sum, we have different agendas, different modes of knowing, different ways of being.

The Public Sphere
The Public Sphere

And more importantly, we often lack the common ground to overcome these differences. We will always be different. But we need a bridge. Right now, science isn’t working. Logic isn’t working. And seeing some of the reactions after that black state trooper helped the white supremacist, I’m skeptical that compassion and ethical grounds are enough (sorry Levinas).

As I wrote in a previous post, “We are caught in a paradox: in constant relation, with constant separation. We are all in this together, but alone.”

I have no solution. My argument is an attempt at explanation, motivated by a fear that this fractured sphere is not self-aware enough, creating issues. Whether those issues are climate change, racial oppression, violence, or smug comments and family division I leave to you. For now, I’m just going to think some more…


2 thoughts on ““Just the Facts, Mam.”

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