Anti-Intellectualism and The Death of Facts

We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.

– Richard Hofstadter

What is a fact? It is something that differentiates truth from falsehood. If vaccines cause autism, then there should be a fact of the matter. Something that makes it the case, or not. This is an important aspect of the universe, especially considering that it is directly related to human well-being. Without facts, well thought out actions are impossible. There would be no predictability, and thus no way to make plans that would reliably succeed. If there existed no fact of the matter about vaccines and autism, no way of determining the truth or falsity of that claim, then there would be no reasonable method of choosing whether to vaccinate or not. Facts matter.

With the election of Donald Trump, I fear we now live in a post-fact era (or post-truth, given that I was scooped by the Oxford Dictionary). Of course, in many ways this distinction is arbitrary. It is not as if on November 7th facts were respected and appreciated, but then on November 8th they disappeared. What occurred on November 8th was the culmination, a rise to power (if you will), of the growing trend towards factlessness. Both on the right… and the left.

My concern going forward is that this trend will continue, or further exacerbate the complex problems we already face. There have been peaks of factlessness before, but they mostly occurred top down. Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union was enforced by the Communist Party. Today, facts are readily available, but they are either ignored or denied with the most casual pretense towards a vague notion of common sense. People today feel entitled to a sort of base confidence, a complete trust, in their uncritical judgements. What Stephen Colbert diagnosed as truthiness.

Truthiness has become the new normal. People feel entitled to their own truth, regardless of whether or not it conforms to facts. This entitlement undercuts any critical dialectic by reinforcing the knee jerk response that both parties will have to simply “agree to disagree”. As if agreement is not possible, since there is nothing to determine who is right. Those who persist, who try to get clear about facts, are dismissed as ‘elites’. Just watch this painful interaction between Newt Gingrich and a CNN reporter about the state of violence in America. He sums up their discussion by stating “As a political candidate I’ll go with how people feel, and I’ll let you go with the theoreticians”. I take it that ‘theoretician’, like ‘elitist’, is being used here as a form of slander.

What does all this mean? Well, we have an intellectual class trying to understand the motivation behind Trump supporters, and some of them are missing the forest for the trees. People are no longer motivated by facts. They have lost faith in the institutions that are the standard bearers of facts. What I fear, is that those who are educated on the left will retreat back to theorizing, instead of working hard to restore that faith. Or they will continue to engage in tactics that ignore the underlying cause of our current predicament. Calling Trump and his supporters racist, didn’t prevent him from winning, and continuing to call them racists isn’t going to fix the fact that he was, indeed, elected.

This, of course, does not mean that his supporters weren’t racist, either overtly, or that they engaged in practices that contribute to systematic oppression. This also doesn’t mean we need to empathize with them. What it does mean, is that if we desire to solve the problems we are about to face, we need to better understand what we are up against. It also means we need to come to term with the fact that some of his supporters were probably not racist or misogynistic, but I would argue, they were all, at the very least, mistaken. I can work with someone who is simply mistaken, overt racists are a bit harder to deal with. Furthermore, calling people who don’t think they are racist ‘a racist’ is not going to make them receptive to a well reasoned argument about why they are wrong.

Now, that claim alone will provoke ire from those who voted for him. I am becoming the poster boy of the ‘elite’ by simply declaring a Trump vote to be a vote based on a mistaken apprehension of the facts. Any appeal to having the correct facts, will necessarily proceed to the problem of appropriately adjudicating what the facts are. What is the difference between our sources? Why do I side with the CNN reporter and not Newt? The solution to that problem is in understanding why crime statistics matter, and coming to that solution requires background knowledge gained by an appropriate education. In other words, we need to have an appropriate handle on the type of expertise we have, and a better grasp of the expertise of others. We need to trust that others have a better grasp of certain facts than we do. However, this meta-cognitive ability, of realizing you might be wrong, often requires a degree of competence obtained by a decent education. The less educated tend to be more confident.

Is it any surprise that Trump won more votes among those who are the least educated? That back in April, Trump proclaimed to his supporters that he “loved the poorly educated”? Yet raising this issue seems offensive to those who supported him. As Tomi Lahren of The Blaze argues “Somehow a piece of paper has now become the standard for intelligence and the new bar for an ‘educated voter'”. She proceeds to show clips of anti-Trump supporters chanting “Fuck Trump!”, while she sneers “Let’s take a look at some educated voters”. Her defense of trump voters is that “Most of us are hardworking people that built businesses, families, served our country, and followed the law. If you think that makes us any less than you, you’re dead wrong”. Well, it depends of course on what you mean by ‘less’. I don’t denigrate those who have not spent the time to become educated in a certain field, but that fact alone does mean that you are going to be less educated. That, is a simple fact. I know less than car mechanics when it comes to the inner workings of my car, that shouldn’t make me feel ‘less than’ a mechanic in a way which is meant to be insulting or demeaning. After all, I can’t know everything and nor could anyone else.

Expertise is something important, and her rallying cry is anti-intellectualism in its most potent state. It is an appeal to an outdated sense of ‘aw shucks’ folksy wisdom, at the expense of the actual hard labour required to comprehend the complexity of the universe. Building a business, raising a family, serving time in the military, are all things that take a certain amount of skill and dedication, but they aren’t going to tell you whether or not the climate is warming and whether or not that warming is caused by human beings. The idea that these more parochial activities constitute a sufficient justification for being knowledgeable in highly complex domains which are unrelated is the foundation of our post-fact era. Of course, calling Trump supporters stupid is not a solution, and let’s be clear, I don’t think they are stupid, I think they are misinformed about particular issues. They are, as Hofstadter elegantly put it, afflicted by their fantasies.

I have avoided discussing the facts about why Trump voters are mistaken, because that is not my concern here. I am more concerned here about getting people to realize that there are facts, before I engage in discussing what the fact are. We need to get the majority of people who distrust journalism, to trust it again. We need to get the majority of people who distrust general expertise, to trust it again. Trust, not unconditionally, but with a reasonable expectation that it is reliable. This means that academics need to get their hands dirty.

Those academics also need, as philosopher Richard Rorty describes in his book Achieving Our Country,  to move from a Cultural Left back to a Reformist Left. My worry is that Rorty’s suggestion won’t succeed given that the academic left has its own problem with facts. His solution is that the left needs to talk less about cultural theory and more about the practical concerns of social economic policies. But that means we need to learn economics and psychology, rather than learning how to deconstruct them. This problem was highlighted by Bruno Latour, one of the prominent figures of the Cultural Left:

Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show the lack of scientific certainty’ inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a “primary issue.’ But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument—or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I’d like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?

This intended emancipation has actually stymied progress. Remember, as I started this essay, without facts, well thought out actions are impossible. If we are to fix the problems that await us, we need to restore the status of facts, and given that we are now in the post-fact era that won’t be easy.

Be vigilant, hard times are ahead.


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