Why Arguing About Fact Won't Change Anything (But Beliefs Just Might)

Why Arguing About Fact Won't Change Anything (But Beliefs Just Might)

Why Arguing About Fact Won't Change Anything (But Beliefs Just Might)

In the time of Trump, "the death of fact" is the lament of the Left. But insisting that the Right is wrong about facts is to forget that belief is all any of us ever has.

     
Why Arguing About Fact Won't Change Anything (But Beliefs Just Might)
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With Donald Trump poised to take the presidency, a hundred million Americans are beside ourselves with worry over the damage his administration may inflict on the country and the world. But as if that weren't bad enough, there's a sidebar that has nearly as many people tearing their hair out: the so-called death of facts.

Many on the Left point to this Zeitgeist as contributing to Trump's victory, and it's not like those on the Right exactly disagree. A synopsis of the belief was offered recently by CNN contributor and Trump supporter Scottie Nell Hughes during a November 30 panel discussion on The Diane Rehm Show:

[O]ne thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts. They're not really facts. Everybody has a way…It's kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not truth. There's no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.

In discussing this subject in general and as articulated by Hughes, Esquire's Jack Holmes gives voice to the self-righteous indignation felt on the Left:

This is an astounding claim. It's an attack not on Trump's detractors, but on the idea of objective reality. Modern society is built on the idea we can observe things in the world, use the scientific method to verify them and form a consensus that a certain set of things are true. This set of things constitutes the reality in which we live. Hughes, Trump, and his campaign have set out to undermine all of that in order to claim that the truth is anything they want it to be right now—as long as enough of the people who support them believe it.

This short passage demonstrates some of the problem with the Left's argument. He talks about the importance of consensus in arriving at truth, then declares that the quantity of people sharing a belief is no determiner of truth. He invokes "objective reality" with no explanation of how Homo sapiens can transcend our built-in subjectivity (language, culture, experience, physical/intellectual limitations, etc.). He miscasts scientific method—properly defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as "a method or procedure […] consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses"—as a verifier truth.

He labels "a consensus that a certain set of things are true" as what "constitutes the reality in which we live," as if our personal beliefs, (mis)perceptions, emotions, etc.—never mind the possible existence of forces of which we may be ignorant—can play no parts in that reality since they have not been scientifically verified and given the Good Housekeeping Seal of Truth by consensus.

For all that, the biggest problem with this "common sense" attack on the Trump-Hughes ilk is the Left's implicit belief that facts—whatever they are—can influence belief. Consider co-panelist Politico's Glenn Thrush's rejoinder to Hughes, which Holmes views as having made "short work" of Hughes's argument:

There are no objective facts? I mean, that is…that is an absolutely outrageous assertion. Of course there are facts! There is no widespread proof that 3 million people voted illegally. It's been checked over and over again. We had a Pew study that took place over 15 years that showed people had more likelihood of being struck by lightning than voting illegally in an election. Facts are facts. I'm sorry you don't like the facts….

Leave aside the uselessness of "Of course there are facts!" and "Facts are facts" and focus on Thrush's example, which relates to a November 11 Tweet by True the Vote's Gregg Phillips ("Number of non-citizen votes exceeds 3 million"), a belief echoed by Trump in his own November 27 Tweet ("I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally") and which comports with a long history of Trumpean rhetoric. Thrush is right that "[t]here is no widespread proof that 3 million people voted illegally." For the sake of argument, call that a fact.

The point Thrush seems to miss is that he does not believe this fact because it is a fact. Factuality has no power to influence belief. It was always a fact, for example (in the sense that Thrush, Holmes, etc., use the term), that the Earth orbited around the Sun, yet the entirety of humanity believed otherwise prior to the Copernican model, with most of humanity persisting for a good while in their mistaken belief—surety, even—that the Earth was the center of creation. When the majority of humanity became hip to heliocentrism, it was not by virtue of heliocentrism's factuality, but rather through the complicated, nuanced, idiosyncratic, historically contingent, and deeply fallible process by which individuals and societies acquire beliefs.

This is exactly what competent scientists and non-hack historians will tell you about the history of Holmes's (and my) beloved scientific method: it is not a story of facts, but of how a particular lineage of subjective people have revised and refined their beliefs over time. These people—scientists—are not trying to tell us about facts; rather, they are sharing their methodology and observations, the results of and data from their experiments, and what it all leads them to believe and recommend.

I am no less disgusted and horrified than Holmes, Thrush, and all my lefty friends about reckless, rampant willingness of Trump and company to dole out—and by his supporters to eat up—poorly supported or even completely unsupported assertions as if they are candy canes at Christmas. But arguing about fact(s) is probably not a winning strategy, because it's not like we Lefties believe what we believe because the facts make us believe it. Besides, as Glenn Greenwald points out, the Left can dole out junk food with the best of them. And, of course, from Left to Right there isn't a one of us who has not on many occasions taken for fact a belief we later came to see as fiction.

So rather than declaring, "Manmade climate change is a fact," we might stick to something along the lines of, "I'm no climate scientist, but I believe humans are contributing to climate change because the scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United Nations, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—along with every other major climate-science organization in the world—have been studying this issue extensively and concur in the belief that this is so (and we can pore over their data together to see why). What have you got?"

This won't work with everybody. But by grouping ourselves with our opposites as fellow subjective creatures of belief, rather than casting ourselves as gods in our empyrean of fact looking down on them from objective heights, we may be in a better position to get them to compare our apples with their apples, tasting together everyone's beliefs in the effort to collectively determine which are tastier and more nutritive.

It's gotta be at least as effective as "Facts are facts. I'm sorry you don't like the facts." And it's the only way anyone's beliefs will change. Facts, apparently, are not up to the challenge.

 

Image by:  David Shankbone


About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:  greggorymoore.com

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Last Updated : Saturday, August 12, 2017