Posts Tagged ‘facts’

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It’s now official, Truth is dead.

Oxford Dictionaries has selected “post-truth” as 2016’s international word of the year, after seeing a spike in frequency this year in the context of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States.*

Many of us are neither surprised nor dismayed by the realization that Big-T Truth—in relation to politics, the media, and much else—is being called into question. We’re not surprised because telling the truth was never a mainstay of political discourse or newspaper reporting. Remember the lies that served as the basis for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 order to launch retaliatory air strikes on North Vietnam and his request for a joint resolution of Congress—the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—which gave him authorization, without a formal declaration of war by Congress, for the use of conventional military force in Southeast Asia? Or the New York Times in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, especially Judith Miller’s now thoroughly discredited reporting about Iraq’s supposedly brimming stockpile of weapons of mass destruction?

Nor are we dismayed, since we’ve long understood that different sets of “facts” and “truths” are produced within different theoretical frameworks and that there’s no Archimedean standpoint—independent and outside of those frameworks—to decide that one or another corresponds to reality. The idea that there’s a set of bedrock facts or a single truth about reality is a holdover from positivism and other foundationalist theories of knowledge that have long been contested.

What we do need to be aware of is how those different facts and truths are constructed (the discursive and social conditions under which they are produced), and of course how they lead to different consequences (on the theories and the wider society). It’s a stance concerning knowledge that is often referred to as “partisan relativism”—relativist in the sense that validity criteria are diverse and internal to theoretical frameworks, partisan because producing knowledges always involves taking a stance, in favor of one set of facts and truths and against others.

To be clear, then, “post-truth”doesn’t mean (as if often presumed) that theoretical and empirical analysis grinds to a halt or that analysts—in whatever field, humanities, social sciences, or natural sciences—are unable to make pronouncements about the world. On the contrary. It makes discussion and debate, amongst and between those who use different theoretical frameworks, even more important—because, of course, the stakes for the world in which we live are so high.

Julia Shaw, a forensic psychologist, adopts much the same perspective

They say that we have found ourselves in a world lost to emotion, irrationality, and a weakening grasp on reality. That lies don’t faze us, and knowledge doesn’t impress us. That we are post-truth, post-fact. But, is this actually a bad thing?

I’m a factual relativist. I abandoned the idea of facts and “the truth” some time last year. I wrote a whole science book, The Memory Illusion, almost never mentioning the terms fact and truth. Why? Because much like Santa Claus and unicorns, facts don’t actually exist. At least not in the way we commonly think of them.

We think of a fact as an irrefutable truth. According to the Oxford dictionary, a fact is “a thing that is known or proved to be true.” And where does proof come from? Science?

Well, let me tell you a secret about science; scientists don’t prove anything. What we do is collect evidence that supports or does not support our predictions. Sometimes we do things over and over again, in meaningfully different ways, and we get the same results, and then we call these findings facts. And, when we have lots and lots of replications and variations that all say the same thing, then we talk about theories or laws. Like evolution. Or gravity. But at no point have we proved anything.

Still, we need to contend with the fact that so many liberals—especially liberal politicians, pundits, and political economists—are bemoaning what they consider to be the descent into a post-truth world. They’re worried that non-liberal political candidates and voters increasingly deny facts, manipulate the truth, and prefer emotion to expertise. And so they rush to defend “the facts” and Truth.

Rune Møller Stahl and Bue Rübner Hansen, I think, get it right:

liberals’ nostalgia for factual politics seems designed to mask their own fraught relationship with the truth. The supposedly honest technocrats and managers—who enacted neoliberal measures with the same ferocity as their right-wing counterparts—relied on a certain set of facts to displace the material truths they refused to acknowledge. . .

As liberals took over facts, they pushed social conflict to the non-factual realm, to the domain of values. Instead of struggles over domination and exploitation, we got the culture wars. There, progressive values held no sway; they were sold with a sense of moral superiority then betrayed by the spinelessness of triangulation and by policies that undermined the welfare state and organized labor.

As I see it, the defeats mainstream liberals suffered under the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election don’t prove that voters hate facts or truths. Those events (and we can expect more to come in the years ahead) merely show that enough regular citizens are fed-up with business as usual—with increasingly unconvincing liberal facts and truths, which deny the severe losses and dislocations under the existing rules and institutions—to revoke their trust in the so-called experts and, swayed by a different set of facts and truths, to throw in their lot with the only available alternatives.

The battle over facts, truths, and expertise hasn’t ended. But the idea that there’s only one—one set of facts, one truth, one group of experts—has. Which means the critique of the existing order After Truth has only just begun.

 

*According to Oxford Dictionaries, the first time the term post-truth was used was in a 1992 essay by the late playwright Steve Tesich in the Nation magazine. Tesich, writing about the Iran-Contra scandal and the Persian Gulf war, said that “we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.” The term “post-truth politics” was coined by David Roberts in a blog post for Grist on 1 April 2010, where it was defined as “a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation).”

Note: yes, that is Schrödinger’s cat at the top of the post.

real wages

source [pdf]

Niall Ferguson, Harvard’s ignorant gay-bashing bloviating right-wing infotainment historian, has also adopted a novel epistemology.

Ferguson has been complaining about the “smear campaign” adopted by people who have identified his factual mistakes, such as his use of nominal instead of real-wage statistics. He refers to the phenomenon, which “as with political correctness. . .originated in the US, as “correct politicalness.”

As Jonathan Chait [ht: sm] explains,

Perhaps the most enduring contribution of Ferguson’s column will be the novel epistemology it proposes. Ferguson calls his beliefs “irrefutable.” As he puts it, “Almost no one seriously claims that Obama’s second term has been a success. As for the UK economy, the Keynesians’ doom-mongering now looks laughable. All these people have got left is phoney fact-checking: correct politicalness.” Traditional reasoning uses facts to build toward conclusions. Wages rose under austerity, therefore austerity has succeeded; Obama’s health-care plan increases the deficit, therefore Obama has failed. Ferguson is suggesting that we invert the process. Since David Cameron is irrefutably good, and Obama irrefutably bad, Ferguson should be free to make any factual statement on behalf of the former and against the latter without being hounded by “fact-checkers.”

Fact of the day

Posted: 1 October 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

source [pdf]

According to the American Human Development Project [pdf],

By the end of the 2007-9 recession, unemployment among the bottom tenth of U.S. households, those with incomes below $12,500, was 31 percent, a rate higher than unemployment in the worst year of the Great Depression; for households with incomes of $150,000 and over, unemployment was just over 3 percent, generally considered as full employment.

The Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University [pdf] takes it one step further, and calculates the “labor force underutilization” rates (the percentage of workers who are unemployed, underemployed, or part of the labor force reserve*) for different income groups:

The underutilization rates of U.S. workers in the fourth quarter of 2009 were highest by far (44.5%) for those in the lowest income group and then fell steadily with the size of the household’s income, declining to 26% for those in the $20-40,000 income category, to 12% for those in the $60-75,000 income category, and to a low of 6% for those in the highest income category ($150,000 or more). Workers in the lowest income category were 4.5 times more likely to be underutilized than their peers in the $75-100,000 category and more than 7 times more likely to be underutilized than workers in the highest income category. The nation’s lowest income workers were in the midst of a true labor market depression. (emphasis in original)

* Members of the “labor force reserve” are those workers who are not active in the labor force but indicate they want a job now.