Posts Tagged ‘truth’

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Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, “Murió la Verdad/Truth Has Died” (1814-15)

The liberal establishment continues to mourn the death of truth. Everyone else is moving on.

Every day, it seems, one or another liberal—pundit, columnist, or scholar—issues a warning that, in the age of Donald Trump, we now live in a post-truth world. In their view, we face a fundamental choice: either return to a singular, capital-t truth or suffer the consequences of multiple sets of beliefs, facts, and truths.

For example, just the other day, Keith Kahn-Harris [ht: ja] (in the Guardian) noted the “sheer profusion of voices, the plurality of opinions, the cacophony of the controversy,” which in his view “are enough to make anyone doubt what they should believe.” It’s what he calls “denialism”: the transformation of the “private sickness” of self-deception into the “public dogma” of seeing the world in a whole new way.

There are multiple kinds of denialists: from those who are sceptical of all established knowledge, to those who challenge one type of knowledge; from those who actively contribute to the creation of denialist scholarship, to those who quietly consume it; from those who burn with certainty, to those who are privately sceptical about their scepticism. What they all have in common, I would argue, is a particular type of desire. This desire – for something not to be true – is the driver of denialism.

Then, to ratchet up the morbid consequences of the death of truth, Kahn-Harris plays the ultimate trump card: contemporary denialism involves doubting the existence of the Holocaust, which in turn makes it possible “to publicly celebrate genocide once again, to revel in antisemitism’s finest hour.”

Olivia Paschal [ht: ja] (in the Atlantic) is concerned about a different facet of the world after truth: the role of repetition in creating beliefs that run counter to truth Thus, as she sees it, “even when people know a claim is false, just a few repetitions can make them more likely to think it’s true.” Such “illusory” truths serve to make false claims “familiar” and thus became ways of reframing the debate. Thus, according to Paschal, Fox News has been able to broadcast Trump’s claims (e.g., about the unfairness and inaccuracy of the Russia investigation), which “is also almost certainly contributing to their plausibility among the segments of the population that trust the network.”

As if in response, just yesterday, Margaret Sullivan (in the Washington Post) claimed that, among the consequences of the crisis in American newsrooms, is the decline of “common information—an agreed-upon set of facts to argue about.” So, she complains, in an already deeply divided nation, people turn to Facebook and cable news and thus “were deep in their own echo chambers and couldn’t seem to hear anything else.”

These are just three recent examples of a burgeoning series of complaints, and warnings about the dangers of a world in which a singular truth no longer holds and the need to restore such a truth (as if it once existed)—by challenging denialism, exposing illusory truths, and establishing a set of agree-upon facts.

The “trauma” of Trump’s win just can’t make liberals stop writing this stuff. They keep trying their best to ask the nearly undisguised question: “are Trump supporters really human, like us?” This tells me that the members of the liberal establishment really thought they were never going to face another serious challenge to their ideological hegemony. And now that voters have had the temerity to defy the existing authority, liberals it seems can only dehumanize Trump supporters and, like the members of the Ancien Régime watching over the female cadaver of truth, hope their powers will eventually be restored.

Everyone else, however, is moving on—and a growing number of them are espousing socialist ideas or at least expressing support for them.

The turn to socialism stems in large part from the punishments meted out by the Second Great Depression and the lopsided nature of the recovery. It also represents a disenchantment with mainstream economists and their theories of capitalism, since they failed to consider even the possibility of a crisis in the years before 2007-08, and they didn’t haven’t anything useful to offer once the crash happened. Nor have mainstream economists (or pundits and politicians) been able to explain, much less suggest appropriate policies to undo, the obscene degree of inequality that has been steadily growing for decades now. And, of course, the rising cost of education, the unreliability of health insurance, and the growing precariousness of the workplace have left young people with gnawing material insecurity—and an interest in socialism.

Additional impetus has come from the spectacular—and largely unexpected—successes of Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. And just this past June Americans witnessed the surprising electoral victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, against ten-term House incumbent Joe Crowley in a New York congressional primary.*

At a pace that appears to match, if not surpass, all the liberal complaints about the death of truth, mainstream American media outlets now regularly publish discussions of (including, but certainly not limited to, attacks on) socialism. There’s socialism in the New York Times, the Washington Post, on CNN, Vox, and on and on.

But, of course, authors in other publications have been thinking about and developing different definitions and approaches to socialism for much longer. One of the best, especially for a younger generation, is Jacobin, which recently included a piece by Neal Meyer on what democratic socialism might mean:

Like many progressives, we want to build a world where everyone has a right to food, healthcare, a good home, an enriching education, and a union job that pays well. We think this kind of economic security is necessary for people to live rich and creative lives — and to be truly free.

We want to guarantee all of this while stopping climate change and building an economy that’s ecologically sustainable. We want to build a world without war, where people in other countries are free from the fear of US military intervention and economic exploitation. And we want to end mass incarceration and police brutality, gender violence, intolerance towards queer people, job and housing discrimination, deportations, and all other forms of oppression.

Unlike many progressives however, we’ve come to the conclusion that to build this better world it’s going to take a lot more work than winning an election and passing incremental reforms.

That’s pretty general but, at this early stage of the new, revitalized discussion of socialism in the United States, it’s a pretty good start.

It certainly moves us beyond the seemingly endless series of teeth-gnashing complaints about the perils of the post-truth world and charts a different path forward, which involves among other things a recognition of the real resentments and desires of working-class Americans, including those who voted for Trump.

Me, I’ll take socialism over truth any day.

 

*According to CNN, the excitement surrounding Ocasio-Cortez’s June stunner spurred another spike in dues-paying members of Democratic Socialists of America. The group now claims to have more than 45,000 members nationally.

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I have often argued—in lectures, talks, and publications—that every economic theory has a utopian dimension. Economists don’t explicitly talk about utopia but, my argument goes, they can’t do what they do without some utopian horizon.

The issue of utopia is there, at least in the background, in every area of economics—perhaps especially on the topic of control.

Consider, for example, the theory of the firm (which I have written about many times over the years), which is the focus of University of Chicago finance professor Luigi Zingales’s lecture honoring Oliver Hart, winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for economics, at this year’s Allied Social Science Association meeting.

One of the many merits of Oliver’s contribution is to have brought back the concept of power inside economics. This is a concept pervasive in political science and sociology, and pervasive in Marxian economics, but completely absent from neoclassical economics. In fact, Oliver’s view of the firm is very reminiscent of the Marxian view, but where Marx sees exploitation, Oliver sees an efficient allocation.

Zingales is right: Hart’s neoclassical treatment of control informs a theory of the firm that stands diametrically opposed to a Marxian theory of the firm. And those contrasting theories of the firm are both conditions and consequences of different utopian horizons. Thus, Hart both envisions and looks to move toward an efficient use of control within the firm such that—through a combination of incentives and monitoring—agents (workers) can be made to work hard to fulfill the goal set by the principal (capitalists). Marxists, on the other hand, see the firm as a site of exploitation—capitalists extracting surplus-value from the workers they hire—and look to create the economic and social conditions whereby exploitation is eliminated.

In my view, those are very different utopias—the efficient allocation of resources versus the absence of exploitation—that both inform and are informed by quite different theories of the firm.

As is turns out, the issue of control—and, with it, utopia—comes up in another, quite different context. As George DeMartino and Deidre McCloskey explain, in their rejoinder to Anne Krueger’s attack on their recent edited volume, The Oxford Handbook of Professional Economic Ethics,

When you have influence over others you take on ethical burdens. Think of your responsibilities to, say, your family or friends. And when you fail to confront those burdens openly, honestly, and courageously you are apt to make mistakes. As professional economists we have influence, and we do develop conversations about how we operate. Yet there is no serious, critical, scholarly conversation about professional economic ethics—never has been. That’s not good.

While the DeMartino and McCloskey volume includes contributions from both mainstream and heterodox economists (a point that Krueger overlooks in her review), it is still the case that the discipline of economics, dominated as it has been by mainstream economics, has never had a serious, sustained conversation about ethics.

Consider this: it is possible to get a degree in economics—at any level, undergraduate, Master’s, or doctorate—without a single reading or lecture, much less an entire course, on ethics. And yet economists do exercise a great deal of power over others: over other economists (through hiring, research funding, and publishing venues), their students (in terms of what can and cannot be said, talked about, and theorized in their courses), and the wider society (through the dissemination of particular theories of the economy as well as the policies they advocate to governments and multilateral institutions). In fact, they also exercise power over themselves, in true panopticon fashion, as they seek to adhere to and reinforce certain disciplinary protocols and procedures.

Economics is saturated with power, and thus replete with ethical moments.

Once again, the issue of control is bound up with different utopian horizons. Most economists—certainly most mainstream economists—are not comfortable with and have no use for discussions of ethics. That’s because, in their view, economists adhere to a code of objectivity and scientificity and an epistemology of absolute truth. So, there’s no room for an ethics associated with “influence over others.” That’s their utopia: a free-market of ideas in which the “truth,” of theory and policy, is revealed.

Other economists have a quite different view. They see a world of unequal power, including within the discipline of economics. And the existence of that unequal power demands a conversation about ethics in order to reveal the conditions and especially the consequences of different ways of doing economics. If there is no single-t, absolute truth—and thus no single standard of objectivity and scientificity—within economics, then the use of one theory instead of another has particular effects on the world within which that theorizing takes place. Here, the utopian horizon is not a free market of ideas, but instead a reimagining of the discipline of economics as an agonistic field of incommensurable discourses.

And, from a specifically Marxian perspective, the utopian moment is to create the conditions whereby the critique of political economy renders itself no longer useful. Marxists recognize that they may not be able to control the path to such an outcome but it is their goal—their ethical stance, their utopian horizon.

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Mark Tansey, “Coastline Measure” (1987)

 

I’ve been over this before.

But I continue to be amazed at the ubiquitous, facile references to science, evidence, and facts and the derision that is directed at the proposition that we live in a post-truth world. On topics as diverse as climate change, globalization, and the role of the working-class in electing Donald Trump, commentators invoke Truth, with a capital t, as an obvious, unproblematic characteristic of making statements about what is going on in the world.

To me, they’re about as silly—and dangerous—as attempting to measure the coastline using a tape measure.

This is the case even in studies, such as those conducted by Tali Sharot [ht: ja], about the supposed diminishing influence of evidence and the existence of confirmation bias.

The very first thing we need to realize is that beliefs are like fast cars, designer shoes, chocolate cupcakes and exotic holidays: they affect our well-being and happiness. So just as we aspire to fill our fridge with fresh fare and our wardrobe with nice attire, we try to fill our minds with information that makes us feel strong and right, and to avoid information that makes us confused or insecure.

In the words of Harper Lee, “people generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.”

It’s not only in the domain of politics that people cherry-pick news; it is apparent when it comes to our health, wealth and relationships.

At one level, this makes sense to me. There’s a great deal of confirmation bias when we try to make sense of various dimensions of lives and the world in which we live.

But. . .

I also think people are curious about things—information, experiences, and so on—that don’t seem to fit their existing theories or discourses. And, when they do attempt to make sense of those new things, their ideas change (and, of course, as their ideas change, they see things in new ways).

Perhaps even more important, while people like Sharot acknowledge that people often “accept evidence that confirms their preconceived notions and assess counter evidence with a critical eye,” they never consider the possibility that the people who are conducting the research concerning confirmation bias are themselves subject to that same bias.

Why is it always people out there—you know, “the ones who are thinking about health, wealth, and relationships”—that cherry-pick the facts. What about the so-called scientists, including the ones who invoke the Truth; why aren’t they also subject to confirmation bias?

Sharot invokes “the way our brain works”—without ever acknowledging that she and her coinvestigators also use one theory, and ignore or reject other theories, to make sense of the brain and the diverse ways we process information. Others rely on the “scientific evidence” concerning climate change or the gains from globalization or the existence of a resentful white (but not black or Hispanic) working-class, which in their view others deny because they don’t believe the obvious “facts.”

What’s the difference?

I can pretty much guess the kind of response that will be offered (because I see it all the time, especially in economics): the distinction between everyday confirmation bias and real, Truth-based stems from the use of the “scientific method.”

The problem, of course, is there are different scientific methods, different ways of producing knowledge—whether in economics or cognitive neuroscience, political science or physics, anthropology or chemistry. All of those forms of knowledge production are just as conditioned and conditional as the way nonscientists produce (and consume and disseminate) knowledges about other aspects of the world.

As for me, I can’t wait for this period of fake interest in capital-t Truth to pass. Maybe then we can return to the much more interesting discussion of the conditionality of all forms of knowledge production.

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There doesn’t seem to be anything remarkable about mainstream economists’ rejection of the new populism.

Lest we forget, mainstream economists in the United States and Europe (and, of course, around the world) mostly celebrated current economic arrangements. As far as they were concerned, everyone benefits from contemporary globalization (the more trade the better) and from the distribution of income created by market forces (since everyone gets what they deserve).

To be sure, those who identify with different wings of mainstream economics debate the extent to which there are market imperfections and therefore how much interference there should be in markets. Conservative mainstream economists tend to argue in favor of less regulation, their liberal counterparts for more government intervention. But they share the same general economic vision—that capitalism is characterized by “just deserts,” stable growth, and rising standards of living.

Except of course in recent decades it hasn’t. Not by a long shot.

Inequality has skyrocketed to obscene levels (and continues to rise), leaving many people behind. The crash of 2007-08 shattered the illusion of stability—and now there’s a deepening worry of “secular stagnation” moving forward. And, while the conspicuous consumption of the tiny group at the top continues unabated, only rising debt keeps everyone else from falling down the ladder.

No wonder, then, that economic populists, especially those on the Right, are rejecting the status quo—and winning campaigns and elections (often in the form of protest votes).

For the most part, to judge by Brigitte Granville’s survey of a variety of Project Syndicate commentators’ responses to populism, mainstream economists remain blind as to “why so many voters have embraced facile policies and populist politics.”

That’s pretty much what one would expect, given mainstream economists’ general commitment to the status quo.

But even when they admit that “much has gone wrong for a great many people,” as Margaret MacMillan does (“Globalization and automation are eliminating jobs in developed countries; powerful corporations and wealthy individuals in too many countries are getting a greater share of the wealth and paying fewer taxes; and living conditions continue to deteriorate for people in the US Rust Belt or Northeast England and Wales”), we read the spectacular claim that today’s populists—these “new, outsider political forces”—are wrong because they “claim to have a monopoly on truth.”

Now, I understand, MacMillian is a historian, not an economist. But the idea that populists are somehow the only ones who claim to have a monopoly on truth is an extraordinary diagnosis of the problem.

Think of the legions of mainstream economists who have lined up over the years to claim a monopoly on the truth concerning a wide variety of policies, from restricting minimum wages and approving NAFTA to deregulating finance and voting no on Brexit. They are the ones who have aligned themselves with the interests of economic and political elites and who, in the name of expertise, have attempted to trump democratic, public discussion of important economic issues.

It should come as no surprise, then, that mainstream economists—such as Harvard’s Sendhil Mullainathan—are so concerned that economists have been demoted within the new Trump administration. The horror! The chairperson of the Council of Economic Advisers is not going to be a member of the Cabinet.

Yes, it is true, business acumen is not the same as economic analytics. (I teach economics in a College of Arts and Letters, not in a business school—and, as I remind my students on a regular basis, I’m the last person they should turn to for investment or business advice.) But that’s a far cry from claiming a monopoly on the truth, which is only available to those who speak and write in the language of mainstream economics.*

If mainstream economists finally relinquished that claim—and, as a result, spent more time both learning the languages of other traditions within the discipline of economics and listening to the grievances and desires of those who have been sacrificed at the altar of the status quo—perhaps then they’d have something useful to contribute to the larger debate about where the world is headed right now.

 

*According to Andrea Brandolini, the late Tony Atkinson understood this: “‘Economists are too often prisoners within the theoretical walls they have erected’, he recently wrote discussing austerity policies, ‘and fail to see that important considerations are missing”

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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.

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