Blog Post

Everybody has got a story, but whose facts are credible?

One of the recent astonishing developments of our public discourse has been the rise of the commonplace that all facts just reflect points of view. There is no way to tell whose facts are better. The political right, especially, has seemed to have embraced academic theories of postmodernism, previously excoriated by these same forces as threats to Western civilization. These theories which initially aimed to highlight the ideologies and interests behind differing perspectives have now become justifications for outright lying.

While lying and obfuscation preexisted humans, only recently has lying enlisted serious theoretical justifications. An earlier stage of this obscurantism was the tobacco industry’s playing upon scientific caution to cast doubt on well-substantiated findings of the harmful effects of smoking. This strategy of casting doubt on scientific findings was then taken up by the energy industry to claim we do not know enough to act on climate change. The aim of what is now called agnotology is not to persuade opponents of one’s claims, but only to create enough uncertainty in public discussions to deter or delay action while special interests continue to profit at the expense of public interests.

Calling news reports one is unhappy with “fake facts,” and to propose “alternative facts,” as notoriously done by Presidential spokesperson Kelly Anne Conway, represents a new stage in this technique. The aim is not to convince the other side, but just to unsettle certainties in order to deter public, political, or judicial action. If we knew something consequential with certainty, we would act, but if we are uncertain are we sure we are doing the right thing? The justification of this uncertainty and elevation of bizarre “alternative facts” is the postmodern premise that facts are perceived and asserted by individuals, all of whom are interested and embedded in ideology. So all facts are equal and as Rudolf Guiliani said “in the eye of the beholder.” Is there no way to escape from a world of illusions?

We can naively answer that facts are facts and what these apologists for liars say are just excuses for making things up. But to do so would appear to claim that we have an access to truth that others don’t have. After all, postmodernism ought to have taught us some humility. So how do we come to evaluate claims to facts, and determine some claimed facts should be believed and others dismissed? How do we sort out the fake facts from real facts?

The answer belongs in the methods by which the proposed facts were collected and presented. For journalists those methods are called journalistic ethics, which produce, as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein called “the best obtainable version of the truth.” These include procedures, among others, for verifying and identifying sources, taking into account informants’ motives, allowing response, acting independently, and being accountable and transparent. Courts also have legitimate methods for producing and evaluating facts, called rules of evidence, honed by years of legislation and precedent. They are different than the methods of journalism, but they help sort through the multiple perspectives and claims endemic to contested judicial proceedings.

Most scientific and social scientific articles explicitly present the methods by which data were collected, presented and analyzed to produce evidence for the claims. These accounts allow evaluation and interpretation of the claims, as well as possible replication. If the methods do not meet current standards of the field, the findings are less credible. The discussion of which methods produce credible data and evidence is called methodology. Different disciplines and even specialties have different methods, justified by different methodological discussions; further, methods and methodological reasoning change over time with new research tools and techniques, as well as guiding theories. What remain constant are the presentation, evaluation, and justification of method.

The issue of methods and methodology is complex with many variations and nuances, which I hope to follow up on in future posts. But for today, the message is that good methods make for more credible facts. Although everyone has their story, some stories deserve credibility and others less so. Making claims just because they serve your interests, hide things you want hidden, or are imagined because you believe they must exist to explain the connection between remote events–these are not very credible methods. Postmodernism does not require us to accept the lies of liars.

2 thoughts on “Everybody has got a story, but whose facts are credible?”

  1. Oreskes and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt (cited here) is indeed an excellent expose of how a small number of unethical scientists have been willing and able — in conjunction with rightwing propagandists — to undermine efforts to deal with global warming, overpopulation, species extinction, and other dangers confronting us all. An earlier work by David Michaels, Doubt Is Their Product (2008), covers similar ground but gives somewhat more attention to how these corrupt scientists and their host corporations manipulate federal regulators. Highly recommended.

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