A flagrant disregard for facts and expertise has found its way into the highest offices. It has aided and abetted Putin, Duterte, Brexit, Trump, amongst other contemporary catastrophes. But while many observers agree that post-truth discourse is a problem, little else is clear. Has a kind of relativism found its way into the mainstream through alternative facts, or through the idea that different versions of the truth are equally valid? Are there facts anyway?
Common sense tells us that, yes, there are facts. Intuitively, people work on the assumption that some assertions are true and some are false, and that evidence can settle the matter. Suppose that a detective wants to know whether the blood at the crime scene is mine. I respond that it is not, and a DNA test shows that I am telling the truth. There are endless examples among more everyday questions of life. Is this food I’m about to eat really organic? Is the costly treatment that my dentist is recommending really needed? Is this really petrol and not diesel I’m about to put in my car? We assume that statements are either true or false, and that it is possible to know the answer—though this is of course not infallible, particularly as it often means trusting an authority. Still, this common sense model of truth and evidence serves us well. Yet it is challenged in certain scholarly fields, including some wings of philosophy and political science.
The first kind of challenge is the corrosive idea that truth is somehow illusory, that we cannot ever get an objective handle on it. This idea is the ultimate form of gaslighting—destabilizing others’ sense of sanity by undermining their perceived grip on reality.1 Yet it is heard from left and right, past and present, in news interviews and in academic seminars, in many forms: There are no facts, only interpretations; facts are subjective; my facts aren’t necessarily your facts; everything is a social construction; evidence-based reasoning is just one form of cultural practice.
Statements like these—made by everyone from Friedrich Nietzsche to Kellyane Conway—allude to some fascinating and important observations about the nature of language in social life. But they distract us from the grimmest reality of all: we live in a physical world, and facts don’t care what we think.
Here is why the truth matters to people. If what we believe is different from what is true, then we are likely to make bad decisions. Suppose I believe that this plank will support my weight, so I use it as a step bridge, but it cracks and I fall. Or I accept cash for my services, only to find out that the notes are counterfeit, and not worth the paper they are printed on. These might be small costs, but in some cases false beliefs can cost us everything. On New Year’s Eve of 2011, 38-year old chef Lui Jun cooked a celebratory meal for friends with mushrooms he had picked himself in suburban Canberra.2 Believing that he had obtained a kind of mushroom common in Asian cooking, he was in fact preparing to eat the world’s most poisonous fungi. Two days later he was dead, along with his 52-year old friend Tsou Hiang. A third man was taken ill but survived, while a fourth in the party—who had declined the mushrooms, perhaps not believing that they were safe—was fine. Who would be willing to explain to Lui Jun’s widowed family that the poisonous nature of those mushrooms—and indeed the fact that their husband and father is dead—was not a matter of fact but of social construction?
It is true that I cannot describe to you what happened without using the socially constructed tools of my native language. And my description will be in various ways incomplete and subjective. But none of this selectivity or subjectivity would have any bearing on the physical events themselves. The mushrooms killed him, no matter how we interpret them, no matter how we describe them, no matter which piece of the story we add, subtract, or embellish.
Similarly, if you are locked in a prison cell, you can interpret or construct the situation any way you want, it won’t change the fact that you can’t leave. If you are pushed off a rooftop, you will still hit the ground. If you are beheaded, you may have a unique perspective, but that won’t affect the event itself, or your chances of survival.
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A second frequently-heard challenge to the common sense notion of truth is the idea that facts can be negated by social power, and therefore that facts are malleable or even illusory, as if a person with social power can decide what is true and what is not. Those with political power often act as if this were the case, but as we know from the brute reality of climate change, for example, this is wishful thinking. In the 12th Century legend,3 King Canute proves that he is not a divine being by standing on the beach and commanding the waves to stay back. He shows that a king’s pretensions are no match for the powers of brute reality.
This is why political power is ultimately grounded in hard, physical facts. As the sociologist Max Weber defined it, the state is an entity that claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.4 Whether the use of force is legitimate can always be contested, but the force itself cannot. The effects of force belong in the realm of cold hard facts. They are not affected by our interpretations, and this is why physical facts cannot be ignored when considering power in human affairs. It is what Conservative television host Dana Loesch means when she refers to ‘the clenched fist of truth’ in her controversial NRA promotion video.5 A bullet through the head is neither ambiguous nor contestable. Its gruesome effects are non-negotiable matters.
It is possible for social power to contest or negate facts when it concerns social facts. Unlike physical facts, social facts are defined by people’s rights and duties, which in turn are created by social agreements. Social facts include statements like ‘I am married’, ‘I have a mortgage’, ‘I am licensed to drive in New South Wales’, and ‘The cash in my wallet belongs to me’. A social fact of ownership can readily be negated—or rendered untrue—by the use of force and its non-negotiable effects. If someone with a knife deprives me of my rights to the cash in my wallet, this works because of the physical fact that the knife would cause me true harm. The mugger’s power to overturn the social fact of ownership comes directly from the victim’s certainty of the physical facts. The only way I can contest their power is by producing a bigger knife. Or I might remind the mugger of the possibility of prosecution, but this again would be a threat based in physical facts—the brute denial of freedom by bodily incarceration, a core mechanism of state power.
Those who invoke political power as part of an argument against the existence of truth have things the wrong way around. Political power exists precisely because of the non-negotiable nature of physical truths. King Canute’s gesture showed humility because it acknowledged the natural forces that surround us, and that will not bend to our will or ideology. The most obvious parallel today is the reality of climate change and the folly of those who deny it. Brute reality is the domain of physics, chemistry, and biology. It is also the domain of ultimate power. It explains why the politically powerful—those who wield the legitimate use of force—can act as if climate change is not happening. And similarly, it explains why climate change proceeds without regard for the politically powerful, and why it will ultimately prevail. As the author Philip K. Dick put it: ‘Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.’6
It is sometimes said that a show of certainty about facts, whether in the physical realm or elsewhere, is a show of arrogance, and that a relativist approach—where different truths can co-exist—is the humble option. This is wrong. The way to show humility in relation to truth is not to say that we can’t deign to say what truth is. It is to acknowledge that our soft interpretations are no match for hard, demonstrable, natural facts.
A social scientist may say that while this is all very well, the agreed facts of a matter are less important than the discourses of interpretation and evaluation that follow and envelop those facts. The facts can be spun like a top, and in the end they may come to be defined by the stories that we tell about them. For example, it is a matter of fact that in 2015 a number of men accused of crimes in ISIS-occupied territories were forced from high rooftops, and fell to their deaths. Nobody disputes that this happened. But people have offered completely disparate and utterly contested interpretations and evaluations around why this happened, who was involved, and what should follow.
Yes, facts can be discerned and agreed upon if the evidence allows, but this does not mean that they are easily discerned, nor that they tell a whole story, nor that people will agree on what they mean. So, here is the challenge: if we are going to have a coherent and constructive perspective on reality, we need to reconcile the two views, clearly both correct, that facts can be observed and that versions of the truth can be socially constructed. Clever propaganda exploits this tension.
To subvert it, we need to promote a new kind of literacy, combining the tools of evidence-based reasoning with a keen awareness of the biases in human thinking and public discourse, saturated as they are by our socialisation, and by the frames our cultures furnish for viewing and presenting the facts. Truth matters to people, very much so. We can harness this for good as long as we are careful to distinguish between the different kinds of truth that matter. On the one hand, there are the socially constructed versions of the world that motivate, preoccupy, distract, and sometimes consume us. On the other hand, there are the physical realities that we are ultimately and inescapably accountable to. It’s no secret which of these trumps the other.
1 Ghitis, F. (2017). ‘Donald Trump is ‘gaslighting’ all of us’ in CNN online. Accessed on: 10-08-2017. Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2017/01/10/opinions/donald-trump-is-gaslighting-america-ghitis/ & Keane, J. (2017). ‘Post-Truth and the Unfinished Communications Revolution’ in Sydney Democracy Network Podcast online. Accessed on: 10-08-2017. Available at: http://sydneydemocracynetwork.org/podcast-post-truth-unfinished-communications-revolution/
2 Wilson, L. Vasek, L. (2012). ‘Friends mourn hardworking chef’s ‘death cap’ fungi mistake’ in The Australian online. Accessed on: 10-08-2017. Available at: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/friends-mourn-hardworking-chefs-death-cap-fungi-mistake/news-story/7e8454166f76fb69c47c233ee3c18cd2
3 Wikipedia article on ‘King Canute and the Waves’. Accessed on: 10-08-2017. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Canute_and_the_waves
4 Weber, M. (2014). Politics as A Vocation, Moulin Digital Editions. Accessed on: 10-08-2017. Available at: https://archive.org/stream/weber_max_1864_1920_politics_as_a_vocation#page/n1/mode/2up
5 NRA Promotional video. Accessed on: 10-08-2017. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrnIVVWtAag
6 Dick, P. K., (1978). How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later. Accessed on: 10-08-2017. Available at: http://deoxy.org/pkd_how2build.htm
We are excited to have recently published our second issue of THECUBE‘s magazine, with contributions from both members and friends. For this issue we have been looking at the thematic of ‘TRUTH’. This article by Nick Enfield, is just one of the many that can be found in the magazine. If you would like to read the entire magazine please click here. We hope you will enjoy it, and feel free to get in touch if you are interested in contributing to our next issue for more details.