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Your Fact vs. My Opinion
The idea that there is no empirical fact, just self-interested opinion, has its roots in postmodernist philosophy.
Mary Cooper: You watch your mouth, Shelly. Everyone's entitled to their opinion.
Sheldon: But evolution is not opinion, it's a fact.
Mary Cooper: And that is your opinion.
--The Big Bang Theory, “The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation”
"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan
What do we know and how do we know it? When I worked at the State Department, we called it “knowledge management,” but we meant that narrowly, in the sense of preserving information in a way that one’s successors could find it. Philosophers also take on the question of “how do we know what we know?” and the study of how knowledge exists and is derived is called epistemology. It gives rise to the scientific method of controlled experimentation, and in turn to the research methodology of academic disciplines.
Many of us, especially those trained in the scientific method, lament that public discussion is less focused on objective fact these days. There is political and corporate spin, to be sure, but it extends to gaslighting, conspiracy theories, “alternative facts,” and so on. The pandemic has taken these tendencies to a new level, with skepticism and outright denial of documented scientific fact. Where has all this come from? How did we get to the point that one person’s opinion, or in some cases outright fantasy, carries equal weight to demonstrated fact? Today’s public culture has indeed grown more tolerant of fantasy based discourse. Part of it is individualism or libertarianism, a corollary of our personal rights and freedoms. Others, like Tom Nichols, call it an outgrowth of narcissism. It is more than simple derangement or conspiracy theory, or disinformation that spreads very efficiently through the internet. The reaction to the notion of objective truth as embodied in the Enlightenment goes back to the 19th century, when philosophers began to question the idea of truth and said that other factors, or filters, get in the way of there being truth that everyone can accept.
To discuss the rise of the scientific method and the importance of empirical evidence and fact, we need to begin with the Enlightenment and the Renaissance. Before the 14th century, if not a bit later, intellectual work in Europe was the preserve of the Catholic Church. There was little scientific work as such (Europeans generally had little idea of any work being done in places like China), certainly very little following any recognizable methodology, and what “knowledge” there ultimately depended on the authority of the Church, in league with the monarchies of the continent, to compel acceptance. The first efforts at science caused a stiff reaction from authority, a hint that knowledge was dependent in some way upon power. Best known is the example of Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer excommunicated in 1633 for the heresy of establishing that the earth revolves around the sun. In time, the idea of empirically verified fact using the scientific method based on controlled experimentation won out, and brought about the modern era.
But by the 19th century there was resistance to the idea of objective science in the 19th century. Marx, though he envisioned scientific socialism, also believed that economic power (part of his larger conception of “dialectical materialism”) allowed the bourgeoisie to elevate its discourse over all others, and raised the idea that there was innate hostility between power and truth. Hegel began to explore the relationship between power and truth, then Nietzsche argued that truth is impossible—there can only be perspective and interpretation dependent upon a person's interests or “will to power.”
The competition between power and fact continued into the twentieth century, when we saw totalitarian regimes of both left and right use propaganda to control what their populations saw as truth. Media in the Soviet Union was typically a constant stream of propaganda, while in Nazi Germany, propaganda was blatantly disconnected from the truth, with the explicit goal of manipulating perceived truth to reinforce the regime’s power. The Nazi approach to propaganda could be summarized in the works falsely attributed to Joseph Goebbels, “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Orwell described this approach in 1984, where Winston Smith is deemed rehabilitated once he admits under torture that “two plus two equals five.”
This laid the groundwork for postmodernist philosophy, which began to grow during the 1960s. The term has a wide-ranging meaning, and can cover art, architecture and literature. But postmodern philosophy has the most relevance for today’s politics. The best-known postmodern philosophers were French, including Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Jean-François Lyotard. They echoed Nietzsche by saying that truth only existed because humans could appreciate it (like the proverbial tree falling in the forest which can only make a sound if someone is there to hear it), but humans are biased creatures and have interests, and these interests color all perceptions. So perception and opinion filter truth, and the opinions of those with the most cultural, political, and economic power will count the most, and drive what becomes the dominant discourse that drives the behavior of leaders and institutions. Truth comes from power, not empirical evidence.
From there we get to contemporary identitarian thought, which posits that claims to truth must be viewed through the recognition that social discourse is shaped by white men that claim to speak for scientific fact, while they in fact reflect social dominance. Some accuse science itself, or the idea that the scientific method helps us to arrive at fact, is itself racist and sexist, for example, that “worship of the written word” is part of a cultural norm of white supremacy.