I recently read an interesting article by Dr. Julia Shaw titled I’m a Scientist, and I Don’t Believe in Facts. The good doctor seems to be catching flack on Twitter (what else is new?) but I’m not writing this as an attack piece. However, I’d like to state a counter case for Dr. Shaw to consider.
There were several sentences in Dr. Shaw’s piece that I considered pretty impactful:
I’m a factual relativist. I abandoned the idea of facts and “the truth” some time last year… Why? Because much like Santa Claus and unicorns, facts don’t actually exist [emphasis mine]. At least not in the way we commonly think of them.
Read by someone who appreciates the practice of rhetoric, such as myself, this is bound to be a controversial idea. No facts?
To be blunt, I have little regard for relativism. I think of it as, at least, intellectual laziness and, at most, a tactic employed by those who are fundamentally liars. Without “facts,” communication and consensus are almost impossible and, therefore, so is agreement. And, without agreement, there can be no trust, which is essential to any properly functioning relationship. I consider relativism to be one of the most dangerous concepts to social order. I don’t think that it is possible to truly have peace without either facts or truth.
Strangely enough, it isn’t that I necessarily disagree with Dr. Shaw. Some things that we consider “fact” are not derived from proof but merely from consensus. In other words, some things are facts simply because everyone agrees that they are. What people underestimate is that it is these simple acts of consensus that actually makes determining objective truth possible. By agreeing on a set of rules, we facilitate understanding with one another. And, when we undermine or ignore those commonly held rules, we create irresolvable conflict.
To illustrate, consider the concept of “red”; the color we recognize occupies a specific wavelength that is always consistently and objectively measurable. However, the word “red” is simply the one that those in the English-speaking world have pretty much all agreed represents the color in that wavelength.
The dynamics and, thus, the danger of a “post-fact, post-truth” world is when people decide to no longer agree that the word on which there has been common agreement represents the color in that wavelength. If I were to decide that the word “red” no longer applied to the color, how could you argue that I am incorrect? If the word “red” is determined simply by voluntary consensus, then why would I be wrong to simply reject the word and substitute my own? More importantly, what would the implications of such an action be? And, even more importantly, what if many others decided to also reject the word?
It isn’t enough to state that miscommunication would be the result. Considering the difficulty in reaching agreement and consensus under those circumstances, particularly when consensus had already been reached on the matter, it could only be considered an act of willful malice to decide to reject the word “red.” There is no discernible benefit to such an act and certainly none that sufficiently counteracts the breakdown in communication under those circumstances. If a group of people decided to reject the word “red,” it could only be posited that they had done so simply because they could. However, they would also all be well within their rights.
This is what I think is one of the most profound dangers of relativism, its potential to fundamentally destroy communication.
However, there is another problem with Dr. Shaw’s “no facts” position and it involves actions. You see, any and every action is indelibly etched into time and its happening is, indeed, a very real fact. World War II? Yeah, fact. Slavery in the U.S.? Fact. Donald Trump elected as President? Oh yeah, very much a fact.
Dr. Shaw’s main error is conflating the recollection of an event with its actual happening. If I were to sit all of those instrumental in the creation of the microprocessor in a room and have them record their versions of how it came to be, I’m sure that they would all provide varied though similar stories of the events. You can credibly argue the relevance of the creation of the microprocessor, even those who think it was an ultimately useless or irrelevant event. However, you cannot credibly argue that the microprocessor doesn’t exist.
That is another serious danger of the “post-fact, post-truth” world, when actions that are indelibly etched into time are called into question or outright denied. Because the effect of those actions is irreversible. The result is cognitive dissonances that ultimately undermine future events. For instance, in the Soviet Union, it was routine to “rewrite history.” But no amount of rewriting history could alter it or its subsequent effects. In the end, the truth caught up to the Soviet Union and, ultimately, tore it down.
Actions are fact which is why time is such an amazing store of value. You can never wish away the iPhone, the World Wide Web, the dishwasher, the automobile, or any of the events that led to those or any of the other events that have had an impact, from the massive to the infinitesimal. History is fact, whether we get the details in the recollection right or not.
And, in the end, that is what makes a “post-fact, post-truth” world such a dangerous place. Dr. Shaw is indeed very much correct that recollection is faulty. But such a state also makes it possible to repeat the mistakes of the past, particularly the worst ones. When we forget the events that led us to our darkest times and allowed us to indulge our darkest instincts, we place ourselves in danger of performing the exact same actions again in the future. That is why both accepting the concept of “facts” and accurately assessing them is so important.
George Santayana once stated that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s a quote that few now appreciate though I think Dr. Shaw should particularly appreciate it. It’s the truth. Our faulty recollections will likely ensure that we repeat some of our gravest mistakes which is why it is important that we value facts. They are the breadcrumbs that lead us out of the forest.