The War Against Facts

On November 30, 2016, Scottie Nell Hughes, in an appearance on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR, stated “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.”  She was appearing as a surrogate for President-Elect Donald J. Trump and discussing his tweets claiming massive voter fraud robbing him of a popular vote victory in the election just past.  Her statement came across more as an announcement of strategy than as an observation, a strategy boosted by the proliferation of media outlets that replace the New York Times’ old mantra of “All the news that’s fit to print” with “All the news that fits your preconceived notions.”  Indeed, nearly six months into the Trump presidency, the war against facts appears to be the central, perhaps the only, strategic theme of this Administration.

This war against facts is not a novel approach.  It is a standard propagandistic technique of autocratic regimes that value control of the narrative and maintenance of power above promoting the greater public good.  But when propaganda flourishes, democracy withers.  Flooding the market with “alternative facts” creates a fog of war that stands in the way of reaching democratic consensus.

The U.S. intelligence agencies and investigative journalists are so far keeping up their end of the bargain on navigating through this fog to some approximation of truth.  We are launching this blog instead to focus on combating the war against scientific facts being waged by systematic science deniers who have been emboldened by the Trump strategy and rewarded with collaborative roles in the making of public policy.  An essential part of this combat centers on fostering the education of future generations of young people, training them in critical thinking and the ability to distinguish fact from bullshit.

Currently widespread doubts about scientific results do not so much reflect a mistrust of scientists, but rather adherence to worldviews with which the science may conflict.  Scientists’ worldviews are often centered on the validity and robustness of the scientific method, a time-tested and self-correcting approach to determining facts.  But for non-scientists, worldviews are more often centered on religious or political identification, or on economic self-interest.

In some cases, the conflict is obvious.  For example, cosmology tells us quite definitively that the universe is nearly 14 billion years old, while a strict reading of the Bible sets the age at just under 6000 years.  But in other cases, it takes decisive action on the part of affected parties and their funders to promote a sense of conflict where none need exist.  This is prominently the case today with climate science, where the technical issues have been counter-productively elevated to aspects of political identification.  Science denial is prevalent on many issues, from the origins and evolution of the universe and life within it, to human effects on Earth’s climate and environment, to the efficacy and dangers of vaccines.

To be sure, there are honest scientific skeptics — the scientific method relies on them and provides an approach to identify, debate and eventually resolve scientific disagreements.  But make no mistake, there is also a small industry of deniers, who cherry-pick, misrepresent or doctor data, in order to sow doubt, while insisting they be called skeptics rather than deniers.  The difference between the two will be elaborated in the next blog entry, but is pithily summarized in the quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson featured in the footer on this page.

In the face of manufactured doubt about science, how is an informed public to navigate through the fog of war against facts?  How are science teachers to handle the honing of critical thinking in young minds, in the face of science denial manifestos and politically driven mandates with which they are being bombarded?  In upcoming blog entries, we will explain the difference between scientific disagreements and science denial, and we will present the standard tools used repeatedly by science deniers, across a wide variety of issues.  We will illustrate elements of this standard toolbox in discussions of climate science, of ozone depletion, of Big Bang cosmology, of macro-evolution, of vaccinations against common diseases, among other questions, both old and new.  The goal is not to stifle debate about skeptics’ questions, but to recognize and call out dishonest points and foregone conclusions.

One thought on “The War Against Facts

  1. Apropos Scottie Nell Hughes’ assertion: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts”, perhaps we should heed the age-old adage that `People in glass houses …’, and question the extent of our commitment to what we confidently assert as `facts’.

    As I note in the preface to my current investigation:

    “This investigation is essentially rooted in the evidence-based perspective towards ‘provability’ and ‘truth’ introduced in the paper, ‘The Truth Assignments That Differentiate Human Reasoning From Mechanistic Reasoning: The EvidenceBased Argument for Lucas’ Goedelian Thesis’; which appeared in the December 2016 issue of Cognitive Systems Research and addressed the philosophical challenge that arises when an intelligence—whether human or mechanistic—accepts arithmetical propositions as true under an interpretation—either axiomatically or on the basis of subjective self-evidence—without any specified methodology for evidencing such acceptance.

    […]

    From a psychological perspective, I would thus argue that, both qualitatively and quantitatively, any piece of information is necessarily associated with a suitably-defined truth assignation which must fall into one or more of the following three categories:

    (a) information that we zealotly believe to be ‘true’ in a Platonic sense, and have in common with others holding similar beliefs;

    (b) information that we prophetically hold to be ‘true’—short of Platonic belief —since it can be treated as self-evident, and have in common with others who also hold it as similarly self-evident;

    (c) information that we scientifically agree to define as ‘true’ on the basis of an evidence-based convention, and have in common with others who accept the same convention for assigning truth values to such assertions.

    Clearly the three categories of information have associated truth assignations with increasing degrees of objective (i.e., on the basis of evidence-based reasoning) accountability that must, in turn, influence the perspective—and understanding—of whoever is exposed to a particular category at a particular moment of time.

    In mathematics, for instance, Platonists who hold even axioms which are not immediately self-evident as ‘true’ in some absolute sense—such as Goedel and Saharon Shelah—might be categorised as accepting all three as definitive; those who hold axioms as reasonable hypotheses only if self-evident—such as Hilbert—as holding only (2) and (3) as definitive; and those who hold axioms as necessarily evidence-based propositions—such as Brouwer—as accepting only (3) as definitive.

    In the first case, it is obvious that contradictions between two intelligences, that arise solely on the basis of conflicting beliefs, cannot yield any productive insight on the nature of the contradiction.

    Although not obvious, it is the second case—of contradictions between two intelligences that arise on the basis of conflicting ‘reasonability’—which yields the most productive insight on the nature of the contradiction; since it compels us to address the element of implicit subjectivity in the individual conceptual metaphors underlying the contradiction that, then, motivates us to seek (3).

    The third case is thus the holy grail of communication (critically so in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence—one that admits unambiguous and effective communication without contradiction; and which is the focus of this investigation.

    […]

    In conclusion, it may be pertinent to emphasise that the roots of all the ambiguities sought to be addressed in this investigation lie in the unquestioned, and untenable assumption that Aristotle’s particularisation is valid over infinite domains.

    Aristotle’s particularisation is defined as the postulation that, in any formal language L which subsumes the first-order logic FOL, the assertion ‘[¬∀¬F(x)]—also denoted by [∃xF(x)]—is provable in L’ can unrestrictedly be interpreted as ‘there exists an unspecified object a such that F(a) is true under any interpretation of L’.

    Following Hilbert’s formalisation of it in terms of his ε-operator in 1925, the assumption has been sanctified by prevailing wisdom in published literature and textbooks at such an early stage of any classical mathematical curriculum, and planted so deeply into students’ minds, that thereafter most cannot even detect its presence in a proof!

    Even where invalid, the assumption has, thus, continued for over ninety years to unconsciously dictate, mislead, and so limit the perspective of not only active, but also emerging, scientists of any ilk who have depended upon classical mathematics for providing a language of adequate representation and effective communication for their abstract concepts.”

    Kind regards,

    Bhup

    Like

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