For Accuracy, Consequences, and Truth. A Personal Manifesto

The Trump Administration’s proclamation of “alternative facts” to suit the arguments they wish to make, and the branding of journalistic outlets that demonstrate the inaccuracy of the President’s statements as “FAKE NEWS!!!” have prompted me to do something I am not normally inclined to do: to actively campaign for the value and integrity of a broadly scientific approach as an important input to public deliberation. It’s not at all that I needed to be convinced of the value of such an approach; rather, it’s that I was somewhat blissfully unaware of the extent to which the current wave of populist politics was almost completely untroubled by notions of factuality. Sure, I had known that there was a hard core of anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism that felt that scientific results and verifiable pieces of information were matters of opinion or belief — anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, people who worried about the U.N.’s supposed fleet of black helicopters that were waiting to swoop in and destroy national sovereignty — but I guess I always believed that such a minority would be held in check by the good sense of the rest of the electorate, even those with whose policy positions I disagreed. Apparently not. Apparently significant numbers of people in the U.S. were willing to vote for a demonstrated purveyor of convenient falsehoods — convenient in the sense that they support his, and their, preferred positions on a whole slew of issues. Welcome to the post-truth era.

Or: welcome to an era in which truth, and the earnest seeking after truth, is under assault, and under assault not for anything like defensible reasons. Instead, the political order of the day seems to be to make up whatever claims support one’s conclusions and then pass them off as “facts.” In my view what has changed is not politicians; politics was never about seeking truth, and frankly, shouldn’t be about truth but should instead be about making compromises and balancing priorities in order to make our common lives together work as well as they can. Believing that you and you alone have the truth makes you a poor politician, because you can’t compromise, and if you had the truth, why would you even want to? Politics is messy and imperfect, so we should never expect it to conform to ideal standards for the production of factual knowledge. Indeed, I suspect that most politicians would lie about and misrepresent situations as much as they could get away with doing so in pursuit of their agendas, because the central virtue in politics is effectiveness rather than integrity — and in the first instance that means effectiveness and gaining and retaining political power and influence.

All of which means that if we the people want our elected officials to make policy that engages facts instead of just making stuff up, we cannot rely on politicians or on the political process to defend that stance. We have to instead actively advocate and diligently defend the proper role of facts and factual explanations in relation to political contestation. That proper role is not to covertly serve to shore up one or another partisan position (something that Max Weber, among others, cautioned long ago was all too easy to do), but to serve as a non-partisan contribution that ensures that all sides of the debate have to wrestle with the situation as it actually confronts us rather than the situation as we would like to imagine it to be. Science, as our best generator of facts and factual explanations, doesn’t and can’t resolve political contests or value disagreements, but it can and should produce inputs into the policymaking process that ensure that politicians take likely and possible outcomes, and the consistency of their positions with their declared goals and values, into account. That’s the role I now find myself in the unfamiliar position of having to campaign publicly for, because I doubt that the bypassing of facts and factuality will be fixed from within the political process itself. We have to force politicians back to a confrontation with facts and factual explanations, because left to their own devices they have no inherent inclination to do so.

For myself, an academic by vocation who does not naturally take to the streets (although some of my colleagues certainly do; I am not speaking for academics as whole, just for those like me who usually fall to the more contemplative side of things), in order to engage in any kind of public campaigning I first need to work out the philosophical niceties of doing so. I can march and have marched as a private citizen in protest of the administration’s immigration policies, and I have co-written and co-signed letters urging my university and my professional association to take stronger stances on these policies because of the effects they have on education and intellectual exchange. But signing the excellent open letter coordinated by Charli Carpenter, a letter that — like the “Security Scholars for a Sensible Foreign Policy” letter I was involved with a decade ago — rests on a claim of particular epistemic authority by scholars, strikes me as a somewhat different enterprise. In those latter instances, signatories — including me — are saying that we should be listened to precisely because of the factual knowledge that we have, and not just because we are concerned citizens or likely voters. Opposing Trump’s immigration policies as a private citizen is making a value-laden identity claim, whether on us as individuals (we should care for the stranger, not exclude them) or collectively (this is a nation of immigrants). Opposing policies as a scholar is, to my mind, doing something different, since in doing so we are making a claim that is based not on values and identities, but on facts.

Yes, there is complexity here that has to be confronted and worked through. Too much philosophical complexity for a manifesto. But, briefly: Different descriptive vocabularies applied to similar situations generate apparently distinct facts, but — as I have argued elsewhere — the resulting facts aren’t contradictory so much as either complementary (making entirely different but equally factual claims, because there is more than potentially relevant aspect of a situation) or consistent (saying much the same thing in different ways, as when we measure a length in both English and metric units). Power-holders in any society sometimes claim things as facts which are never submitted to the proper and appropriate procedures of verification and validation, but that’s no insurmountable philosophical obstacle either: the validity of a fact doesn’t depend on acceptance, but instead, the acceptance of something as fact should depend on its validity, and to do otherwise is to make a logical mistake. Certainly there is a politics of truth just as there is a sociology of science, but just as the sociology of science properly understood doesn’t exhaust or delegitimate science, ┬áthe politics of truth shouldn’t exhaust or delegitimate truth. And especially in contemporary social and political life, claims that have no business being treated as factual claims — I am thinking here of theological and religious claims, which operate in a separate sphere of their own — sometimes get mistakenly treated as factual claims (this is the problem of creationism, which as a theological teaching means one thing, but as a factual claim is largely nonsensical), but that seems to me to call for education rather than a devaluing of facts and factual explanations per se.

(You will also note that I have avoided the phrase “the facts” throughout this manifesto; that’s deliberate, because the phrase implies a single common set of facts meriting a definite article. I think that’s a mistake, because facts arise in contexts and are inextricably linked to particular and diverse descriptive vocabularies and procedures for validation. Facts are thus made in a very specific sense — the Latin root factum from which our word “fact” derives means something done, and the process of making and evaluating factual claims is the relevant “doing” for those facts which we have before us at a given point in time. Facts, and factual explanations, have to be generated and produced in practical contexts that we usually call “doing research.” And it’s a package deal: facts, their associated vocabularies, and the procedures for validating and evaluating, all travel together, or at any rate, ought to travel together. So science confronts politics not with “the facts,” but with particular and relevant facts connected to the issues under discussion, together with appropriate caveats and qualifications.)

I am most comfortable in using the call for education as a basis for my own activism around these issues. If the public has to hold politicians responsible for their engagement with facts, then it is a large part of our roles as educators to help people appreciate the importance of facts and factual explanations, as well as the complexity of such notions and the need for careful consideration rather than partisan smoke and heat. We have to be FOR facts, meaning that we have to actively engage people in thinking through what it means to make a factual claim, how one goes about properly evaluating such a claim, and what the limits of a factual claim are: facts clarify, but rarely unambiguously decide, controversial issues of public policy. (Even facts about the efficacy of vaccines don’t unambiguously point in the direction of particular vaccination regimes, and indeed, one might imagine a set of especially cruel values according to which the cost of certain vaccines might outweigh the lives saved…such values might be ethically troubling, but my point is that such a moral determination isn’t something that one can simply read off of “the facts themselves.”) And we have to be somewhat more assertive about this than we have perhaps been — than I have — in the past: there are facts, and we ignore them at our peril.

In advocating FOR the proper role of facts and factual explanations in public life and political contestation, we need to pay attention to what I have elsewhere referred to as the three aspects or qualities of a claim that are emphasized by a broadly scientific way of knowing: systematicity, publicity, and worldliness. Any process or procedure of knowledge-production that highlights such qualities and makes them central is, in this broad sense, a “scientific” way of knowing — as opposed, say, to aesthetic or ethical or technical ways of knowing. Aesthetic ways of knowing emphasize expression and perception; ethical ways of knowing emphasize issues of virtue and obligation; technical ways of knowing prioritize results. But scientific ways of knowing are epistemic in that the knowledge they aim to produce is intended to be factual, produced by a set of procedures and practices intended to generate statements that are impersonally valid and observationally warranted. And the importance of factual knowledge, in turn, is that there is nothing as practical, in the sense of grounding instructions for acting in the world, as a fact — whether I am baking a cake, cleaning up a river, negotiating a trade agreement, or determining a foreign policy. Obviously the details differ from situation to situation, and there are a lot of ways that baking a cake is not like negotiating a trade agreement; the cake-baking instructions are narrower and the envisioned outcome is more constrained than is usually the case with inter-state negotiations. But in all of these cases, ignoring facts and simply acting on a whim or out of an ideological predilection is only accidentally going to produce the desired outcome. So our choices are between blundering around in the dark, or using what little light we have — and I choose the latter.

Those three broadly scientific criteria map onto the other three letters of the acronym “F.A.C.T.” in a way that feels to me, if not perfectly natural, then at least not especially contrived. The resulting conception speaks not just to self-identified scientists including self-identified social scientists, but to all of us who are concerned with establishing and evaluating facts and factual explanations, including journalists, investigators, researchers and scholars of all types, and ordinary citizens trying to adjudicate competing claims on a factual basis. Anyone who produces or evaluates factual knowledge has a stake in preserving and defending the proper role of facts, and the acronym “F.A.C.T.” can, perhaps, help us to keep firmly in mind just what we are fighting FOR:

ACCURACY. A factual claim comes with a group of procedures by which it is supposed to be evaluated. If I say “this regime is is democracy,” then it follows that there are a set of criteria I can use to evaluate the claim: things I can look for in the regime in order to see whether or not it is a democracy, according to the definition of “democracy” with which I am operating. And as long as you share those criteria, and are versed in the procedures I am using to apply them, you can also look at the regime and see whether my claim is valid. Impersonal standards, systematically applied, generate a fact-based consensus, a basis from which we can have further conversations about what to do next.

CONSEQUENCES. A factual claim is not an abstract determination, but a practical conclusion arising from efforts to respond to specific situations. The worldliness of facts and of factual explanations thus suggests that action and advocacy involving facts should never be conducted without calling to mind the embeddedness of facts in practical contexts — contexts that are populated by persons, by beings of all sorts, who are going to be affected by what we say and do. Taking those consequences seriously, striving to put facts and factual explanations to work producing concrete effects in concrete situations, is thus an obligation of any genuine and comprehensive attempt to produce factual knowledge, particularly knowledge of the social world. By the same token, a respect for facts means that one should never falsely claim to have factual knowledge when what one actually has is speculation or a hunch, or, worse yet, a rank prejudice or a set of fears. Taking consequences seriously therefore also means holding people to account — in a compassionate, though sometimes forceful, way — when they misrepresent or repress uncomfortable facts in favor of claims that simply shore up their existing worldview.

TRUTH. By talking about facts and not about truth throughout this manifesto I am deliberately avoiding the conceptual minefield that surrounds the word “truth.” Science broadly understood, as Indiana Jones famously reminded us, is about the search for facts, not truths. But the semantic instability of the word “truth” suggests a slightly different formulation: facts and factual explanations are one subset of “truth,” one way of pursuing truth, but not the only way of doing so. Alongside factual truth we might put artistic, moral, spiritual, and other kinds of truth. The point is that the pursuit of truth is multi-faceted, and the broadly scientific effort to establish facts and refine factual explanations is insufficient to exhaust the whole pursuit. A public dialogue or discussion, rather than an imperious pronouncement of the One Best Way to achieve truth, seems called for. In the broadly scientific sphere we engage in the pursuit of truth by subjecting our factual knowledge-claims to the public scrutiny of others; beyond that sphere, facts and factual explanations stand alongside other kinds of truth as contributions to the “slow boring of hard boards” which is a responsible politics.

TRUTH reminds us that the enterprise of generating factual knowledge is a noble one. CONSEQUENCES reminds us that it is not practiced in a vacuum. ACCURACY reminds us that impersonal evaluation is central to what it means to be a fact. These are the things that we can — I can, and you also should — be FOR.

For Accuracy, Consequences, and Truth. F.A.C.T.

[cross-posted at The Duck of Minerva]