Tuesday, September 22, 2009 • 12:00 AM Comments (12)

A Fact-Free World

posted by Pleun Clara Bouricius

Is it stupid to deny evolution? Is someone who questions at this moment that Barack Obama is an American a pigheaded idiot? Are those who think the President supports “death panels” nothing but extremely gullible victims of cynical health insurance puppets? And what about a Holocaust-denier like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

How can anyone think these things?, I felt until yesterday. How is it possible for anyone who reads to believe that stuff? Why don’t people figure out for themselves what is true, instead of losing all their manners and lashing out in anger at the behest of smooth operators and demagogues? So much good information is now readily available on the Internet. “Above all,” I would argue very insistently, “this is a grotesque failure of public education.”

Rachel Maddow says the conservative “birther” and “deather” jihad against President Obama consists of people with sinister agendas who are extremely well organized to influence others — note that those somehow get their intelligence by reading Web sites and are thus at least minimally literate — people who have in common with each other that they live in a “fact-free world.” It is not meant as a compliment.

A fact-free world. It’s a catchy phrase that has suddenly caught me. It is true: Birthers and Deathers deny the validity of facts, facts per sé. In other words: they live outside the world in which the scientific method is the only road to good information. For them, Truth has a different source. This needs to be taken very seriously.

Try it on for size: most of us grew up in a world where the scientific method rules. Everything hinges on hypothesis and thesis; observation, measuring, and repeatability; empiricism and refutability (a thesis has to be refutable in order to be valid. Example: all apples are green. Disproved by finding one red apple. If you never find one, empirical evidence has it that all apples are green — until we find a red one.) But how many people check their facts? How do we know what is true? It would be a lot of work to check everything. Read all those healthcare bills with all their proposed amendments, for instance.

In everyday life, we take a shortcut to empiricism by believing in those who have been given a valid certificate of expertise. That would be your doctorate from an accredited university, as part of a checks and balances system, that, we assume, takes away credits from bad (red?) apples. Even about faith (I am operating on shaky ground here; faith is not my thing) we say, in effect: this is outside of the rest of the everyday world, but is important spiritually, so it doesn’t need to be part of that system of checks and balances. That’s the “leap.” It’s not part of things, but it underpins them. Somehow. A little bit of magical thinking that allows the rest to stand.

But what if you end up with a world view that cannot share a platform with the scientific method? You can’t have a little bit of science and a lot of magic side by side. You’d have to completely deny one or the other. What if in your eyes everyone who hands out “facts” is a smooth operator and the world is a gargantuan conspiracy in which it doesn’t even make sense to try check things (who knows — all those House and Senate bills may be planted hoaxes) because all of it is part of the system that keeps you on the bottom: outside or away from centers of power? What if you are dependent on that very system for your survival?

What you have then, is a popular Medieval world view. Or at least, that is what we tend to call popular belief systems characterized by static interdependent hierarchical social relations, revealed truth, and the special power of that which is neither observable, repeatable, nor refutable: magic.

 In most of the modern and post-modern (a different kind of fact-free) world, the adjective “medieval” is not a compliment. But with a capital “M” it does, unlike how I saw the Birthers and Deathers until yesterday, connote a complete world view, a closed system that makes internal sense, and that serves its participants. Umberto Eco will tell you all about it if you let him.

It’s all in who bites you more. To survive, you have to believe in the system. Medieval peasants believed in magic because having a place in religiously ordained hierarchies was the only possible way to survive. Simply put: no place in the system, no land to till and no food. Also, if you stuck out your head, chances were it could get chopped off. Similarly, believing that Barack Obama is for real means that that the system you just manage to survive in could be overhauled (not that he’s all that much into overhauling of any radical nature, but that’s just what makes him so threatening: it might just happen), and then what do you get?

When I drove a truck, hauling Godknowswhat from New Jersey to Texas and back, I found out what it was to be at the bottom of the working world. But not quite. Because when push came to shove, when I got chewed out for the umpteenth time for something I couldn’t do anything about, I upped and quit. I believed enough in my ability to work the system to risk walking away from a job. I did not have to believe in my place in the truck, because my place in the system is to be mobile – I have accreditation. This is the American Condition. To believe in Democratic Capitalism is to believe in our personal mobility, even if we don’t have the resources. I would call that faith the Magic of (social) Mobility.

The Magic of Mobility is knowing you can’t quit, ever, and still believing in the posibility of bettering one’s position. Along comes this guy who very reasonably says that we can do something to make it all better if only we all act as one and put our shoulders to the wheel— that kind of realism would force you to give up the Magic in a heartbeat. Take your place in the line and put your head down. There’s work to be done.

The scientific revolution was a turning away from a relational world view that we are all woven into a net of interdependence, and moving away from your place could rend the net and the world asunder. If the world is asunder, you fall into a deeeep hole. The first American Puritans were of this point of view. The thesis of John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” sermon was that “GOD ALMIGHTY in His most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission,” and success depends upon each keeping his or her place, as in the sermon’s oft-quoted ending passage about working together to make it in the New World.

But soon came slavery, the clock, Benjamin Franklin, sugar, Louis Agassiz and fish fossils, railroads, more clocks, and, finally, rather at the end but just before germ theory and relativity, Darwin. And with all that came the popular embrace of social mobility – walking hand in hand with empiricism, industrialization, and all of the other miracles of modernity.

Stephan Thernstrom argued years ago that real wages and real power of (American) workers  went up even as the Industrial Revolution created its most hideous side effects. I never wanted to believe him, even as I read his numbers (what was I going to do — count again?)* But now I do. Because that slooow and painful advance stopped around 1975, and the real power of the people, including buying power, started going down in the short term and stagnating in the long, and with it the believability of facts disappeared from that part of the population for which the system of facts made sense no longer. (Farley and Haaga, p. 64)

It seems to me that this is an end of Capitalism no one foresaw: not in workers’ revolution but back into the pre-modern relentless net of interdependence that allowed the Inquisition to rise to power. Why buy it if it doesn’t get you anything? You’re better off with Magic. Even sleazy “you can fool all the people all the time” type sleight of hand. I can see that. That’s my hypothesis. It makes me want to weep and hide in a corner.


* Thernstrom, Stephan. The other Bostonians: poverty and progress in the American metropolis, 1880-1970. Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 1976.

Farley, Russell, and John Haaga, eds. The American People: Census 2000. New York: Sage, 2005.

Comments (12)
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I think the Obama phenom is asking them to face up to the sordid reality that life in America isn't perhaps the best there might be in the world. Steal someone's dream and expect a response.
Posted by Pleun Bouricius on 9.22.09 at 19:12
I believe that the dichotomy you are posting between "facts" and "faith" is not justified. Science itself is not a linear story of discovery of truth but is a mutable and changeable stream, and the changes that have occurred in the scientific paradigm and even in our understanding of facts over the last three centuries should make us cautious about accepting science as the final word. Furthermore, science cannot provide any help when it comes to moral choices: science tells us the "how," by its nature it can never tell us the "why." For example, the belief by people like Richard Dawkins that the universe spontaneously came into being and spontaneously produced the evolutonary mechanism described by Darwin is as much a matter of faith as the views that Dawkins derides. Evolutionary theory only tells us the "how;" it does not expalin how or why it came into being. In addition, I think that before we characterize or denigrate Medieval thought, we ought to read the great thinkers of that perod and explain how we puny moderns can dismiss the great intellectual giants, from Augustine to Aquinas, who actually knew quite a lot about science and "facts" and were not ignorantly fixed in a cake of interelations. Let's face it: the vast majority of humankind is and always has been unscientific, this is absolutely nothing new. I wonder, for example, how many of your high school classmates remember any of the science or math that they were taught in school. But, in any event, what this has to do with Capitalism or its supposed demise escapes me.
Posted by Martin J. Newhouse on 9.23.09 at 19:07
Martin, you press me hard, as usual. Thank you. I propose several things, probably too many for such a short essay. First, I propose that western democratic capitalism centered on the value of the individual and popular belief in the scientific method (facts, to put it crudely) are intimately related  go hand in hand, are two sides of one coin  I would call that world view, Modernism if I needed one word. Second, I propose a dichotomy between that and a world view that centers on the miracle, static social hierarchy and interdependence  which I call Medievalism. I dont believe that is denigrating it (though I agree with you that it is shorthand akin to the facts and Modernism simplifications). I think there is a lot to be said against belief in the individual, against capitalism, technology and industry. Based on that dichotomy, the central proposition of my essay is that the birthers and other fact-deniers should be taken seriously, as people for whom magical thinking has more to offer than the realism, individualism, belief in the written word, expertise, and other elements of the post-Enlightenment world. Why? I suggest it is entirely logical that they deny the power of facts, because it hasnt come through for them. They have lost faith in the promise of individual betterment, real wage increase, and increased happiness  to use Jeffersons characterization  in exchange for giving up miracles. To put it (too) simply, I characterize the Enlightenments promise as: if you live by the guidance of factuality you will get a better life and world. Well, if theres no better life and world, why be guided by factuality any longer? In addition, someone who believes in the power of the real (as a post-modernist, I cant believe I am saying this, but, okay, I will avoid truth), gives others the power to counterargue with evidence: of course Obama is an American, heres the birth certificate. To deny evidence is to take power away from the other side: I dont care about that piece of paper, it can be falsified, I know Obama isnt an American  hes not like me and I am an American. Irrefutable. End of argument. Finally, I do not believe faith or religion in all their compexities to be incompatible with the scientific method in its various forms and stages  in itself, I would argue, a religion. I do believe that magical thinking is incompatible with the scientific method. In other words, you would be hard-pressed to believe on the one hand in the literal truth of Transsubstantiation and on the other in the Periodic Table of the Elements. That was Calvins ace in the hole.
Posted by Pleun Bouricius on 9.23.09 at 20:49
I think thsat you are right, that many people act and react like you say, live in a fact-free world. I also think that some of them do this because it is easier for them to do so. I think many of them do not have the gift of being curious to find out how the world turns, to find out facts. But I also think that many people do not have the mental capacity to find out things for themselves.People differ enormeously The more (intelligent) gifted people have to learn to cope with all this and to acxcept it wothout getting angry like you do. Boris
Posted by boris bouricius on 9.23.09 at 22:06
Always good to have this type of discussion. A couple of points. Pleun, I agree with your last comment about factsexcept that I dont think self-interest explains altruism. On your longer response to my comment, one can define "modernism" and "medievalism" as one likes, I suppose, but your definitions Pleun seem to be rather stereotypical. After all, modern historiography has pretty much blasted your characterization of the Medieval period (despite what ignorant popularizers like Willima Mancheter may purvey as "fact".) For example, both modern universities and modern parliaments owe their existence to medieval foundations (the University of Paris was founded in the mid-1100s, the University of Bologna in 1088; the French Parlement developed from earlier Kings Councils; the Magna Carta dates from 1215; the English Parliament originated from the ancient Anglo Saxon Witenagemot, which dates from the 7th century). Likewise, how does the popular idea that the middle ages were steeped in miracles and magic square with the fantastic architectural achievements of the Romanesque and Gothic periods? Notre Dame de Paris was not built without a scientific understanding. Finally, the reputed lack of mobility (both geographic and social) during Medieval times also does not withstand scrutinymany medieval people traveled widely and many a later member of the elite (Geoffrey Chaucer, for example) came from families that had worked for generations to improve their social status. The merchant class that began to flourish in the late medieval periodwhere did they come from? Not from nobles who decided to slum, but from serfs and peasants who actually changed their status! On another subject: I dont know what you actually mean by magical thinking. If you mean by this thinking that seems at odds with common sense, then all of modern physics, starting with Newton, is magical since it contradicts in so many ways the common sense view. Again, I consider Dawkins belief that the marvelous mechanism of evolution just evolved to be as magical as the view that a Creator put into place: neither can be factually verified or tested by science; nor can the origin of the physical laws that Newton discovered and Einstein modified. Where do these things come from? When it comes to human action, we refuse to accept the explanation from someone who has insulted us well it just happened. We seek for explanations and understanding of motives. Why do we find it easy to accept that evolution and the physical laws are just there? We can debate the origins of capitalism and industrialismI tend to think that the ideological overlay is not accuratebut the evidence that I see of people starting their own businesses, of the economy starting to turn around, of young people doing all sorts of things on the Web, convinces me that, far from losing faith in their ability to better themselves, the next generation is all fired up and ready to go and, far from being dead, our mix of regulated and free market capitalism is very healthy, indeed.
Posted by Martin Newhouse on 9.24.09 at 7:44
I enjoyed very much your comments. Two last points just to keep the conversaton going: First, the need for "proof" is not necessarily scientific, nor is it coterminous with the scientific method--it is as much legal as anything else. The requirement that guilt or innocent be "proved" in a court of law predates the scientific method.. Seciond, you might be able to explain how we think a phone works, but you will never be able to explain electiricitiy itself. No one has or can without resort to unprovable assumptions. We get back to David Hume, who for all time disproved the reality of sceintific causality, and Immanuel Kant, who rescued science by proving that it was based on categories of understanding implanted in our thinking. And where did those come from?
Posted by Martin Newhouse on 9.24.09 at 9:10
I can definitely use this article for my college research paper.
Posted by Paul Williams on 9.26.09 at 12:49
Try it on for size: most of us grew up in a world where the scientific method rules. Everything hinges on hypothesis and thesis; observation, measuring, and repeatability; empiricism and refutability (a thesis has to be refutable in order to be valid.
Posted by PS3 Slim on 9.30.09 at 10:55
Honestly, I've read better written pieces by highschoolers.
Posted by Steven on 10.1.09 at 13:54
When I drove a truck, hauling Godknowswhat from New Jersey to Texas and back, I found out what it was to be at the bottom of the working world. But not quite. Because when push came to shove, when I got chewed out for the umpteenth time for something I couldnt do anything about, I upped and quit
Posted by Presentation skills on 10.10.09 at 5:45
Hi Pleun, always nice to read you now and again. Any plans for a trip to good old Europe and even venturing further south to Austria?Bye from a cool autumn day here near Sazburg where I spend 3 weeks in a spa with cure for my back.Astrid
Posted by Astrid Faschauner-Pickl on 10.22.09 at 23:59

Thank you, Pleun, for a very subtle and suggestive, if somewhat allusive, essay.

It's beyond my intellectual pay grade to contribute to the dialogue between you and Newhouse, but I would like to add a sidebar to the birther and deather question.

I play a lot of tennis. Most opponents (and partners) make line calls that seem honest and accurate. There is a small subset, however, consisting of players who often make line calls - always to their own advantage - about which there is disagreement. But within that subset of 'bad line callers,' I have come to think, are two very contrasting sub categories: cheaters and wishful thinkers.

'Cheaters' are determined to win and will knowingly falsify a call on important points in close matches in order to do so. But a much larger group within that minority will make bad calls in good faith, on important and unimportant points alike. These people are NOT cheaters. They actually SEE their opponents' balls to be out. That's because they are seeing with their minds, not their eyes. They so desperately 'wish' their opponents' balls to be outside the lines and their own to be inside that they see them so, and are not just angry but also bewildered when they are shunned by potential partners and disdained by opponents.

I believe this to be the case with most of the 'birthers.' The root cause of their beliefs is, to use a vulgar shortcut, racism. They sense their America slipping away demographically and socially. The crowning symbol of that slippage is the election of a black president. Their 'real' America has been betrayed by an alien America. Buttressed by research on the internet, where one can find validation for literally any claim, no matter how absurd, they make their claim that Obama has been illlegitimately elected in all 'innocence.'

Needless to say, in politics as in tennis, the wishful thinkers are far more dangerous than the cheaters.

Posted by Tim wright on 12.13.10 at 10:22



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