Factocide: who’s responsible for the demise of facts?

Globe smash with a hammer, isolated on a white background.









The 20th Century was the century of genocide. The wholesale slaughter of ethnic groups and other populations was brought to a high art by the Turks who attempted to exterminate the Armenians, the Nazis who attempted to exterminate the Jews, and Stalin and Mao who attempted to exterminate substantial proportions of their own peoples.

The 21st Century is shaping up to be the century of factocide, a wholesale assault on a distinction that has stood for thousands of years: the difference between fact and opinion.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Facts, far from being the tools of the powerful, are the last refuge of the oppressed.[/pullquote]

Donald Trump represents the apotheosis of factocide. He makes no distinction between factual information and personal belief. Indeed, in his mind, his belief in something, no matter how outrageous, makes it a fact. And in the minds of his followers, Trump’s tweet of something, no matter how absurd or obviously false, makes it true.

But Trump is not responsible for factocide; he’s merely its beneficiary. Factocide has been manifest for many years as Republican Party dogma, as pseudoscience enabler and as a driving force in cable news and Internet communities.

Who is responsible? The list is long and varied

Academics: We are all postmodernists now. Postmodernism, previously relegated to the dusty corners of academia, has been unleashed into the world and the result has been an unmitigated disaster for facts. Postmodernism is a complex philosophical viewpoint that relies in large part on relativism:

Postmodernists deny that there are aspects of reality that are objective; that there are statements about reality that are objectively true or false; that it is possible to have knowledge of such statements … Reality, knowledge, and value are constructed by discourses; hence they can vary with them…

If nothing is objectively true — if there are no facts — how did we come to believe that there are facts and that those facts can be ascertained by human beings?

… [T]he prevailing discourses in any society reflect the interests and values, broadly speaking, of dominant or elite groups.

In other words, “facts” are what the powerful agree upon as needful in order to continue to hold their power.

The powerful had agreed on the “fact” that black people were intellectually inferior, women were weak and gay people were mentally ill. Those empirical claims had never been facts; they had been instituted as “facts” to protect the power of hetero-sexual, white men. The truth of the powerless was every bit as true as the “truth” of the powerful.

To the extent that postmodernism alerted us to the voices of the powerless and the tactics of the powerful, it provided a valuable corrective to prejudices that had been accepted as fact. To the extent that it has made facts themselves impossible, it has been (in my view) an unmitigated disaster. The radicals in the academy failed to anticipate factocide — that relativism can be employed just as easily by the far Right as by the disenfranchised of the Left.

Politicians: Politicians have always had a fraught relationship with the truth, brandishing it when it served their purposes and burying it when it did not. But Ronald Reagan was a politician with a difference. He understood Franklin Roosevelt had shaped an enduring Democratic political coalition by demonstrating not merely that government could be a force for good in the lives of its citizens, but by insisting that it should be a force for good.

This was anathema to conservative Republicans who believed that less government was better government. For forty years that had been a tough sell as a basis for a political campaign. Reagan set out to do something different. Instead of railing that Big Government wasn’t good for its citizens (flying in the face of people who knew Big Government had been good to them), he deliberately endeavored to ensure that Big Government couldn’t be good by defunding it and then blaming it for being unable to provide what citizens had come to expect.

Reagan famously declared:

The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.

It wasn’t true at the time he said it, but Reagan and other conservatives set out to make it true.

As Professor Douglas Amy explains:

The answer the Republicans found is to attack these programs indirectly. The weapon of choice? Tax cuts. The idea is simple: if we keep cutting taxes, eventually there won’t be enough money to spend on these programs and they will have to be reduced… Conservatives call this tactic “starving the beast.” Taxes are what nourish government. Take that source of nourishment away and government must inevitably shrink. For anti-tax advocates like Grover Norquist, this is the ultimate purpose of tax cuts: “The goal is reducing the size and scope of government by draining its lifeblood.”

Reagan knew that government helped people and therefore people liked government. He wanted them to hate government so he lied about it — factocide — while working constantly to make sure government couldn’t help people. He understood the facts, lied about them, but also worked to change them.

In contrast, President George W. Bush felt he could dispense with facts altogether. His philosophy, was famously summarized by an aide (believed to be Karl Rove) in speaking to a journalist:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

Pseudoscience advocates: There have always been groups that have lied about scientists. Climate change denialists are the lineal descendants of both those who persecuted Galileo and those who ran tobacco companies. When your business is based on a lie, you must continue to tout that lie. But tradionally those who lie about science created the product first (religion, tobacco) and were forced into lying when the truth was revealed. In contrast, we now have entire industries — the anti-vax industry, the detox industry, homeopathy, homebirth — that started with the lie and built the industry around it.

How do they justify ignoring scientific facts? They use a bastardization of postmodernism: there is no such thing as scientific fact; there is only personal experience.  Jenny McCarthy “knows” vaccines caused her son’s “autism” and she cured it. Modern Alternative Mama, Kate Tietje, knows that people can “detoxify” from vaccines and other supposed environmental insults. Homeopaths believe that water has memory and that’s enough. Homebirth midwives “know” that birth is safe, and the babies who died at their hands aren’t proof that they’re wrong; they were “meant” to die.

Scientific facts are presented as the tools of powerful industries like Big Pharma who deploy them in order to maintain their power; the fraudsters and charlatans of pseudoscience portray themselves as powerless and guardians of their own “truth,” that vaccines cause autism, coffee enemas remove toxins, water has memory and childbirth is safe.

Sadly, those who are truly powerless, by dint of their lack of basic science knowledge, are repeatedly victimized by scientific factocide.

Cable news:It is fitting that cable news, which has no respect for facts, was born during the OJ Simpson trial when ignoring facts became a national obsession. Everyone (including the people who wanted a black man to be found innocent of killing a white woman) knew that Simpson had murdered his wife Nicole. The facts were beside the point. Many who hoped fervently for a not guilty verdict viewed it as recompense for centuries of judicial violence against black men. Emmet Till had been killed for talking to a white woman; it was payback to free a black man for actually killing a white woman.

It was also a rating bonanza to declare that Simpson was innocent despite the fact that everyone believed him to be guilty. It was an even bigger ratings bonanza to pretend that President Bill Clinton had violated the Constitution by having consensual oral sex with a young woman who worked in the White House. Some of the most powerful men who impeached Clinton were having consensual sexual affairs and lying about it while piously denouncing a political enemy for doing the exact same thing.

Cable executives noticed that facts did not matter at all when presenting the “news.” Indeed, gleefully ignoring facts was the key to the popularity popularity of Fox News — the flagship of factocide — with a viewership that feels, like the disenfranchised postmodernists of the Left, that they too are powerless. But that viewership is poor, uneducated and bigoted. That segment of the population, the same group that backs Trump in large numbers, rails against “political correctness” as the expression of a powerful elite that simply wants to maintain power.

The powerful of the Left claim that black people are NOT intellectually inferior, women are NOT weak and gay people are NOT mentally ill. But, wait! Isn’t the truth of the powerless every bit as true and the “truth” of the powerful?

That, of course, it the ultimate irony of factocide. The academics disparaged facts as the tools of the powerful (straight, white men) in order to help the historically oppressed. But when you insist that facts are merely the preferences of the powerful, you have no intellectual ground to stand on when poor, uneducated and bigoted white men insist on the right to discriminate and harass those who are not straight, white men.

We have learned that facts, far from being the tools of the powerful, are truly the last refuge of the oppressed. Hopefully it is not too late to prevent the utter annihilation of facts.