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Facts matter even more in the post-truth age

Prof Rajeev Bhargava, CSDS and Institute for Social Justice

This article was originally published in The Hindu

Cynicism about facts is symptomatic not only of a cognitive crisis but of a wider moral malaise

I’ve heard it said that facts are unimportant, that only public opinion matters, implying that political action or public policy must be guided not by facts but by the opinion of the people. An even more pernicious claim is also made that there are no facts in the world, only biased interpretations and subjective opinions.

Both these strange claims have alarming practical consequences. Imagine if you’ve just been robbed, and go to the police station to register a complaint. And the policeman horrifies you with the response, “I don’t think this is a fact, it’s only your opinion.” Worse, imagine if you went to a doctor complaining of chest pain, and the doctor says, “I don’t consider this a fact, its only your biased view.” If you are really having a heart attack, well then, good luck!

Indifference to or denial of facts is more common in public life. Governments refuse to face uncomfortable facts and deny them forcefully — high unemployment, the economy’s downward spiral, violations of rights, scandals. Such refusal to acknowledge facts has terrible consequences too; not addressing the problem of unemployment can lead to social unrest, violence, even terrorism.

Simple and complex facts

How are facts accessed or established? Not all facts have the same form. Some are simple, while others have an increasing degree of complexity. The more complex a fact, the harder it is to establish and the greater the room for ambiguity and multiple descriptions. Consider the following: John F. Kennedy (a) died, (b) was assassinated. It was easy to establish that he died. But more information and time were required to establish his assassination by Oswald — corroboration by several witnesses, films, forensic evidence. But why did Oswald do it? It is claimed that he acted willingly or unwittingly at the behest of the CIA. But to establish this fact — the motive — is more difficult, and never conclusively established. But even here there are better and worse arguments, and as in legal judgments, its facticity is grounded not in evidence alone but in reasons. Facts here are whatever has the best argument on its side. But comparing and ascertaining the validity of all reasons takes time, effort, skill. And we may still not come to a definitive conclusion. So, the issue is not the existence of facts but that where multiple agents are involved with complex collective motivations, it is hard, even for educated persons, to directly access facts. Perhaps facts such as the bad state of the economy fall in this category.

Furthermore, when vested interests muddy the waters by planting misleading information, spreading lies, deliberately creating a fog around the event — as the tobacco industry once did — then facts become extremely elusive. Such a condition of opaqueness has penetrated so deep in societies in recent times that it has become our default position, part of our second nature to be sceptical about all factual claims. Living in a world of radical uncertainty, in the era of ‘post-truth’, we don’t know who to trust to get facts. How then does one get out of this conundrum?

Age of domain expertise

We once lived in a society where knowledge was believed to be inherited, not socially acquired, and in some domains so socially insignificant that it was considered no knowledge at all (farming, weaving, singing). In any case, a select group acquired sole authority to pronounce on what the truth is in all domains — experts we totally trusted. As this society disappears, we find ourselves in an exactly opposite condition where we make radical self-reliance our ideal, and the easy availability of information on the Internet breeds the delusion that we can be experts in everything. Alas, when we are unable to achieve this, we plunge into a state of radical uncertainty, unreliability and mutual distrust. Mercifully, these are not the only options. I believe it best to recognise that knowledge in contemporary societies is evenly distributed, with a more complex cognitive division of labour, and that expertise now is more democratised than ever before. All of us are skilled at something, experts in some small, specialised domain. We acquire the ability, through formal or informal training, to recognise or establish facts in the many domains that make up our social world. Economists might know more about the aggregate state of the agriculture sector but farmers know crops and the conditions under which they grow. In knowledge of the social world, therefore, we must aspire to a mixture of self- and other-reliance and provide alternating and reciprocal leadership in fact-acquisition. Facts and social trust are related and crucial to the working of society.

What happens when experts themselves have conflicting views? Here individual accomplishments count. Some within each of these expert domains are hardworking and sincere, avoid self-deception, recognise their failures and work to overcome their flaws. Such people, with intellectual virtues and strength of ethical character, usually accomplish more. Our best bet, therefore, is to rely on the more accomplished people in each domain. All teachers are not selling ideologies; some are better than others at providing an empathetic, wide-ranging perspective on an issue. Likewise, not all doctors are trying to make a quick buck. Some willingly tell you when you don’t need any treatment and when you need diagnostic tests to identify what treatment you need. This is also true of mediapersons, lawyers, bureaucrats, electricians, shopkeepers, businessmen, perhaps even politicians!

We all benefit if governments are guided by public opinion grounded in the best available facts provided partly by experts in each of the relevant domains. But the identification of facts is impossible without mechanisms to identify reliable experts, and social trust more generally. Conversely, cynicism about facts is symptomatic not only of a cognitive crisis but of a wider moral malaise.

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