Facts (As Opposed to Opinions)

I wrote this in the early years of this blog, but, with a few additional comments added, it seems especially relevant today with “false facts” floating around us. And, Heaven knows, we need a respite from the truly ugly political shenanigans going on.

One of the most popular segments on E.S.P.N.’s popular Sports Center is called “Cold Hard Facts,” and it consists of one or more “experts” sitting down and giving his opinions about upcoming sports events. The confusion here between “facts” and “opinions” is instructive. We seem to have lost sight of a rather important distinction.

While there is nothing we claim to know that should ever be held beyond doubt, there is certainly a basic distinction between an opinion — which can be silly or sensible — and a fact which has the weight of evidence and argument behind it. It is a fact that water freezes at 32 degrees fahrenheit. It is a fact that objects fall toward the center of the earth. The most reliable facts are in the hard sciences and in mathematics (though there is some discussion whether a mathematical formula is a fact or simply a tautology). But even when an expert tells us that the New England Patriots are sure to win the game on Sunday, that is an opinion.

As mentioned, opinions can be silly — as in “there’s a monster in my closet,” or sensible, as in “don’t raise the bet when holding a pair of twos — unless you are a really good bluffer.” And opinions can differ in degree, some being more likely or more probable than others. But they do not cross over into the territory of fact until the weight of argument and evidence is so heavy it cannot be moved. Thus the opinion that smoking causes cancer became fact once the correlation between the two became very nearly inviolable (there are still exceptions). And the opinion that humans are evolved from lower forms of animals became fact when the weight of evidence became so heavy it could no longer be ignored — except by looking the other way.

One of the big controversies in our schools, especially in the South, is whether “intelligent design” is a fact or an opinion, that is, whether or not it should be taught along with the theory of evolution. But as there is no possible way to disprove intelligent design and there are any number of ways one might try to disprove evolution, the latter can be regarded as fact whereas the former cannot.  Intelligent design, the claim that human evolution is guided by a Creator, is a matter of faith. It may have plausibility, but it cannot be proved or, more importantly, disproved. This is where Socratic doubt comes in.

The secret to Socrates’ method was to doubt until we could doubt no longer. At the point where a claim seems to be beyond doubt, we can claim it is true — so far as we know. The key to the Socratic method was questioning and attempting to disprove. That is the key to scientific method as well. Claims become factual to the extent that they can no longer be disproved. If there is no way to disprove a claim, even in principle, it cannot ever rise to the status of fact. The Freudian position is usually denied the status of fact precisely because it cannot be proved — or disproved, even in principle. Still, it functions as an explanation of many of our human foibles and can be regarded as plausible.

We can talk until we are blue in the face about who was the best basketball player ever, or whether the souls of evil persons will suffer eternal punishment, but since no claim we make could ever be proved false, we never get beyond the realm of personal opinion. The claim that the polar ice caps are melting is a fact. The claim that humans are part of the cause of global warming is an opinion, though it is probable. And in this case, it would be wise to treat it as fact because even if it turns out to be false, it hasn’t cost us a great deal to seek ways to reverse the trend. And if it turns out to be true, we will have taken steps to solve a serious problem facing our earth.

Distinctions help to clarify our thinking. When they are glossed over, it leads to confusion. That is my opinion, but it seems plausible. That is the most I can say until further review.

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Demagoguery

With the vast improvement in the transmission of pictures and words quickly to more and more people, the always present threat of demagoguery increases. We have seen a number of such (whose names will not be mentioned), but all learned their  techniques, directly or indirectly, from Adolph Hitler. And in order to understand the man’s success no one has studied Hitler more closely than Hannah Arendt, a Jew who was forced to leave Germany in her childhood and later became a teacher and writer of international fame. She wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, a large book that established her reputation firmly as one who had a penetrating insight into some of the most important events of the past which she was convinced should enable us to better understand the present and anticipate probable future events. In a lengthy footnote in that book she reflects on the success of the depressingly ordinary Adolph Hitler “who during his lifetime exercised a fascination to which allegedly no one was immune.” Indeed, anyone who has seen films of Hitler before a crowd, even if he is not fluent in German, finds himself swept up in the emotional theater and inclined to agree with whatever the little man is saying. What is it that makes this possible? As Arendt notes:

“Society is always prone to accept a person offhand for what he pretends to be, so that a crackpot posing as a genius always has a certain chance to be believed. In modern society, with its characteristic lack of discerning judgment, the tendency is strengthened, so that someone who not only holds opinions but also presents them in a tone of unshakable conviction will not easily forfeit his prestige, no matter how many times he has been demonstrably wrong. Hitler, who knew the modern chaos of opinions from first-hand experience, discovered that the helpless seesawing between various opinions and the ‘conviction . . .that everything is balderdash’ could best be avoided by adhering to one of many current opinions with ‘unbending consistency.’ The hair-raising arbitrariness of such fanaticism holds great fascination for society because for the duration of the social gathering it is freed from the chaos of opinions that it constantly generates.”

There are a number of features of this comment that invite our attention. Clearly, Arendt has studied her subject closely and asked key questions about how it is that such a person as Adolph Hitler could hold vast numbers of people spellbound and convince them that black is white. To begin with, as she says, he grabs one of the many opinions floating out there and presents it with absolute conviction as the only possible truth, bringing order out of chaos. Repetition, conviction, and consistency, with the assurance that people will believe what you say if they hear it said often and without doubt or hesitation. This is key. Please note that it doesn’t matter in the least whether the opinion is true or false. What matters his whether or not the speaker says it with conviction. Hitler never doubted himself; he never second-guessed. He simply asserted what he wanted people to believe, knowing they would believe what he said if he said it often enough and without any hint of uncertainty.

But as Arendt points out, it matters also that this opinion must be asserted in a group where there is confusion about what matters and what is true. They seek release from the bewildering array of opinions on every side: they want something firm to grab onto in a world filled with conflicting opinions. In Hitler’s day when the mass media were just aborning, the situation was less chaotic than it is in our day when we are overwhelmed with numberless opinions on every subject. We are bombarded on every side by claims and those who presume to be experts about things we may know little about. We all have opinions, but we also are easily persuaded by one who seems to be certain of the truth, even if that truth runs counter to what we ourselves believe. And even if it is blatantly false. The appeal is always emotional, not intellectual., This is not philosophy; it is rhetoric. The demagogue knows how to “work on” the emotions of his or her listener. And as Arendt points out, when the audience evidences ” a characteristic lack of discerning judgment,” as it does in our day especially, the job is made so much easier.

So we should not be amazed that folks like Rush Limbaugh and, in his day, Paul Harvey are immensely popular: they make complex issues simple by  stating “with unbending consistency” and without wavering an opinion (any opinion) that floats in the air and assert it with smug confidence. Their listeners seem to be sitting at the feet of wisdom itself. How could we not have seen that before? It seems so clear now. The demagogue doesn’t know any more than we do. He simply appears to do so and he does so with swagger and with firmness that seem to make disagreement impossible. So we buy what he is selling, whatever that might happen to be. And we feel a sense of relief in doing so, because by agreeing with the demagogue we are ourselves now also wise. Where we had doubts before, we now have certainty — even if we are “demonstrably wrong.”

To Tell The Truth

In several of my comments on posts by my friends Barney and BTG I have been circling around an issue that I think deserves expansion. It has to do with one of the central problems we face as a nation and as a human race, if that doesn’t sound like hyperbole. And it has to do with our increasing inability to tell (and recognize) the truth. On ESPN, for example, we hear about a “six pax of cold-hard facts” which turn out to be a load of opinions that amount to little and certainly should not be confused with facts — unless you can say that Jackson held the opinion that the Jets would be a terrific team this year. That may be a fact, but when Jackson says the Jets will be awesome, that’s his opinion .

Most of the problems that Barney and BTG write about are serious problems, such as the drought in California and the determination of the legislature there to continue to endorse fracking, which both he and BTG have written about eloquently and persuasively: it is madness. It is madness on a normal day, but when water is becoming increasingly precious it is double-madness. But there are other serious problems we face as a nation and as a people who seem determined to follow one another blindly off a cliff into oblivion. And, it strikes me, it comes down to two things: (1) overpopulation, which I consider the core problem at the heart of all the rest. and (2) education, which I go on and on about for a reason. If we cannot use our minds to think our way through these problems we are in serious do-do, especially if we hope to feed, and provide air to breathe and water to drink, the numberless mouths we seem determined to continue to produce.

One of the obvious signs that we are losing our ability to think is not only our inability to differentiate between facts and opinions, as noted above, but our inability to recognize the truth when it is staring us in the face. We are inundated with information from all sides and people make claims that we suspect are bloat and rhetoric, but have no grounds for rejecting. So we simply accept comfortable claims, the path of least resistance. On the contrary, we need to be suspicious of all we hear, but we also need to be able to recognize that when a scientist, let us say, who is operating within his or her domain of expertise tells us that the earth is in serious danger we need to listen and take appropriate action. This assumes that we can recognize experts when we see and hear them and that we can think our way to appropriate action when necessary. But the first step is to accept as true those facts that are undeniably true despite the fact that we find them terribly confusing or even deeply disturbing. As BTG tells us, we must beware of cognitive dissonance.

We are not in position to know everything. We need to rely on experts for many things from medical advice, to accepting the bad news from our mechanic about why our car engine goes “clunk.” And this means that we need to be able to differentiate between genuine experts and those who just pretend to be experts. This is no small order. There is a host of folks out there who claim to be experts; my rule of thumb is to suspect the lot of them and listen only when I know that the expert knows what he or she is talking about. For example, I listen when a geologist tells me that earthquakes in Oklahoma are becoming increasingly numerous, and I listen when he presents the evidence that suggests that fracking is almost certainly the cause of those earthquakes. And I tend to reject out of hand anything I hear on Fox News, just as a matter of principle.

We need to know whom to listen to and when to pay attention. We need to have a healthy skepticism and a suspicious attitude toward those who merely pretend to know. A good clue is to ask whether the speaker has a “hidden agenda.” If the “scientist” on TV wearing the white smock is being paid by Gulf Oil I suspect he is not telling me the truth. If he works at Cal Tech and is trying to live on a faculty salary, then he might have something worth hearing — even if we don’t particularly like what he is saying. The truth is not determined by what we like to hear and read. It is determined by evidence provided by impartial sources and tested by others who have no axe to grind.

Whom To Trust?

The truth is something different from the habitual lazy combinations begotten by our wishes. (George Eliot)

One of the major curiosities in this most curious age in which we live is the undue adulation the young receive at the hands of their elders. In fact, one might say the young now command center stage in this drama we call contemporary living, as their elders are ignored and shunted off to stage left, despite the fact that they spend countless hours trying to pretend they are young themselves. The young can do no wrong and we listen at doors for the latest piece of wisdom they might let slip from their lips. They are charming, lovely, beautiful — untainted by the stains of a corrupt world. If families are talking over the dinner table and the young speak up silence immediately ensues in order to allow them to say their piece, though as they grow older they withdraw, become sullen and disinclined to speak at all.  The notion that the kids are simply being rude has gone the way of the dinosaur. In any event, it never occurs to anyone that when they speak what the kids have to say may not be worth listening to and their withdrawal from the adult world is nothing more than a sign of their budding narcissism. But there it is: the result of the youth rebellion.

Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, insists that it started in the 1960s when groups like the S.D.S. led the attack on the “establishment” in general and the universities in particular, giving birth to the slogan “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Richard Hofstadter would insist, I dare to say, that it started a decade earlier during the McCarthy hearings, or, perhaps, when Dwight Eisenhower was running against Adlai Stevenson and suddenly Americans began to distrust the “eggheads” like Stevenson. The youth movement, he might say, is simply the logical development of the anti-intellectual movement that began in the 1950s and which has since been fostered by growing numbers of people in this commodified culture who have never trusted those impractical types who live in “ivory towers.” In any event, as a culture we have come to distrust the elderly (especially those who can think and speak coherently) and instead we check our gut feelings and listen to the young as the sources of what we like to call “truth.” The result has been a general lowering of the culture to the level of what I have called the “new barbarism.” The attack on the universities has resulted in grade inflation and the dumbing down of the curriculum in the schools, and the distrust of those over thirty has resulted in the mindless rejection of all in authority, including parents and teachers, and the almost total dismissal of the notion of expertise which, we are told, is “elitist.” To be sure, the teachers and parents have been party to the retreat as they have shown little courage and practically no confidence in themselves in the face of this assault. But, face it, some are in a better position to know than others and the odds are that those who have lived longer and studied complex issues carefully probably know a thing or two. Perhaps it is time to invent a new slogan: “Don’t trust anyone under thirty.” Or so says Mark Bauerlein and this sentiment, if not those same words, is echoed in the writing of another contemporary student of America’s current cultural malaise.

I refer to Charles Pierce who, in his best-selling book Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue In The Land of The Free, points out that this attack on authority and expertise — and those over thirty — has resulted in a lowering of intelligence (in a country where more people vote for the latest American Idol than they do the President of the United States), along with the reduction of all claims to simple matters of individual opinion, anyone’s opinion. And this in a nation based on Enlightenment ideas articulated and defended by the likes of John Jay, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton.  We have devolved into a nation that has declared war on intelligence and reason, the cornerstones of the Enlightenment, and prefers instead the alleged certainty of gut feelings and the utterances of children. We have turned from books and hard evidence to the mindless drivel of reality shows and video games. Pierce defends three “Great Premises” that he is convinced sum up the attitude of Americans in our day to matters of fact and questions of ultimate truth:

(1) Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.

(2) Anything can be true if someone says it [often and] loudly enough.

(3) Fact is that which enough people believe.  (Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it).

I suppose the last parenthetical comment might be regarded as a corollary of the third premise. But the fact is that in this relativistic age we distrust those who are in a position to know, we wait for the latest poll to decide what is true, and we adulate the young while we ignore the fact that, lost as they are in the world of digital toys, they know very little indeed. As Pierce has shown so convincingly, we are all becoming idiots. We have lost the respect for that truth which we do not manufacture for ourselves, but which stands outside the self and requires an assiduous effort to grasp even in part — together with our conviction that some things are truly evil while others are truly good. All truth is now mere opinion and the moral high ground has been leveled. We ignore the beauty all around us along with the ugly truths about what we are doing to the planet while we indulge ourselves in the latest fashion and seek the liveliest pleasure, convinced that it is the good. And all the while we wait eagerly to see what pearls of wisdom might fall from the young who are busy playing with their digital toys.

What will come of all this remains to be seen, but we might be wise to recognize the fact that those under thirty are still wet behind the ears and don’t know diddly about much of anything of importance. Their elders don’t seem to know much either, but if we recall that the admission of our own ignorance (as Socrates so famously said) is the beginning of wisdom, then that may be the way the adults in this country might begin to resume their role as mentors and our distrust of authority and expertise might be put to rest while we acknowledge that the children know even less than we do, and the majority does not determine what is true or false.

A Fact Is Not An Opinion

One of the most popular segments on E.S.P.N.’s popular Sports Center is called “Cold Hard Facts,” and it consists of one or more “experts” sitting down and giving his opinions about upcoming sports events — not facts. The confusion here between “facts” and “opinions” is instructive. We seem to have lost sight of a rather important distinction.

While there is nothing we claim to know that should ever be held beyond doubt, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, there is certainly a basic distinction between an opinion — which can be silly or sensible — and a fact which has the weight of evidence and argument behind it. It is a fact that water freezes at 32 degrees fahrenheit. It is a fact that objects fall toward the center of the earth. The most reliable facts are in the hard sciences and in mathematics (though there is some discussion whether a mathematical formula is a fact of simply a tautology). But even when an expert tells us that the Baltimore Ravens will repeat as Super Bowl Champions, that is an opinion.

As mentioned, opinions can be silly — as in “there’s a monster in my closet,” or sensible, as in “unless you are a really good bluffer, don’t raise the bet when holding a pair of twos.” And opinions can differ in degree, some being more likely or more probable than others. But they do not cross over into the territory of fact until the weight of argument and evidence is so heavy it cannot be moved. Thus the opinion that smoking causes cancer became fact once the correlation between the two became very nearly inviolable (there are still exceptions). And the opinion that humans are evolved from more primitive animal species became fact when the weight of evidence became so heavy it could no longer be ignored — except by looking the other way.

One of the big controversies in our schools, especially in the South, is whether “intelligent design” is a fact or an opinion; that is, whether or not it should be taught along with the theory of evolution. But as there is no possible way to disprove intelligent design and there are any number of ways to disprove evolution, the latter can be regarded as fact whereas the former cannot. Intelligent design, the claim that human evolution is guided by a Creator, is a matter of faith. It may have plausibility, but it cannot be proved or, more importantly, disproved. This is where Socratic doubt comes in.

The secret to Socrates’ method was to doubt until we could doubt no longer. At the point where a claim seems to be beyond doubt, we can claim it is true — so far as we know. The key to the Socratic method was questioning and attempting to disprove. That is the key to scientific method as well. Claims become factual when they are testable but they cannot be disproved. If there is no way, in principle, to test a claim it cannot ever rise to the status of fact. Karl Popper said this was the case with Freud’s and Jung’s theories: they cannot be tested and proved or disproved, therefore they cannot be regarded as scientific fact — no matter how useful they might prove to be in explaining human behavior.

We can talk until we are blue in the face about who was the best basketball player ever, or whether the souls of evil persons will suffer eternal punishment, but since no claim we make about the soul or the best basketball player ever could be tested or proved one way or the other, we never get beyond the realm of personal opinion or belief. The claim that the polar ice caps are melting is a fact. The claim that humans are part of the cause of global warming is an opinion, though it is plausible. There are core samples that support the claim on the basis of the amounts of carbon dioxide in the air in the past 150 years — since the Industrial Revolution. And in this case, it would be wise to treat it as fact because even if it turns out to be false, it hasn’t cost us a great deal. And if it turns out to be true, we will have taken steps to solve a serious problem facing our earth.

Distinctions help to clarify our thinking. When they are glossed over, it leads to confusion. That is my opinion, but it seems plausible. That is the most I can say until further review.

Cold Hard Facts

One of the most popular segments on E.S.P.N.’s popular Sports Center is called “Cold Hard Facts,” and it consists of one or more “experts” sitting down and giving his opinions about upcoming sports events. The confusion here between “facts” and “opinions” is instructive. We seem to have lost sight of a rather important distinction.

While there is nothing we claim to know that should ever be held beyond doubt, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, there is certainly a basic distinction between an opinion — which can be silly or sensible — and a fact which has the weight of evidence and argument behind it. It is a fact that water freezes at 32 degrees fahrenheit. It is a fact that objects fall toward the center of the earth. The most reliable facts are in the hard sciences and in mathematics (though there is some discussion whether a mathematical formula is a fact of simply a tautology). But even when an expert tells us that the New England Patriots are sure to win the game on Sunday, that is an opinion.

As mentioned, opinions can be silly — as in “there’s a monster in my closet,” or sensible, as in “don’t raise the bet when holding a pair of twos — unless you are a really good bluffer.” And opinions can differ in degree, some being more likely or more probable than others. But they do not cross over into the territory of fact until the weight of argument and evidence is so heavy it cannot be moved. Thus the opinion that smoking causes cancer became fact once the correlation between the two became very nearly inviolable (there are still exceptions). And the opinion that humans are evolved from lower forms of animals became fact when the weight of evidence became so heavy it could no longer be ignored — except by looking the other way.

One of the big controversies in our schools, especially in the South, is whether “intelligent design” is a fact or an opinion, that is, whether or not it should be taught along with the theory of evolution. But as there is no possible way to disprove intelligent design and there are any number of ways to disprove evolution, the latter can be regarded as fact whereas the former cannot. Intelligent design, the claim that human evolution is guided by a Creator, is a matter of faith. It may have plausibility, but it cannot be proved or, more importantly, disproved. This is where Socratic doubt comes in.

The secret to Socrates’ method was to doubt until we could doubt no longer. At the point where a claim seems to be beyond doubt, we can claim it is true — so far as we know. The key to the Socratic method was questioning and attempting to disprove. That is the key to scientific method as well. Claims become factual to the extent that they cannot be disproved. If there is no way to disprove a claim, it cannot ever rise to the status of fact. We can talk until we are blue in the face about who was the best basketball player ever, or whether the souls of evil persons will suffer eternal punishment, but since no claim we make could ever be proved false, we never get beyond the realm of personal opinion. The claim that the polar ice caps are melting is a fact. The claim that humans are part of the cause of global warming is an opinion, though it is plausible. And in this case, it would be wise to treat it as fact because even if it turns out to be false, it hasn’t cost us a great deal. And if it turns out to be true, we will have taken steps to solve a serious problem facing our earth.

Distinctions help to clarify our thinking. When they are glossed over, it leads to confusion. That is my opinion, but it seems plausible. That is the most I can say until further review.