Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Rumination on "Facts," From Dark to Light to Dark

Ever since I wrote about Mike Daisey and the brouhaha over The Lifespan of a Fact, my prolixity surrounding all that, something's gotten in my craw, and I have the need to purge. The idea of "facts" seems very emotionally-laden. They're usually associated with the "cold" and "rational" realm. They are, but let's look at the non-rational aspect of "fact" and see if we "see"... Hell, maybe I'll write my way to something closer to the "truth." Facts and the Truth are both good, right?

We don't want "lies," we say; give us "facts." But I was thinking about Robert Anton Wilson giving an interview, and being asked about his historical novels, and his research for them. He said using one encyclopedia was useless. When trying to ascertain how high the walls of the Bastille were in 1770 or so, one Authoritative source gave one number, another Authority said something else, and a third yet something dissentual from the other two.

And what does a fact-checker do? They work hard to verify that...what will be consumed by its eventual audience "is" true. But how do they know? They talk to someone who was there. Maybe a few people. They consult all kinds of documents: newspaper clippings, web searches, phone books, photographs, recordings, musty old almanacs, competing reports of some...(supposed) event. Are each of the items listed in the previous sentence unimpeachable "evidence"? Are they infallible?

It gets worse.

It turns out, from about 60 years (or you can argue: 110 years?) of cognitive psychological research, that as searchers with skills to ferret truth from lies, and the detection of biases...we're biased and will only perceive that which fits into our reality tunnels. Some may be better at detecting their own biases and seeing a bigger slice of the picture - they have developed alternative models for thinking -  but no one Sees All, or can Determine Absolutely What Went On, how it all "really" went down.

This seems a very unpleasant "fact." And no doubt there is someone who is reading this that is getting so mad at me for denying they can know the Whole Truth that, in this day and age in Unistat...I'm glad my address isn't listed here. Sorry! A welter of empirical data shows we are colored by very ingrained cultural, social, behavioral and even biological structures embedded in neural circuitry. (Biological in that other animals "see" the world differently than we do. This may seem trivial given the socio-cultural aspects that occlude, but I think it's a valuable reminder of our glorious embodiment, and that it prevents us from sensing certain things that come easy to, say, dogs and birds, ants and snakes.)

It seems we tell ourselves "we've ran it through the fact-checkers...looks doubtful we're gonna get sued" and that's probably good enough most of the time. But at a more granular level of "facts"? I think we just all want to pretend that we can definitively know. The documentation is there, man! And the writers of those documents "were" people of fine character. Okay. Maybe.

Nonetheless, it's an important job, lots can hang on it (not being brought down by a libel suit, for example), and as David Zweig argues in a recent article, the fact-checker's responsibilities seem isomorphic to the graphic designer's, the piano tuner for a world-class pianist, and the anesthesiologist: all are unsung, but vital.

And facts are not a trifle; they're simply fallible. In reading, listening, thinking, writing, we must use our uncommon sense, wits, intuition (whatever that is: our non-dominant hemisphere?), our "built-in, shockproof crap detector." And it's gotta be good enough for now. We give it a good shot and move on, 'cuz it's time for Jeopardy!

In a brazen attempt to manipulate your mood - the "Light" in the title above - and steal 10 minutes of your time, here's a short film about fact-checkers, starring Bill Murray:

In a 1942 essay by Wallace Stevens he asserts that "reality" and "imagination" are inseparable. Our "ordinary" reality of today is the hardened, naturalized, codified place where imagination was once new.

And we're to either take imagination - our imaginations - seriously, and practice thinking change and then enacting change, or we shall go on, having our mendacious leaders and our "faith" tell us everything's okay; things will get better. Well, I've perceived what's happened since, oh, late 2000 CE, and this will not cut it. Right-wing billionaires and bank-bought liberals, clownish candidates, endless wars, a crumbling infrastructure, jealous bailed-out CEOs and their "talent" and privilege and unearned, obscene bonuses right out of an Alfred Jarry play, a whole political party operating in a wholly-concocted sham reality-bubble, a craven corporate media, the growing Panopticon, the fact that Unistat tortures and insists it can kill anyone they want, anytime, for reasons of State, in perpetuity..."faith" will not do. More imagination is needed. Can we carry it off? Are there enough of us?

What does all this have to do with "fact-checking"? Just this, my friends: In our Information Economy, the organization of "facts" trumps anything like "truth." The brutal Rationality of the State seems too oriented toward suffering and death for most of us, if not us right now in Unistat, then our friends and brothers and sisters in other lands.

Why should we pay attention to what "the market" did today? What about those unemployment statistics? How about the recent poll numbers for one corporate-bought candidate over the other one? Gross National Product, population trends, demographics...this stuff can make you sick. Are we supposed to follow the numbers and not perceive with our eyes and ears?

Do I have a bloodlust towards the people of Iran? Afghanistan? Far, far from it. Do you think air strikes are the only answer? If so, I must ask you: when did you lose it? Because you have lost it, in my opinion.

Let's use imagination. Maybe Mike Daisey, in his superabundance of imagination, exercised it un-cautiously when discussing how Apple products are made. But really: how truthful is his story, on the whole? And was it all about rhythm? Or human suffering?

I'll end by quoting Wallace Stevens, from 1942:

In speaking of the pressure of reality, I am thinking of life in a state of violence, not physically violent, as yet, for us in America, but physically violent for millions of our friends and for still more millions of our enemies and spiritually violent, it may be said, for everyone alive...A possible poet must be a poet capable of resisting or evading the pressure of the reality of this last degree, with the knowledge that the degree of today may become a deadlier degree tomorrow.

                                          Wallace Stevens, American poet.


Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Your account of the role of a fact checker reminds me of Mr. Arkadin, or even Citizen Kane.

Another great post.

michael said...


I hope I didn't come off as anti-fact-checker; what I really wanted to throw a monkey wrench at was the popular notions of "facts."

I'm also getting worn out by "experts" and their numbers, graphs, data, etc, regarding political reality.

Show me an Economics professor who knows what it's like to go to bed hungry...or not have a bed at all. Then I'm listening.

As for now, I am bewildered that we're accepting that billionaires can openly buy the Congress and Prez. And that, almost 4 years after the crash, nothing appreciable has been done about the banking laws that got us into the problem in the first place.

"Experts" in the MSM can try and fog me with their hand-picked "facts," but the TRUTH is: things are pretty fucked up, and no bread or circus for me, friends: I have my eye on the ball. Nothing decent has been, or will get, done. How can it?

Oh, I just gotta have "faith" that Obama will do the right thing? That he'll grow a spine? That ship has sailed.

Sue Howard said...

Today's 'Nature' journal editorial asks why "Too many sloppy mistakes are creeping into scientific papers".


"Science: Branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged. So says the dictionary. But, as most scientists appreciate, the fruits of what is called science are occasionally anything but...."

michael said...

@Sue Howard: I just now saw this comment and don't know how I missed it, because comments to the blog go to my regular email.

I read this Nature article: what an impressive eye you have. Within a few hrs after I posted this, I read "something" online about science education in Unistat: it's bad because at the grade school level the teachers are not very good, basically. And there certainly are not enough competent teachers, period. And maybe worse: the emphasis is on memorizing things like the Periodic Table, rather than an emphasis on scientific thinking. I can't find the link, though: I was "surfing" and probably inebriated. In other words, I have a good excuse.