Fact-Based World?

“It felt at times as if the speakers were no longer living in a fact-based world …”

(“Crazy Talk at the Republican Debate,”The New York Times, September 17, 2015)

I have news for you, Editorial Board of The New York Times. We don’t, in fact, live in a fact-based world.

 

Which is not to say that “facts” do not exist. Of course they do. But the simple fact is that facts are not the basis of our world. The simple, demonstrable fact.

 

Factually speaking, the basis of our world is everything and anything but facts. And that’s just the fact of the matter.

 

Take The New York Times itself, our newspaper of record. Judging by today’s paper, it seems to be crucially important that an informed electorate know that actor Andy Samberg is preparing to host the Emmys; that former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has a novel coming out about Sherlock Holmes’ brother; that Ronald Perelman (net worth: $14.5 billion) has resigned from the board of Carnegie Hall; that the Dolan family is selling Cablevision for $17 billion; that celebrity columnists David Brooks and Paul Krugman have opinions about stuff; that “Debbie Harry was [at Marc Jabobs’s show during Fashion Week in New York] and so was Sofia Coppola. Debi Mazar made an entrance; ditto Kim Gordon. Bette Midler arrived wearing black”; that singer Lana Del Ray’s “boredom” pervading her new album is “entrancing”; that Salman Rushdie’s latest book is coming out soon …

 

But is it factually accurate that the only people whose words and actions qualify as news, the only people whose words and actions affect the lives that the rest of us are living, are wealthy and famous people?

 

What’s that? You’re saying I should recognize that with the modern rise in importance of the social, natural, and physical sciences, we humans have never lived through a period more obviously “fact-based”? Hmm.

By one estimate, from 2001 to 2010, the annual rate of retractions by academic journals increased by a factor of 11 (adjusting for increases in published literature, and excluding articles by repeat offenders). [Grieneisen and Zhang, “A Comprehensive Survey of Retracted Articles From the Scholarly Literature” (PLOS One, Oct. 2012)]

And …

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reviewed 2,047 retractions of biomedical and life-sciences articles and found that just 21.3 percent stemmed from straightforward error, while 67.4 percent resulted from misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4 percent) and plagiarism (9.8 percent). [Fang et al., “Misconduct Accounts for the Majority of Retracted Scientific Publications” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Oct. 2012)]

And …

In 2012, a researcher then at the biotechnology company Amgen wrote in Nature that when his team tried to reproduce 53 landmark cancer studies, they could replicate just six [Begley and Ellis, “Drug Development: Raise Standards for Preclinical Cancer Research” (Nature, March 2012)]. And according to a news report in Nature, a project aiming to reproduce the findings of 100 psychology papers has managed to replicate results for only 39 of them … [Baker, “First Results From Psychology’s Largest Reproducibility Test” (Nature, April 2015)].

I know, I know. Get to the point, Jim.

 

Yes, of course, there are indeed facts. I’m pretty sure (but admittedly don’t know for a fact) that you yourself, the tree outside my window, and all those stars in the Milky Way …

 

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 7.39.02 AM

 

are not mere figments of my mind. But Kenneth Burke had it right, IMHO: “Men seek for vocabularies that are reflections of reality. To this end, they must develop vocabularies that are selections of reality. And any selection of reality must, in certain circumstances, function as a deflection of reality.”

 

So for my part, and in my current mood, I’d have us stop using (alleged) “facts” as a cudgel to try and bash each other. What happens, in the vast majority of cases, is that you make one selection of reality, I make another, but we both pretend that our selection encompasses the entirety of reality.

 

I’m weary of the pretense. The question is not whether Donald Trump has said something factually wrong. The questions are (1) what is Donald Trump trying to achieve with his lie, and (2) what does some people’s willingness to accept that lie say about the times in which we live.

 

So, okay, yes, “2 + 2 = 4.” But if I steadfastly refuse to accept that “2 + 2 = elephant” is an incorrect and nonsensical statement, why should the rest of you persist in shouting that the correct answer is four? Isn’t anyone curious at all why my answer is “elephant”?

 

I fear, though, that the sad fact is that it’s far easier and more satisfying for us to keep shouting at each other, “It’s ‘four,’ you f@cking idiot!” and “No, it’s ‘elephant,’ you dumbsh*t moron!”

 

 

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