Fake News and the End of Facts
I recently had the pleasure (?) of engaging in a fruitless debate on social media with a friend of a friend. One of the innumerable fake news stories circulating this year accused a presidential candidate of some ungodly behavior. While I do not usually spend my time defending politicians, this particular claim was so unfounded and clearly refuted that I had to put in an oar with some supporting credible sources. The response to my response? “Well, anyone can find any facts to support any opinion.”
The concern over fake news has been a source of nonstop discussion for the last several months, whether focusing on its influence over the election, its success thanks to social media algorithms, or its connection to foreign sources, foreign governments, and white nationalist movements.
But the real danger of our immersion in fake news was only made publicly clear when Donald Trump supporter and CNN political commentator Scottie Nell Hughes laid out a defense for Trump’s false tweet about voter fraud:
Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion. And that’s—on one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go, ‘No, it’s true.’ And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way—it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.
The controversy peaked again after the White House press secretary reported that the attendance at Trump’s inauguration broke records. When pressed on this blatant misstatement, Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway told CNN that the press secretary simply “gave alternative facts”. Presuming that “actual facts” continue to exist, wherein human beings (1) can be counted and (2) do not flicker in and out of existence. the alternative facts seem an awful lot like bull crap. But how did we arrive at this alternate universe in which a fact is not always a fact? Turns out it was a long time coming.
The Death (and Resurrection) of Facts in Academia
I remember entering college in the 1990s ecstatic that I would soon be filled with Knowledge. I was going to learn Facts, apply Logic, and transform it into Authority and Wisdom. And above all, the degree I was working towards would give me Legitimacy to use my Knowledge to Help People.
I soon found out that anthropology in the 90s was still hung over from the postmodern bender of the 70s and 80s. Heidegger, Derrida, and Foucault, among others, helped to dismantle the notion of objective reality and absolute truth, and to complicate ideas of rationality, human nature, and progress by putting them in a broader social and political context. At the same time, feminist, Native American, African American, and other authors flooded the scene with different perspectives that challenged textbook histories and grand narratives about history, reality, and ethics.
Academia had a bit of an identity crisis as postmodernists made a disconcertingly powerful case that what we think is Fact is really Perspective. Suddenly we had no Authority to say Anything.
In some fields, like history, this was less of a shock. Was Christopher Columbus an heroic visionary who paved the way for globalization? Or was he a greedy, genocidal moron who couldn’t figure out the difference between the Caribbean and South Asia? Depends if you were a white American citizen or an American “Indian”. History, after all, is written by the victors.
Yet even in the “hard” sciences there were questions about bias in study design and outcome because the purveyors of Fact were humans with subjective positions that seeped into and impacted the way they created Knowledge.
In anthropology, though, the identity crisis was Real. And Shattering. Were the mostly white, mostly male anthropologists traveling to other cultures recording others’ True Cultures? Or were they really just recording White Men’s Opinions about Others? Ethnographies like Rabinow’s Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco broke from the standard third-person description of another culture to instead interrogate what fieldwork was and whether it could possibly bridge the gap between an “outside” perspective and an “inside” perspective. Did those perspectives even exist? What about women’s versus men’s perspectives? Elderly versus youth? East side versus West side?
Postmodern ethnographies left you floating in first person narrative. I’m writing about what I see from my Perspective because that’s the only one I’ll ever have access to. How would I know what another person’s Perspective is?
Just as a reminder, “Ethnography” is derived from the words “ethnos”, meaning “people”, and “graphein”, meaning “writing”. The whole point of anthropology is to spend enough time living with and talking to another group of people that you can write a book about their Perspective. Postmodernism, in its extreme, said “Why bother? Everything is ultimately Unknowable.”
Fast forward a decade or two and academia, even anthropology, has more or less settled down. We have a string of critical theorists who have written brilliant talking points we can reference easily in grants and publications: Haraway’s “Situated Knowledge”, Peacock’s “Grounded Globalism”, etc. Newer ethnographies, like Kate Fox’s Watching the English unapologetically shunts postmodern anxieties to the back burner with a quick paragraph on who she is and how, although her perspective somewhat colors her questions and findings, she keeps an eye on it constantly.
Scientists in multiple fields have written about the need for diversity because different perspectives provide different windows into problems. There is a general consensus that Knowledge is Constructed, not found, that it gains Authority through institutions of Power (like universities and think tanks), and that your Perspective informs the making of Facts.
It would seem that as academics settle into a comfortable relationship with postmodern, Qualified Facts, some nonacademics are awakening to how their Perspective may not match any Facts at all.
The New Postmodern Faith
My field research was divided between two religious organizations in Virginia – a conservative, Christian organization and a progressive, New Age one. Both organizations are producers of knowledge through their media centers, universities, research studies, and spiritual endeavors. And both are keenly aware that their knowledge is different from Knowledge coming from mainstream science and academia. Their different Perspective is a strength, they argue, which informs their Facts differently. Whether studying ancient history or government policy, their spiritual practice opens a different lens into how the world works. But their biggest issue is that no matter what they do, they cannot gain the cultural Authority to turn their knowledge into Knowledge.
While many in these organizations persist in trying to assimilate into mainstream media, science, or government, to have their Perspective respected and given Authority, many others have succumbed to the reality that this is an impossible goal. Furthermore, why should they bother? “How many times,” asked a research professor at the New Age institution, “do we need to prove ESP exists before science will accept it?”
Despite the illusion that all followers of a religion have unshakable belief in their Truth, even some of the most fundamental Christian traditions have registered a shift in the concept of Belief. Anthropologist James Bielo has written about evangelical communities bonded together, not through conversion to Christianity, but through what he terms “deconversion”. In other words, church communities are connecting through the shared act of repeatedly questioning and recommitting to an unknowable faith.
It makes sense that, since the time Jerry Falwell led his Moral Majority into the mainstream to deliberately impact American public life, Christian practice itself has been impacted. If you spend enough time arguing that creationism is a legitimate alternative to evolution and should be taught side-by-side as a student “choice”, you open the door not only for the delegitimatization of science, but for the delegitimatization of religion. If creationism is one of several choices, then it is not the only choice, right?
While some Christian communities grow as places to interrogate faith, the growth of New Age movements and secular humanism movements in their myriad forms are similarly attractive to many explicitly because of their explicitly pluralist nature. There is no pressure to categorize yourself, to apologize for your unusual beliefs, to expect uniformity from others who don’t share your Life Story.
The Role of Postmodern Academics
The end result of the struggle to be heard and the democratization of Knowledge is that while academics are grounding and situating themselves, nonacademics and religious organizations are struggling with their own Perspectives, lack of Authority, and desire for Truth and Knowledge; all while living in a world that makes that search ever more challenging.
Vaccines – good or bad? Plastics – safe or carcinogenic? Which are the best parenting strategies? Which are worse – fats or carbohydrates? Which offers better health and longer life – cardio or yoga? Is global warming man made or mythical, minor or irreversibly catastrophic? There is no transparency over the politics of Knowledge and even less control. We have BPA on our receipts, lead in our water, Zika in our mosquitos. No wonder this election has been focused on walls and corruption. People just want to feel safe and trusting in an absurdly confusing world.
The move of postmodernism from the Ivory Tower to mainstream conversation is perhaps expected but still troubling. We’ve been here before. I recognize that tree. The dissolution of Knowledge is really a dissolution of Trust in how Facts are made. Perhaps it’s a vast overstatement to say that everything is ultimately unknowable, but it’s equally overstating to say that there is nothing academics can do here.
We need more public science, more public anthropology. More conversations and illuminations of what, exactly, we do, of how we wrestle with questions and doubts, and with how we see patterns worth sharing.
But that’s just my Perspective.