Thursday, March 17, 2016

Reason, Truth, Lies, Empiricism and Belief in the Age of the Internet

In the March issue of The New Yorker Jill Lepore posted an amusing rant on reason, truth, lies, empiricism and belief in the "Age of the Internet."

She asks a good question:  How do we know?  And what is the role of evidence?  Reason?

Lepore observes in this season dominated by the Republican debates and largely negative advertising based almost exclusively on unsubstantiated opinion and belief:
  1. "Tump doesn’t reason... He wants combat." 
  2. "Cruz’s appeal is to the judgment of God. 'Father God, please . . . awaken the body of Christ, that we might pull back from the abyss,' he preached on the campaign trail."
  3. "Rubio’s appeal is to Google."
Then she asks:  Is there another appeal?" 

Really?  Is there really only one other one?  Why do I have to choose?

She continues:
People who care about civil society have two choices: find some epistemic principles other than empiricism on which everyone can agree or else find some method other than reason with which to defend empiricism. 
Wow.  It’s a subject that requires a little more nuanced than a simple either-or.  And she’s left out experimentation entirely!  There is no substitute for empirical observation, of course.  But that’s not sufficient.  You have to ask questions about what you perceive and design experiments to test your understanding.  Reasoning on observation alone is problematic without testing.  The thing about theory when it’s supported by observation AND experimentation is that reality pushes back:  it has a way of asserting itself and telling you that your ideas are bullshit, even though they sound great and are packaged in wonderful, compelling narratives.

Her argument is classic enlightenment thinking, at least it seems to me:
Lynch suspects that doing the first of these things [finding some epistemic principles other than empiricism] is not possible, but that the second [some method other than reason] might be. He thinks the best defense of reason is a common practical and ethical commitment. I believe he means popular sovereignty. That, anyway, is what Alexander Hamilton meant in the Federalist Papers, when he explained that the United States is an act of empirical inquiry: “It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” The evidence is not yet in.
Oh yes it is.  And it’s not good news.

We KNOW that evidence and reason and experimentation are necessary but insufficient in the real world.  We HAVE to wrap them in wonderful, compelling narratives as well.  We know that “popular sovereignty” is no defense against a sophisticated messaging campaign!  What more evidence of this do we need?  When we expect these arguments to function in the real world, we NEED state-of-the-art rhetoric to compete for attention with very sophisticated audiences.  Not reason, but emotion.  We need combat, religion, and even Google to deliver what we know to be true (based on empirical evidence, experimentation, reason, etc.) in a social and political context.  

Unlike the Enlightenment view of science, we must not “let the fact speak for themselves”:  they’ll be CRUSHED by compelling lies.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.