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May 03 2012

The death of facts

On Sunday April 29 on its program All Things Considered, NPR had an interesting story based on a mock ‘obituary’ by Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke who wrote about the death of Facts. He said that Facts had been ailing for some time but the claim by congressman Allen West (R-FL) that around 80 House of Representatives members of the Democratic party belonged to the Communist party was the final blow that killed it off.

Huppke elaborates on how it happened that Facts died.

People unable to understand how science works began to question Facts. And at the same time there was a rise in political partisanship and a growth in the number of media outlets that would disseminate information, rarely relying on feedback from Facts.

“There was an erosion of any kind of collective sense of what’s true or how you would go about verifying any truth claims,” [professor of English at New York University Mary] Poovey said. “Opinion has become the new truth. And many people who already have opinions see in the ‘news’ an affirmation of the opinion they already had, and that confirms their opinion as fact.”

“American society has lost confidence that there’s a single alternative,” she said. “Anybody can express an opinion on a blog or any other outlet and there’s no system of verification or double-checking, you just say whatever you want to and it gets magnified. It’s just kind of a bizarre world in which one person’s opinion counts as much as anybody else’s.”

What is interesting is that this rampant fact-denying is occurring at the same time as the rise in our ability to check them. The internet has enabled people’s past words to be recalled almost immediately, making it ridiculously easy to catch them in contradictions. For example, conservative and media darling Paul Ryan, the chair of the House budget committee, has proposed budgets that (no surprise) hurt the poor and benefit the wealthy. He is a Catholic and has drawn criticism by the Catholic Church of all institutions (taking time off from its main pre-occupation with sexual matters) that his budget does not reflect Christian values.

Some Catholic scholars have said that he is inspired by the doctrine of greed and selfishness advocated by Ayn Rand rather than anything found in the Bible. Ryan denied this last week saying that his purported admiration for Rand is an ‘urban legend’ and that he rejects her philosophy. But Ryan’s own words exist that flatly contradict him. These were from less than four years ago, so they were not youthful exuberance that he might have forgotten in his maturity. He was simply lying about the past, assuming that no one would call him on it.

The Daily Show provides further examples of such contradictions.

(These clips appeared on May 1, 2012. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)

All these people simply assume that no one will call them on their lies and distortions and so far they have been justified in thinking so. It seems like the only time the media carefully examines people’s words is when it involves a sex scandal.

A much talked about recent book and op-ed by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein suggests that there might be an ever-so-slight shift from this indulgence of falsehoods by politicians. They say quite bluntly, “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”[My italics-MS]

What is noteworthy about this is not the sentiment itself, which has been obvious for some time to anyone with half a brain, but that it is being said by two pillars of the Washington insider conventional wisdom machine that has been the enabler of this descent into the fact-free domain, and that their op-ed was published in the editorial pages of the Washington Post whose editor Fred Hiatt has given free rein to his regular and occasional columnists to spout in his pages exactly the kind of fact-free and fact-denying opinions that are now being deplored.

Meanwhile NPR issued a statement in February that they have modified their ethics statements so as to require their reporters to be ‘fair to the truth’ rather than focus on ‘he said-she said’ reporting. I can’t say that I’ve noticed a big change yet but one hopes it will happen.

I have wondered how long fact-free, science-denying, and reality-distorting thinking can survive before it simply crashes under the weight of its own contradictions. Could these be signs that even the most obtuse of political observers are seeing that we are close to the breaking point?

9 comments

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  1. 1
    slc1

    OT but there seems to be a brouhaha brewing over something termed “quantum fusion”. This would seem to be an opportunity for a physicist like Prof. Singham to opine on a physics topic.

    This seems to fit the old saw that if it sounds to good to be true, it probably isn’t.

    http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2012-04-29/peak-oil-crisis-quantum-fusion-hypothesis

  2. 2
    Jared A

    Yeah, they are referring to sonication mediated “cold fusion”, which was debunked soon after its discovery in the 1980s. The problem is that it is very easy to make systematic errors if you are not an expert at calorimetry (the method of determining heat dynamics in a system). There are a few non-scientist entrepreneurs who jumped on the boat in the 90s who have been drumming up PR ever since, so there is always enough money for a few people to keep on doing experiments.

    Nevertheless, it still is junk science despite what that author of that article seems to think. The easiest way to understand this is to note that if these guys were really doing cold fusion they would all be dead (because they aren’t providing adequate shielding for the inevitable gamma radiation that would accompany real fusion.)

  3. 3
    Jared A

    Ah, I have read it more closely and see that it is not quite what i though it was. It is one of the new offshoots to the cold fusion bit that I was not aware of. I must withhold judgement until I get a chance to read their science. Sorry.

  4. 4
    schmeer

    slc1,
    They casually state that a proton picks up an electron and becomes a neutron. If I remember correctly, that doesn’t just happen under most conditions. Isn’t there a lot of energy involved and a missing neutrino in that reaction?

  5. 5
    slc1

    Indeed, a neutrino is produced because of the requirement of lepton conservation.

  6. 6
    jamessweet

    The only thing I want to add is that I am not at all convinced that this total disregard for the facts is anything new — it might simply be more noticeable now because, as you say, we have an unprecedented ability to rapidly verify/debunk factual claims.

    My gut feeling is that it tends to be somewhat cyclical, and that we are in a rather intensely divisive and fact-denying part of the political cycle right now. It’s nothing unprecedented, I don’t think, but it’s definitely a bad patch. What is unprecedented, though, is our ability to document just how counterfactual mainstream politicians can be.

  7. 7
    Tyrant of Skepsis

    They casually state that a proton picks up an electron and becomes a neutron.

    This is theoretically possible if the electron has enough energy, but this process is severely suppressed in standard physics because of the short range of the weak interaction. It is basically the reverse of beta decay, and it does not occur efficiently for electrons that appear at energies outside particle accelerators or maybe nuclear fission reactors.
    I haven’t done the precise math, but having this kind of inverse beta decay at what is essentially a table top experiment at a significant rate sounds like fiction. One would probably have to invoke nonstandard physics.

    However, my suspicion is that if one were to introduce a non-standard-model interaction in theory which would facilitate this inverse decay, this would immediately lead to catastrophic beta decay rates of everything, and is thus completely ruled out.

  8. 8
    slc1

    After pursing the link again, it appears that there is another problem here, namely what’s to prevent the free neutrons from interacting with the palladium or nickel nucleons in the “matrix” to form isotopes of those elements? It would seem that the cross section for those interactions is commensurate with the cross section for forming helium nuclei from hydrogen nuclei.

  9. 9
    kim

    My opinion is that the amount of misleading and lying in media rises and falls much as other social and cultural standards. The ‘yellow journalism’ of times past seems similar to me. Fortunes were made by newspapers in that era by sensationalizing and distorting the news.

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