Alternative Facts are Real

All the rage since (Francis) Bacon

I hit the marches throughout the Bay Area over the weekend of Trump’s inauguration, and was struck by the way in which truth took center stage. People were up in arms about a lot of things (rightly, and justly, so), and one of these things was the failure of logic, reason, and “science” in the organization of political life. On top of the many chants and drums rang a very big question: How can someone who is so wrong about everything win?

Oakland, 1/21/2017. Photo: Dustin Mabry

Such a response is not surprising. Especially in light of the unabashed and constant lies coming out of Trump’s mouth throughout the election. And this has intensified with Kellyanne Conway’s (Jan 22nd 2017) insistence that Trump’s press secretary relies on “Alternative Facts.” Not to mention the revelations of Trump’s love of “truthful hyperbole” in making all those deals he talks about. I am a bit surprised about the uproar, though.

As a community college teacher of sociology — and a PhD student in the same field — I’m on a mission to unearth the nature of “truth” as people understand it. While my larger work explores the role of art around Outer Space in the Cold War, I’m drawn to think about matters of truth in politics today. I also happen to stand with movements toward collective liberation.

I want to share two thoughts in hope of shedding light on the situation. The first involves an historic moment wherein “matters of fact” took on their probable character, one that we see today. Think 17th century debates over nature and the experimental-scientific life. The second involves a moment wherein the science of alternative facts (namely propaganda, or Public Relations) took hold. Think 1950’s ad-men who loved Freud and his nephew.

Oakland, 1/21/2017. Photo: Dustin Mabry

On the 17th century moment, I’m drawing from a great book titled Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985) by some renowned folks: Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer. These authors set out to understand an historical shift in the conditions of knowledge production in order to theorize the relationship between knowledge and the social order with focus on the debate between Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle. Hobbes, it turns out, did more than write Leviathan. He was a scientist who took beef with Boyle, a now-legendary scientist of the era. Boyle was deeply influenced by the work of Francis Bacon: see Vittoria di Palma’s Wasteland: a History for a good treatment.

Boyle proposed that “matters of fact” should be determined through experimentation, and understood in context of probabilities. That is, a “fact” may be probable, but it may not always be certain, and we need to experiment with materials in order to find things out. This is the type of science we are used to, a practice to determine how likely something will occur given certain circumstances. Hobbes held the position that matters of fact are only established through their absolute demonstrability, a process guided by logic. That is, something is not a fact unless it is certain to happen all of the time, and one need not “experiment” with materials to find facts.

This process was very political, on the Royal Society level. A key issue was this: if facts were derived from Boyle’s experimental science, only those who could witness the experiment had access to science. Experiments had to take place in certain spaces, using very expensive equipment, among elite scientists. The Royal Society was no bastion of inclusivity. To correct this, Boyle proposed the distribution of a step by step account of the experiment, so that other people could “witness” it outside of the experimental space. Of course, the numbers could be fudged, and Hobbes was concerned that “facts” could be whatever the elite wanted. Transparency anyone?

Overall, Shapin and Schaffer illustrate an historical shift in the nature of truth claims. This shift involved the “moving” of claims to truth from demonstrability to probability. Boyle won.

Oakland, 1/21/2017. Photo: Dustin Mabry

Jumping ahead a few hundred years, let’s quickly consider another moment wherein truth (and its conditions) were brought under fire and perhaps changed for good. There’s a great documentary series I’m drawing from, produced in 2002 by the journalist/film maker Adam Curtis titled “Century of the Self.”

Generally, what Curtis demonstrates is the connection between a way of thinking and the organization of social/political life. Namely, the establishment, and popularity of psychoanalysis as popularized by Freud’s daughter Anna. The celebration of these ideas caused a great upheaval in the way people thought of themselves and society at large. Under this way of thinking, individuals were now said to have a deep well of hidden and potentially dangerous drives that must be controlled in order to keep society stable. How, and by who, this control would commence was one of the major concerns of the mid-century era in the U.S.

Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, adapted Freud’s insights for a growing consumer-based society. Bernays literally invented “public relations.” Think Mad Men, but for real. He capitalized on the rise of popularity of psychoanalytic insights and became very wealthy as an author and consultant. This is the birth of true “propaganda,” namely the idea that people could be swayed through appeal to their deep, hidden, anxieties. Bernays helped invent things like focus groups and led the campaign to convince women that smoking was an empowering experience.

This process was very political. Not only did people like Bernays work to create a consumer society (political enough), they directly intervened in Politics and still do. For instance, Bernays collaborated with the CIA to invent a campaign supporting United Fruit Company to maintain the Banana Republic in Panama. He took out newspaper adds to “sway” what was now being called “public opinion.” He met with Nixon, and helped establish an immensely violent intervention which killed thousands of people.

Oakland, 1/21/2017. Photo: Dustin Mabry

These two historical moments are is important in the story about the nature of truth today. For instance, it was during Bernays’ time that many people in the West first stopped taking themselves and the world at face value. This is an indispensable feature in the modern process involving truth in politics.

What the Boyle-Hobbes debate and the rise of Bernay’s public relations revolution tell us is this: Truth is an accomplishment. Fact and truth are achieved. They are not out there to be found; establishing facts has always involved a process of creation. Science has always been political.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that reality is something which is just a negotiation, or a rhetorical game. I believe there is a there, there, when it comes to happenings in the world. To argue alternative facts as real is not to argue away the real per se. It is to acknowledge the political construction of reality, and to consider the deep ways in which people come to “know” the world around them. From this perspective, Trump has achieved a political and scientific reality that has swayed many people to believe flat lies.

For people who want the “facts to speak,” this whole thing is frustrating. More than frustrating, the policies and moves will result in many people dying in the U.S. and abroad. It’s actually a great tragedy that will result in real-life corpses, despair, turmoil, and many stories to children about the days of Trump and this whole wicked thing.

And there is the contradiction: If Trump’s facts are political achievements, aren’t there many who “see through” this whole thing? The Wizard of OZ wears no clothes, right? Most people are not actually convinced by Trump.

Perhaps we have multiple truths out there, winding around one another like two snakes in alternative streams of media and consciousness. The Bernays snake sees more powerful than I would like to believe. Doubling down on reason is one way to deal with this, but I’m not so convinced it will work.