Postmodern doesn’t mean post-fact: why accounting for an observer gets us closer to the truth

When I was a kid/teen in the 90s and early 2000s, this was a popular complaint in my church:

“People these days don’t believe in objective truth! It’s all just ‘I feel this, you feel that.’ The Bible and Jesus show us eternal truths. Beware postmodernism!”

When I got to college, I was extremely skeptical about any class with a whiff of postmodernism (sorry, Professor Downing!).

What I begrudgingly learned in those literature and film classes was much less profound than “the downfall of truth.” It was insightful in a small way but also a bit mundane — I gained insights such as:

  • Dickens’ Oliver Twist makes more sense against the backdrop of the Victorian orphan crisis
  • Melodrama is such a popular Korean film genre partly because of the Korean civil war, which literally left families on both sides of the border

These kinds of postmodern insights are useful for understanding the context of a piece of writing, film, or other media. They’re not, however, all that earth-shattering.

It took me another decade to realize the additional significance of the postmodern approach.

I was part way through reading a history of science, Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. (The book is about how fractal math helps us measure coastlines, and probability spaces help us measure previously unmeasurable variations in turbulence, and how the weather is never truly predictable because small changes have big outcomes.)

I was struck that the main insight of postmodernism is not in elevating an author’s opinions or a reader’s opinions about a piece above the “more objective” aspects of it, e.g. what you can actually read and see.

The main insight of postmodernism is accounting for an observer at all. This has lent itself to great leaps forward, not just in film criticism but in the hardest of sciences — physics, meteorology, fluid dynamics, even simple measurements of something like a coastline!

When you measure a coastline, you get a different number depending on the scale of the ruler. Measuring in miles (or kilometers) gives you a much smaller total distance than if you went inch by inch, following every nook and cranny of the coast.

Recognizing that the choice of ruler, which in turn is a choice by the observer in how to observe, could affect the measurement, is one of the great insights of chaos science. We developed a new type of ruler, the fractal, that could describe with a convenient shorthand things like coastlines, branching veins in the body, and branching twigs on a tree.

A new, accurate, hard-science and mathematically elegant way of learning real truths about the world opened up for us, simply because we decided to account for the observer.

Postmodernism is not about elevating opinions above facts. It is not about ignoring the real world in favor of individual opinions, experiences, and feelings.

Postmodernism is the simple insight that we become more accurate about the real world if we report back not just the length of the coastline, but what ruler we used to measure it. It’s scientific and verifiable; it tells another coastline-measurer which ruler to use if they want to verify our results.

This insight lends itself to softer observations as well. When I tell you that I cried happy tears when I saw Rey as the hero in The Force Awakens (the new Star Wars), it doesn’t tell you much. But when I tell you that I cried happy tears because I was so moved by seeing a main character who looked like me in a universe I’ve loved since I was a kid, that gives you a bit more information about my “ruler” when I was watching Star Wars. And, when I saw a video of a black fan crying happy tears about Finn being in the same movie, and he says he’s so happy because he’s finally seeing someone like him as a main character in the Star Wars universe he’s loved for so long, it helps me know that I have a similar “ruler” for reacting to the movie as he does.

This is why so many liberal people try to explain not just their reactions to media and current events , but the context for those reactions — it’s because we want to share not just our observation, but our “ruler” for that experience, so that you can try to pick up and use that same “ruler” to help understand our reactions. That’s why people say things like, “As a Latina woman, it made me really happy that…” or “As a guy in a wheelchair, I had to…” It’s holding out their ruler, so you can understand better what’s going on.

That’s the positive side of understanding postmodernism.

But there’s also a dark side. (I just can’t get away from Star Wars in this post, can I?)

The dark side is that I’ve come to realize that many people are still under the impression that postmodernism means that “my feelings about a situation are more important than the facts” — and rather than rejecting this view, as my 90s mentors did, they have embraced it.

This flawed adoption of postmodernism is driving us farther and farther away from each other. When a news article cites a statistic people don’t like, some people aren’t digging deeper into the data to see if it’s inaccurate or an insight is missing; instead, they’re reading different newspapers. Reading a version of the world that matches our feelings instead of a version that tries to work from shared facts is a recipe for disaster.

Almost everyone I talked to after the election, about the dangers of the “blue news / red news” phenomenon, agreed that something had to be done. And that gives me hope.

And I’m here, hopefully, to offer that hope. We don’t have to throw up our hands and agree to disagree. Nor do we have to accept flawed data from the other side, in a twisted kind of postmodernism where “well, everyone just has their own views on everything now.”

Not at all. Critique the findings you don’t like! It’s only when we hammer the data hard that we get closer to accuracy!

A fairly neutral example: If people had hammered the “fat is bad, sugar is okay” studies harder for being funded by companies that wanted to sell sugary snacks, we would have saved ourselves horrible diet advice decades ago. But the key is to not just say, “You’re just saying that because you want to sell sugary snacks.” The key is to demand another study, funded by independent researchers.

Do that hammering from a place of wanting to understand more, rather than wanting to retreat into your own feelings. Demand that we work from data that includes not just the final observations, but the measurement methods, the “rulers.” Demand that we know who funded the studies. Demand that we know who this policy change would benefit most.

Critique observations and findings that you don’t like (and even ones you do!) in a way that helps us get closer to reality.

—The Polite Liberal