Thursday, December 15, 2016

Disinformation and False Facts
     The rules of evidence require that demonstrations of the plausibility of opinions stand or fall according to cogent arguments based on the facticity, comprehensiveness, and relevance of demonstrable evidence.  Persuasion cannot be "by any means."  It must follow rules, that over centuries, have been devised to protect us from falsehoods and deceptions.  I do not mean, specifically, the "Federal Rules of Evidence" that apply in courts in the United States, but rather the rules of evidence that govern rational thought, that avoid fallacies, the support our best efforts as human beings to seek truth and shun error--forlorn and imperfect as those efforts might, in practice, prove to be.
     Recent events in the political history of the United States suggest that there is no necessary link between evidence and argument in general matters of life--faith and practice.  Perceptions, regardless of source or support, appear to be a sufficient base for beliefs and actions.  Of course, that was always the case, even when evidence was sought, examined and tested, and even when arguments were probed and questioned before leading to accepted conclusions.  All rational conclusions, as well as all prejudicial, superstitious, or otherwise biased conclusions, are based on perceptions.  Humans seem not to have any absolute way around the uncertainties of knowledge or the frailties of perception.   But are all perceptions of equal value?
     The difference between the ideals of deliberate, evidence-based argument, on one side, and bias, superstition and prejudice, on the other, has not been that evidence and argument leads inevitably to truth, but rather that evidence and rational argument have proven to be the best detectors of error.  One does not prove truth; one exposes error.
     Whenever it has been posited that religion and authority and dogma are the best guarantors of truth, it has been rational thought and investigation of evidence that has exposed the errors and won the day--at least for those who value evidence and argument over blind faith, submission, or indulgence in the self-deceptions arising from what Francis Bacon called the "Four Idols:" the tribe, the cave, the marketplace, and the theatre.  (Very much worth a re-read, btw.)
     Yet, the success of misinformation, false facts, deliberate bias, hyperbolic claims, and blind hope in the manipulation of public opinion suggests that in matters of faith and practice, that is, in matters of ordinary day-to-day life, we live in a place and time that does not require or use evidence and argument or the rules of evidence to sort out the way we live now.
     When I retired in 2013 I thought I should wrap up my scholarly life and thinking by collecting and honing what I thought to be the best papers of my last decade of work.  The resulting collection, I saw, focused on the relationship between critical understanding of literature and the soundness of the evidence upon which criticism had play.  The collection, titled "Textuality and Knowledge," explores the implication of the facts that in literature, evidence is all textual, texts are all documentary, and no two texts or documents are exactly alike, either bibliographically or lexically.  Sometimes the differences in the appearance or in the texts of documents purporting to represent the same work of literature are significant--are capable of stimulating different or even contradictory responses.  It would seem to follow logically that any critical argument based on a documentary text would apply, well or ill, to the text in that document and might not apply equally well or ill to the text of a different document bearing the same title.
     Textuality and Knowledge will be published by Penn State University Press in mid 2017.  The writing was completed before the presidential campaigns for the 2016 election and before that campaign made us all painfully aware, first, that we could not trust the sources of our news information, and second, that we tended to trust those stories that corresponded with what we already wanted to believe--even when those stories were proven false.  I think that was unfortunately too true across the entire political spectrum.  
     In our culture, our DNA, and our basic education we lack the habit of questioning sources, doing research, and finding out if a source is reliable in its use of research and facts.  The problem may start as early as the day a parent or teacher says, "Because I said so."  This appeal to authority is meant to squash the questioning spirit--usually on behalf of some form of desirable order or peace.  But the long-range effect may to be to quash curiosity and critical thinking, except, of course, in the rebellious few.
     So, in spite of a life of devotion to the idea that "the unexamined life is not worth living" and "every conclusion should be based on sound, comprehensive, relevant evidence and sound argument," I question whether that attitude is still important for the way we live now?  So many people seem not to care.  So many opinions hold sway without visible support.  All that seems to matter is the number of people who hold similar opinions based on similar perceptions, regardless of facticity or argument.
     Or is that just the expression of a local, temporary despair?  Somehow, I am not tempted to exclaim, "Oh, brave new world."  My eyes seem not to have been opened by a new truth.  They seem instead to have been clouded by a thicker than usual fog.
     Yet, the metaphors of "eyes newly opened" or "eyes clouded by fog" are rhetorical flourishes.   Am I adding to the disinformation about our place and our times by expressing disapproval of the way persuasion works?  I'm reminded, by his death this week, of Robert Scholes call several decades ago for a shift of focus in English Departments from high art, dissociated from daily life, to the practicalities of survival in a language-based culture.  English departments should teach "Textual Self-Defense"--students should learn enough about how language distorts and manipulates our culture so that they can see through advertisements, political speeches, and sermons and to protect themselves against what Vance Packard called "Hidden Persuaders."
     Careful attendance to sources, accuracy, and deliberate argumentation does not serve as a guide to truth but, rather, as protection against falsehood.   Nothing can guarantee truth.  Plausibility and persuasion is what we go on.  Investigation is always questioning, and trying to falsify propositions.  We, as thoughtful, questioning, rational beings hold tentatively to the probable truth of those proposition which have as yet not been debunked by argument and evidence.   There is much that has not been debunked--many "eternal verities"--that form the ground on which we walk.  Verities, despite the etymology of the word, cannot be verified.  Many have stood the test of critics, debunkers, rebels, and nay-sayers for centuries.  We feel that they are verities.  We live our lives by them. We are ready to give them up when evidence and argument warrant it.
     But in matters that can be verified, please, can we exercise caution and verify, to the best of our abilities before we spread rumors, gossip, or anything that comes to us through the transom that is the internet.   Let there be no more cases of, "I have not had time to see if this is true or not, but here it is."  Stop it!   Let there be no more, "I stand by what I said, regardless of the fact that I have no proof--or regardless of the fact that I made no effort whatsoever to determine if it was true."
     May peace and a clear head be with you, always.