Facts are just the start of the debate

Right-wing intellectuals who fetishise ‘facts’ frustrate rather than further intellectual debate, says Ryan Coogan

October 1, 2018
Microphones on a table
Source: Alamy

“Facts don’t care about your feelings.” If the digital right has anything close to a palatable slogan, it’s probably this one.

Tweeted in 2016 by the American conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro as a riposte to progressives, it accomplishes what disparaging talk about “snowflakes” and “social justice warriors” does not.

It isn’t an insult per se, and it isn’t necessarily mindless rhetoric. It’s actually a pretty difficult premise to argue with – especially for the academically minded.

And it is an approach that is employed to great effect by Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and Grand Poobah of the intellectual New Right.

Peterson’s ability to stop just short of saying anything truly objectionable strikes me as like waving a hand in your face while insisting “I’m not touching you”, but it makes him difficult to criticise.

When this tenured professor at Canada’s top university tells us, for instance, that biology makes it clear that transgenderism is nonsense, or that there are psychological models proving that women and men think differently, he implies that any attempt to argue with such cold, hard logic exposes the advocate as little more than an ideologue.

He backs his opponents into a corner of having to admit their own agenda without necessarily having to expose his own.

The uncompromising empiricism of this position is extremely attractive. At a time when we are beset from all sides by conflicting information and viewpoints, it can be comforting for someone to step forward and tell us that it’s over: we don’t have to think any more.

That is, of course, as long as the fact presented confirms what they believed all along. While Michael Gove may suggest that people have had enough of experts, that applies only to experts whose conclusions they oppose.

But it is all too easy to overlook the fact that gathering information and data is only the first step towards acquiring knowledge.

If you’ve ever studied pedagogy, you’ll probably be familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy, a model of learning that visualises it as a hierarchical concept, made up of six stages. Without going into too much detail, Bloom – an American educational psychologist who died in 1999, and whose model of learning is still taught as standard on postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) courses around the country – tells us that knowing or even understanding a piece of information is only an early part of a process that ends with intelligent and critically evaluative application.

When teaching the student, Bloom tells us, it is not enough that they merely take on board some piece of information. Simply being able to regurgitate any particular fact, figure, statistic, date or event is not equivalent to understanding the data.

Without analysis, application and interrogation of those data, the student runs the risk of making the kinds of logical leaps that are completely antithetical to real learning.

We might call this the fallacy of face value, wherein critical thinking gives way to a kind of bastardised “common sense”, which tells us that the experts have overcomplicated things by ignoring what’s right in front of their noses.

Facts are certainly important – perhaps now, in the age of shameless propagandising and “fake news”, more than ever – but the implication that they are the be-all and end-all of debate is at best intellectual dishonesty and at worst missing the point altogether.

When Peterson and his ilk present a fact, his opponents are entitled to ask: “So what?” In academia, facts are a framework for wider discussion, so why does Peterson seem to want them to speak on his behalf?

We also see this in the case of British far-right activist Tommy Robinson. By framing his interventions as “journalism”, he projects to his supporters that any criticism of him is an attempt to disrupt the search for truth.

Speculation as to his motives, his followers are told, is a tactic to undermine valuable information. These terrible facts about these terrible crimes speak for themselves, he tells us. Tommy was just trying to expose these people for who they are, his followers insist. “Who are they, exactly?” we might ask. The facts speak for themselves, his supporters reply.

This fetishisation of facts might be one reason (of many) that debate in the internet age can be so frustrating.

If one side of a discussion believes that simply presenting raw data and extrapolating the more obvious conclusions constitutes an argument, and the other approaches those same data under the assumption that there will be room for subtlety and nuance to come into play, the two parties may as well be speaking two different languages.

More than that, they may as well be looking at two entirely different datasets, or in two different dimensions. A fact is a fact is a fact, says one. A fact is an opportunity for exploration, says the other.

Perhaps more frustrating is the fact that this over-reliance on concrete particulars often leaves people unwilling to synthesise and evaluate available evidence in order to make educated assumptions. “If x did not specifically say y, how can you possibly prove that they hold z views?”

This seems to be the underlying issue that many on the left have with Peterson, and with many right-leaning thinkers in general: the impossibility of discerning motive, and an unwillingness to accept that while certain information may make us uncomfortable, it’s still just the first rung on a ladder that many on the right seem unwilling or unable to climb.

Facts may not care about our feelings, but we should all care about their abuse in discourse. Facts are the bricks and mortar of debate, but they are not the end of the discussion.

Ryan Coogan is in the final stages of his PhD in English literature at Liverpool John Moores University.

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Reader's comments (2)

I'm not sure I followed all of this. Could you give an example of, say, Peterson's use of a fact in lieu of an argument about that fact?
The article presents a more complex picture than the title and subtitle do; but even within the article there are some problems. The title and subtitle, and some of the things said in the article, suggest that we should cede the terrain of facts to the political right-wing, which would of course be dangerous nonsense. Facts matter because truth matters-- both per se, and instrumentally: we cannot know what we need to do to achieve our goals unless we first of all establish what is true and what isn't. Working out what is true is the central point of academia. The title should have read 'Alleged facts are just the start of the debate', and the subtitle-- rather than suggesting that caring about facts is mere 'fetishism'-- should have insisted that 'Right-wing intellectuals must be constantly challenged on their alleged facts', by experts in the relevant area or people armed with the best expert knowledge. Once we've established the facts as best we can on current evidence, of course we need to move on to the next steps-- the fact that facts can change, and that we can do different things with them depending on our moral/political choices. But we do not have to and ought not to cede the starting point.

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