Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Why Don’t Facts Matter?

In several previous comments I have in one way or another attempted to answer the question that titles this post.

My first encounter with the issue occurred when I complained to a colleague about other associates whose selective memories seemed beyond the pale, because I had assumed it was impossible for the latter to have forgotten what was said in a meeting not too long before the immediate incident.

The colleague gave me a dead serious glare and said, “Facts don’t matter!” I briefly responded with an embarrassed “you can’t be serious” chuckle, but soon realized that the glare was not going away.

Naiveté aside—I am aware that there are dishonest people in the world—I nonetheless have a hard time understanding those who seem to be honest, yet clearly are not sticking to the facts.

In 2006 I wrote an academic paper about Harry Frankfurt’s little book On Bullshit, in which Frankfurt distinguishes liars from BS’ers. Liars care about facts in order to say the opposite. BS’ers, however, don’t care because their goal is to impress and sway whether or not what they are saying is true. Are BS’ers dishonest?*

In my paper I argue that there are a couple of continua operating here, the relevant one ranging from the deliberately dishonest to sloppy thinkers who are unware of their premises or where the premises came from.

This may somewhat account for those who seem to be decent people but at the same time are habitual hyperbolizers and habitually selective rememberers. But where do these habits come from?

In a 2008 blog post I make the not too original point that we learn—that is, pick up habits—from our parents, teachers, and significant others, which means our significant others learned from their significant others who learned from theirs, etc. In the absence of an infinite regress, however, someone somewhere along the line had to have chosen to embellish his or her statements and selectively ignore certain facts. Why?

Free will, of course, dictates that anyone in the present, or past, can choose to ignore facts. Is that it? Isn’t there more to the sloppy thinking that many seem to exhibit?

Consider the following cases.

1. Philosopher Sidney Hook describes two instances from his travels in the mid-twentieth century (Out of Step, pp. 585-88). In Japan, Hook relates, he was confronted by his academic hosts and the Japanese press with nothing but complaints about the US bombing of Hiroshima, yet not a single word was said about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In India, the conversation centered on US race discrimination—without mention of India’s caste system. Near the end of his stay, Hook invited an academic host to dine with him at his hotel, but the host, after several evasions, finally admitted that he could not accept—because the waiters at the hotel were Muslim and the host was Brahmin.

Hook does not provide an explanation for the stark logical disconnects in either instance, other than to imply differences between Eastern and Western cultures.

My conclusion would have to specify the lack of Aristotelian logic in the East and its presence in the West. Most westerners, however precariously they may do so, cling to the notions of non-contradiction and non-fallacious thinking, which means they maintain some respect for facts that apparently the educated in the East do not.

Respect for logic means respect for facts.

2. Anthony Watts, former television meteorologist and current climate change doubter (to use the Associated Press’s preferred moniker for global warming skeptics), blogs on, a site that enjoys three to four million page views per month. Several highly qualified guest climatologists also regularly post their thorough, technical analyses of “climate change” issues.

Last June, Watts reported the details of a meeting he had with journalist, ardent environmentalist, and staunch global warming supporter Bill McKibben. Instead of fireworks and hostility between the two, Watts described their discussion as civil and friendly. They discussed their respective agreement and disagreement on numerous climate and environmental issues.

Concluding his report, Watts said, apparently to challenge strong opinions within the denier community, “I don’t think Bill McKibben is an idiot.” He then added, “But I do think he perceives things more on a feeling or emotional level and translates that into words and actions. People that are more factual and pragmatic might see that as an unrealistic response.”

Why don’t facts matter according to the scientist Watts? Because emotion sometimes trumps facts.

3. Ayn Rand in her article “To Dream the Non-Commercial Dream” (The Ayn Rand Letter, January 1, 1973, reprinted in The Voice of Reason) emphasizes the significance of emotion trumping fact. She says this about “impassioned advocates” of altruism and collectivism:

They are not hypocrites; in their own way, they are “sincere”; they have to be. They need to believe that their work serves others, whether those others like it or not, and that the good of others is their only motivation; they do believe it—passionately, fiercely, militantly—in the sense in which a belief is distinguishable from a conviction: in the form of an emotion impervious to reality. (Emphasis in original.)
Deep down, in their psychologies, it is emotion that dictates to these “sincere” people what is true. Facts don’t matter because emotion says otherwise. Altruism and collectivism have become their entrenched beliefs.

Rand adds that this “depth”—the “deep down” part of these unexamined psychologies—can be “measured by distance from reality” and that there exists a continuum, based on the distance, that runs from “sincere” to totalitarian dictator.

Rand puts “sincere” in scare quotes, which probably means she is not entirely endorsing the term, but I still have to ask: are those on the “sincere” end of the continuum . . . sincere? And honest? Who, really, after all is a bad dude?

Rand goes so far as to acknowledge that the “butcher of the Ukraine,” Nikita Khrushchev, was compelled to believe the “truth” (my quotes) and magical ritual of dialectical materialism. He had to, she says, lest he “face something more frightening than death” (Rand’s quotes).

This comment on Khruschev takes me back to The Criminal Personality by Yochelson and Samenow. Criminals certainly are bad dudes. They lie (and BS) as a way of life and enjoy getting away with the forbidden. (“If rape were legalized today . . . I would do something else,” one offender told the researchers.)

And criminals, like Khrushchev, don’t have much deep down, that is, they are considerably deficient in self-esteem. What is there, as Rand puts it, is distant from reality. “I am a nothing, a zero,” several criminals confessed, but added that if they routinely thought that way, they would have to kill themselves. So they live by substitute thoughts, or rather rationalizations. Their accumulated mental habits have taught them to believe and say: “that guy deserved it” or “everything in the store belongs to me” or “she really wanted me.”

Khrushchev substituted the communist mantra.

So how can these bad dudes seem “sincere”? This brings me back to the liar and BS’er. The goal of the liar and BS’er is to sound good. Most criminals are con artists, which means they are consummate liars and BS’ers to make what they say sound good.

The same applies to dictators. Many have been charmers at cocktail parties. Hitler was.

So would I want to be friends with someone on the “sincere” end of Rand’s continuum?

Sidney Hook and Anthony Watts did not seem to find offensive the disagreements they had with their associates, but those associates were presumably not on the extreme end of Rand’s scale.

I would say that friendships, whether professional or personal, depend on how distant one’s contact is from reality. That is to say, on a scale of decency—by adapting Rand’s continuum—honest, fact-oriented people are at the top, scummy criminals and Khruschevs are at the bottom, but most decent people, the “sincere” ones Rand was talking about, fit into the middle to upper tiers.**

The difficulty in forming professional and personal friendships is in understanding the other person’s psychology and discovering that distance from reality.

Facts do matter.

*Frankfurt thinks BS’ers are worse than liars—and more likely to be found among the highly educated because of their facility with language.

**In Rand’s article she was talking about a retired editor of the New York Times.

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