Still Harping on about Factoids

From the 2018 MLA panel on science studies in the age of “alternative facts.”

Many of us have felt that we’re living in a time out of joint, when evidence and reasoned argument can be thrown aside by people with enough money to buy enough megaphones to promote their vested interests; this is not how it’s supposed to work, because facts are supposed to be stubborn things, and a lie should always be weaker than the truth. In his 2004 essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” and his recent Facing Gaia, Latour shows that if the unyielding stubbornness of the fact has been an article of faith for modern people, the invincible power of interest has caused many people to put their efforts into rolling back modernity, and in doing so they’ve echoed the language that many of us used to prise apart the grip that other vested interests held on such “facts” as immutable human nature, racial and gender determinism, the hierarchies of class, and so forth. As the Republican strategist Frank Luntz never tires of saying, in trying to gainsay the consensus on the part of geologists and climatologists that global warming is real and human industrial activity has accelerated it, one doesn’t need to offer a single fact in evidence; one merely needs to drum up a discussion that will be taken for a “lack of scientific certainty” about the conclusions. The climate deniers will create an ambiance in which the threshold for proclaiming something a “fact” is impossibly high, and then parlay that into an illusion that the spread of yes/no answers on the question is something like 50/50, when it is really something much closer to 100/0, although the preponderance of money and megaphones is with the minority that has an interest in perpetuating uncertainty and thus delaying any action to slow the pace of global warming.

I don’t endorse climate-change denial and I think the pretense of a debate around the issue is one of the more deplorable tricks in the history of manipulation. But I do acknowledge that some of the moves used by those manipulators have been indispensable to me in my own career of teaching and learning—and indeed they should be. Uncertainty, if I may echo James Bond, is my business, and it’s yours too if you want to make your hearers analytic rather than dogmatic thinkers. Whenever I come on a buried certainty in my repertoire of thought positions, I try to loosen it by asking: Is this really a regularity, or am I indulging in confirmation bias when I tell myself that “Xs always do Y?” Do the regularities amount to a rule, or a delicately cultivated anecdote? Do further examples confirm the scope of the category, or undermine it? Where are the counterexamples? And so on. Outside of my personal thinking and reading practice, I use such techniques in the classroom, always with the intent of dislodging, with this rhetorical WD-40, the frozen certainties of students who tell me, fresh as they are from family or hometown preconceptions, that individualism is un-Chinese, that God created Adam and Eve in preference to Adam and Steve, that men are rational and women are emotional, or what not. What about this counterexample? What about that fact? Are you so sure? Maintaining a lack of certainty about many positions that come naturally to the people of this or that milieu is how we in the humanities earn our keep. We make sure that debate goes forward, that positions don’t get dug in, and (maybe) that new kinds of identity and interest get a chance to speak up. We can do this without ever breathing the heady syllables of “postmodernism,” which some editorial-writers in a race to file copy by deadline have blamed for the era of “alternative facts” in which we now are said to live. As if a philosophical critique of one epistemological model had somehow paralyzed the critical faculties of a 350-million-member public and left us with no means of crying foul when nonsense is promulgated.

Latour’s solution is like that of the driver in the snow. You all remember the rule: when your car begins to spin and lose traction, don’t clamp on the brakes and try to achieve an already long-gone stasis, but turn the steering wheel in the direction of the skid and try to get out of it by going into it. Latour discerns in the appeal to facts-as-they-are a remnant of that old fact-vs-interpretation distinction, correlative to the nature-vs-culture distinction, that marked a long moment in the sociology of knowledge but was never really satisfactory anyhow, and now comes up against its nemesis, the newly tightened citizenship qualifications for admission to the realm of fact that exclude almost every possible candidate and leave us all floundering in a snowscape of “perceptions,” chacun à son goût. His proposal is to improve the quality of debate by agreeing that a fact is a socially constructed thing, but to point out that a social construction is by no means a fictive cobweb that can be dispelled with a gesture of the voluntarist hand. Criticism is never just a matter of pointing out the other person has got the facts wrong! Let us enlarge the definition of “society” that impels the social construction, by widening the group of stakeholders to include the agents and networks so prominent in his account of epistemological behavior. Let us not make everything hinge on the existence of facts, a supposedly apolitical starting point, but on the recruitment of a majority among these newly nominated agents.


As I read Latour’s recent work, they led me to think of two readings of the following passage from James Weldon Johnson’s great novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, first published anonymously in 1912. I’ll first introduce and read the passage, then summarize it under reading A, then under reading B.


[A Texan, a Yankee profiting from the Southern economy, a Unionist veteran, a Jew, and the novel’s title character, a mixed-race man able to pass for black or white according to the circumstances, are all together in the smoking car of a train discussing American racial politics. Some approve of segregation, some question it, some proclaim it a necessity owing to the inherent superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. After hearing out arguments to the effect that the Anglo-Saxon race never invented anything, does not deserve its present supremacy, and is fated to go down like every other master race in previous history, the pro-segregationist Texan answers by pulling out and passing around a flask of whiskey, saying, “Well, that may be, but facts is facts, and we’re not gonna have no colored people ruling over us, and that’s the end of it.”


            “The Texan’s position does not render things so hopeless, for it indicates that the main difficulty of the race question does not lie so much in the actual condition of the blacks as it does in the mental attitude of the whites; and a mental attitude, especially one not based on truth, can be changed more easily than actual conditions. That is to say, the burden of the question is not that the whites are struggling to save ten million despondent and moribund people from sinking into a hopeless slough of ignorance, poverty and barbarity in their very midst, but that they are unwilling to open certain doors of opportunity and to accord certain treatment to ten million aspiring, education-and-property-acquiring people. In a word, the difficulty of the problem is not so much due to the facts presented, as to the hypothesis assumed for its solution. In this it is similar to the problem of the Solar System. By a complex, confusing and almost contradictory mathematical process, by the use of zigzags instead of straight lines, the earth can be proved the center of things celestial; but in an operation so simple that it can be comprehended by a schoolboy, its position can be verified among the other worlds which revolve around the sun, and its movements harmonized with the laws of the universe. So, when the white race assumes as a hypothesis that it is the main object of creation, and that all things else are merely subsidiary to its well being, sophism, subterfuge, perversion of conscience, arrogance, injustice, oppression, cruelty, sacrifice of human blood, all are required to maintain the position, and its dealings with other races become indeed a problem, a problem which, if based on a hypothesis of common humanity, could be solved by the simple rules of justice.” — James Weldon Johnson, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), in Writings (New York: Library of America, 2004), 101.


Reading A: The doctrine of white supremacy is as absurd as the geocentric hypothesis. In cosmology there are facts, which everybody who is modern since Copernicus has already learned to accept. You white supremacists are, like the remaining geocentricists if there are any, backward, brainwashed, dogmatic and are wasting your mental energy trying to prove a thing that is inherently and obviously false. You are obsolete. You can go on deluding yourselves until the end of time, and if so, good luck to you, but you’ll never achieve anything that way. On the other hand, the simple rules of justice would do away with the problem (proving the superiority of the white race) and the means for its pseudo-solution (oppressing everyone who is not white).


Reading B: We, the actually existing majority, have agreed on a hypothesis (a matter of concern) that entails certain facts, and these facts are different from the ones that are required by your hypothesis; moreover, the consequences of the majority’s hypothesis are beneficial whereas the consequences of your hypothesis are entirely destructive, even to yourselves. At least one book that represents this point of view exists; it is in your hands, you have just heard our arguments, and others will follow to present better and richer arguments. We tell you therefore that you may have your so-called facts, but only to be voted down again and again, and the Occam’s Razor that will doom you to futility is the greater epistemic efficiency and broader appeal of the hypothesis we are putting forth.


– Faith in progress. The geocentric cosmos giving way to the heliocentric cosmos is not just an illustration—it is the example of examples, the displacement that put us all in our proper place and taught us how to think and observe. Social equality is inevitable, like the victory of science over ignorance.

As I used to read the passage, this was the main ingredient. Now when I reread it with attention to the orchestration of “matters of fact” with “matters of concern,” other components push their way forward and become more and more the drivers of the passage’s logic:

– Its refusal to engage in the reality of “races” (the vast domain of dubious “facts” that constitute race science, alas alive and well in popular thought today).

– Fantasy of democratic efficiency. If only voices were not suppressed, truth would out. The energy that currently goes to suppressing them could be reoriented to productive ends.


Whether you follow reading A, emphasizing the matters of fact, or reading B, emphasizing the social matters of concern, the persuasiveness of the paragraph still depends on logic and the summoning-up of an as yet imaginary forum to debate it all. And unfortunately, in the United States, as in many places, we are still trying to get a quorum for social equality, as we are struggling to get one for many other matters previously thought to be in the domain of scientific authority and now allegedly left up to the whim of lobbyists and billionaires. And the notion of a community of Latourian agents might not be a definitive solution to the problem of bought opinion, because, as we know today, money can buy you quite a few bots, virtual humans often taken by physical humans to be fellow-beings, fully qualified as agents under almost any reading of Latour’s account of the sociology of science, and quicker to multiply than you and I are, though their purpose is to confuse and drown out rival views.

Still, I think there is a purpose in summoning-up. That would be our job, as professionals of language and argument: a linguistic act that requires us to exercise the phatic, conative, and poetic functions, rather than make everything rest on the referential/constative dimension of language which is not traditionally within our docket. Latour’s critical performance in Facing Gaia summons us, as the people most receptive to his summons, to go out and summon up the enlarged public along lines he sketches out. I think there are few more timely tasks for the imagination.