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Articles, Commentaries, Philosophy

As a Matter of Fact, All Facts are Conditional

By Ooi Kee Beng

In The Compass, March 2017. Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.

With the world caught up in the reality show we call the Trump Presidency, it is important for those of us who are not Americans to retain some distance to the partisanship of their domestic politics. No doubt there is much to be learned from how the campaigning went last year, and how the first 100 days of the presidency develop.

What seems clear is that the liberals in American society had somehow trapped themselves in an echo chamber somewhere along the way. With Barack Obama as president for eight years, triumphalism crept in to such a degree that rationality became suspect. Once rationality is seen to be a partisan game that smarty pants play, then all discussion and debate break down.

What interests me here is the advent of the term “Alternative Facts”. It is laughed out, mainly because it was publicly coined by someone known to be a deflecting talker and a blatant apologist—Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway. The term was first used to defend Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer, who had megaphoned his boss’s ridiculous claim that the presidential inauguration was attended by a record-sized audience. Conway claimed that Spicer was just stating “alternative facts”.

A counter-claim—an alternative hypothesis, as it were—is totally legit. What is not legit is to make a claim without supporting evidence, or even suggestions of how such evidence can be found. Alternative facts need alternative evidence, and cannot simply be a stubborn rejection of a popularly accepted fact.

Two ways to reject a fact

Seen from a social-scientific point of view, a fact can always be questioned because any empirical inference will always have beliefs, habits and assumptions underlying it. No empirical statement is entirely without non-empirical content, and all knowledge, most clearly social knowledge, is tentative and conditional.

Now, some facts are more likely to be questioned than others, but it still remains the case that a factual statement can be rejected in two basic ways—first, through the existence of evidence to the contrary, and second, through variances in the understanding and acceptance of the concepts used to state that fact.

Beyond that are two further points to consider. For one thing, the requirements for when a claim has been proven beyond reasonable doubt can vary greatly in different communities, times and contexts. That is why it is so important for scientific standards to be maintained. That is why young men and women have to cultivate their way through thick books for several years in universities to develop a good sense of what scientific thinking means and why experimental criteria must be met.

The scientific project that characterizes our age is therefore about the search for as universal an agreement as possible on methods that can provide us with cumulative certainty about the world as much as it is about the accumulated facts themselves. The methods and the facts are inseparable. This is always a work in progress, the strength of which lies in adopting a humble stance and in the willingness to accept being in error. The underlying wisdom here is the realization that in having means by which one can identify a factual mistake, one can cast it aside and need no longer be misled by it.

Facts presuppose collective agreement

Secondly, related to this is the centrality of the collective. To make sense, the notional trappings of a claim must be intuitively perceivable by the audience to which the claim is proposed.

This condition can often clash with the scientific method. And although there are respected organizations formed in modern times for scientific debate apart from universities and think tanks, biases and earlier assumptions can very often be as powerfully defended by them as by any religious body.

Charles Darwin did not rush to publish his findings and ideas for fear of how society would reject them, and it was only when he realized that Russell Wallace was on the same track that he hastened to overcome this dread of ridicule, and submitted his manuscript for publication. There are many other such cases in the history of science. We know, for example, of Galileo Galilei backtracking on his astronomical findings to save his own skin. Very understandably.

The collective is always relevant. A society that is not given to scientific thinking will therefore consider what constitutes a fact in ways that are very different from a society that is more empirically minded and technological in spirit. Being modernized, as understood in the early days of human modernity, was to have a mind that was groomed to think of knowledge as tentative, human and expedient, and not eternal, external and divine.

In the Social Sciences, it is clearly much harder to reach agreement on any claim that challenges received beliefs, habits and assumptions. Sociological and social concepts, and psychological and political notions vary greatly within a country or a society. And stated facts are often clothed in the nomenclature and the jargon of a certain approach to knowledge. This limits their usefulness and their claim to universality.

The Study of Man and his Society differs from the Study of Nature in that statements made in the former are necessarily much more general, much more value-based and so, much more contested. The human arena, in truth, is one of conflict, and criteria for objectivity within it are hard to find.

As is often quoted, the first victim of war is the truth. But even in times of peace, amity is but a relative term, and knowledge, whether in the guise of science or not, cannot avoid being a weapon most times. The situation in each society varies greatly as well, making it more difficult to venture general statements across societies, or between sub-cultures. Instead of being an argument against the validity of the social sciences, this fact of vulnerable objectivity in the social sciences should convince us all the more that statements about society and about mankind should as a rule undergo thorough social review and examination.

Escaping Intellectual Capture

This is why mechanisms for serious public discussions about society by its members are so vital to its development and survival. It is the apparent nature of power to limit and steer discussions so as to determine what the facts are which it wishes to define that society.

Maintaining a good standard of journalism and a high level of education have therefore been considered essential to a society’s ability to resist intellectual capture from within and without. What is sadly noticeable in most of Asia’s developing countries is that the standard of journalism is painfully low; the education system is geared towards technical subjects and not towards those disciplines that are known to develop independent thought; and the punishment for critics of governments are dauntingly harsh.

The crisis that the United States is going through now will put its institutions to the test. We can expect its journalists to go on the warpath against what they see as the rise of irrationality in the public sphere; we can expect its university students to embrace activism to a degree not seen since the Vietnam War, and we can expect its judiciary to resist attempts to undermine its honoured traditions.

A large segment of American society has no doubt been feeling ignored by what should have been an inclusive society, and whether the institutions can manage to bridge the divides will be interesting to watch. There are signs though that it may be too late, and what awaits instead are arguments and conflicts more than discussions and discourse integration.

What are we to learn of this? In Malaysia, divisive discourses had been the norm for a long time. Journalism had been neutered for decades, the judiciary equally so, and the education system allowed to deteriorate.

The advent of the Internet and the many technological means of communication and discussion that it brought may have changed the way people access news, makes news and disseminate facts, but we have yet a long way to go before Malaysians can factually say that they have escape the intellectual capture that they have suffered for so long.

As always, much of the work will have to be done by the next generation.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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