Sunday, December 11, 2016

The post-fact world and the need for a new consensus

In a piece I wrote four years ago I asked whether we were moving toward a fact-free world. Now, I wonder if that world has arrived.

The media is full of opinions and opinions parading as facts and facts that are not facts and sometimes just crazed fantasies posing as facts. We are now having a public discussion about so-called "fake news" and whose news is really fake. I'm thinking of rumors circulated on the internet that a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C.was a cover for a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager.

There was, of course, absolutely no basis for this wild and on-its-face ridiculous accusation. And yet, a rifle-wielding man who drove in from North Carolina shot up the place. He came all that way believing the story was fact because, well, he read it on the internet. Luckily, no one was hurt.

The bar for facticity for many people has been lowered to ground level it seems. Anything they want to be a fact magically becomes a fact.

Now this is not to say that it is easy to determine what is or is not a fact. When we say "fact," we usually mean something that is true. But that just begs the question of how we determine whether something is true.

We do this in one of two ways. Either we witness something ourselves or we take something to be true based on the authority of others. We may observe some act or process in society or nature and say that we saw something with our own eyes and therefore know it to be true. There is unfortunately the small problem of eyewitness accounts being frequently mistaken. And, there is the problem of trying to interpret what we saw correctly and explain it to others accurately.

Then there are facts which we accept as facts from others because they are friends who have proven reliable in the past or because we believe the source to be a fair-minded and well-informed expert in a particular field. Climate scientists come to mind.

Climate scientists from around the world have arrived at a consensus that human activities are causing the lion's share of warming on planet Earth. They don't make this claim lightly. They have examined the Earth's temperature for decades and been able to estimate temperatures very far back into the past based on ice cores, tree rings and other indirect evidence. And, they can quantify the things that humans are doing that cause warming. They check and recheck and check again against new information that comes in on an almost daily basis from around the world.

The facts of climate change are the most exhaustively examined scientific facts ever in the history of the world. Thousands upon thousands of scientists from disparate disciplines have compared data and conclusions over decades.

Now, I can know a little something about climate change from observation as I've noticed more hot days in summers and both generally warmer, dryer winters and now also more frequent very deep freezes in the United States due to a meandering jet stream, an effect predicted by climate scientists.

And, here is where simply observing isn't enough. To understand how both could be true, one has to understand the complex movements of so-called polar vortexes in order to place them in the climate change narrative. Not even climate scientists agree on the link. But there is now growing evidence. Such context explains why what may turn out to be the warmest November ever could be followed by a deep freeze in December and still fit the climate change narrative.

Here is where people can go off the rails. Because the society in which we now live has become so complex, we must routinely rely on the specialist knowledge of others. When we flick on a wall switch, we don't need to know how electricity works or the power plant that produces it or the coal mine that supplies the power plant. We can leave that to others and trust that they know how to get electricity to us.

Why do we trust them? Because the electricity rarely fails to arrive and when it doesn't, the outage typically lasts no more than an hour or two. (There are exceptions, of course, during large-scale natural disasters or in some places due to destruction from war or the unreliability of the local electric utility.)

For complex phenomena such as climate change, how can we judge except through information provided by experts? We can check their credentials and the type and amount of their research. We can see what their colleagues say about their work. This is complicated and difficult even in the age of the internet since most of what these experts write will likely be hopelessly incomprehensible to us.

In a era that has become increasingly distrustful of experts--and not just climate experts, but experts in economics, trade policy, foreign policy, banking, medicine, law and many other areas--we are seeing results that we don't like (at least in some areas) when we follow or are forced by law or policy to follow the advice of the experts. We have come to believe that these experts are often merely self-interested profiteers or hired spokespersons for wealthy interests who are trying to deceive us.

Once one starts down this path, it is hard to distinguish between intellectually honest pronouncements, say, from climate scientists, and mere boosterism on practically any topic from a think tank hack who has a PhD but who is merely repeating his or her paymaster's views.

This gets to the core of the problem. It doesn't really pay to be intellectually honest any more. In the hyper-partisan environment we now find ourselves, giving an inch to the other side means to many that they will end up losing the argument. Debate is no longer a means to find the truth by testing ideas against the questions and criticisms of others; it is mostly propaganda designed to win no matter what the truth is.

That has often been the case in the past when it comes to partisan political battles. But we have previously reserved a special place for pronouncements from scientists whom we believed were above the partisan fray and who pursued the truth regardless of where it led.

That faith in science is gone for a significant part of the population. Some of the propagandist think tanks have noticed that scientific investigation has social and political aspects like most pursuits in life. This, in the propagandist's view, moves scientists--the ones the propagandist disagrees with, not the ones he or she agrees with--into the realm of self-interested parties who cannot be intellectually honest.

So debate is now not a process that helps lead to consensus, but rather it is often used with the intent of annihilating the other side. And yet, consensus is how we often come to accept facts we cannot observe or determine for ourselves.

It is this lack of consensus which provides a fertile field for untethered fantasies about what is true. What we can say about consensus positions, however, is that they always turn out to be wrong in some direction and must be adjusted to the times and the current state of our society and knowledge. This does not make them useless. Far from it, consensus positions form the basis for common action.

Here is the nub of the issue. Consensus positions don't have to be 100 percent correct in every detail in order to be useful and even life-saving. We can be approximately correct about climate change and do useful things to address it without being 100 percent certain about its course and severity. We are merely being prudent, and our prudence should match the potential severity we are able to discern based on our current understanding. The vast majority of climate scientists believe that climate change is a severe threat and that we should do a lot right away and on into the future to mitigate it.

Those who oppose action often do so based on the misapprehension that public policy is somehow based on certainty. The fact that public policy is NEVER based on certainty should be burned into the brain of every citizen. We always leap together into a world that is only partially understood. Intellectually honest discussion in which doubt and changes in understanding are actually welcomed are the best way to approach a rapidly evolving world where uncertainty is everywhere.

If some people demand certainty before action, then we should ask them to provide certainty that our current trajectory will lead to the happy destination they describe. Those demanding certainty cannot provide certainty and will not provide a warranty--that is, a promise to pay for damages if they are wrong. This shows you that they are, in fact, quite uncertain.

It turns out that a lot of the facts that we believe are actually the result of the consensus understanding of others, possibly the result of careful and intellectually honest research by experts or possibly the result of a conscious or unconscious self-interested campaign of propaganda designed to look like it is the product of such a consensus.

How does one proceed when we must always live with uncertainty? Here we must understand that the major debates of our age over climate, resource limitations, economic inequality, pluralism, terrorism and war have their roots in the changes we humans have inflicted on the biosphere. Climate change is now implicated in major conflicts such as the one in Syria.

The struggle over finite resources such as oil cannot be separated from the continuous turmoil in the Middle East. People fear there will not be enough for everyone to prosper, and those with power grab as much wealth as they can. And, when the powerful find the rules inconvenient, they use their influence with government to change those rules in order to continue their grab for wealth or to get the government to go to war on their behalf--sometimes with results that are the opposite of what is intended. The Iraq War comes to mind.

How do we move forward in such a poisoned and difficult social and political environment? The answer has to be to bring about a new consensus. It turns out the felicitous functioning of society depends consensus. But there can be no consensus where there are no recognized and agreed upon facts. And, facts themselves very often depend on the consensus of experts whom we do not know. In short, without facts there is no consensus and without consensus society can break down into anarchy and conflict.

I'm not saying that this is our destination. I'm only pointing out that finding a consensus is an important step in avoiding such a destination. There are glimmers in recent elections around the world, however troubling they may be, that the old consensus has broken down.

Globalism--that is to say worldwide economic integration mediated by large corporations--does not enjoy the support it used to. The vast gulf between the rich and the poor is being noticed. The destruction of the middle class is being noticed. Senseless and destructive wars that seem to accomplish little are being noticed. The economic devastation being visited on the rural areas and small towns around the world by the forces of globalism is being noticed.

Forging these inchoate understandings into a coherent narrative that includes something about our connection and dependence on the biosphere is the critical task now before us. I don't have that coherent narrative up my sleeve ready to deliver magically to my readers.

The new narrative we need will not come from a savior or a strongman. I think it will be the work of many who see a part of the narrative and articulate it so that others can understand. I believe that narrative will and must be built organically by all those dedicated to creating a just and livable world for us and for those who come after us.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

1 comment:

Gary from Portland, Pope Francis fan said...

Excellent exploration of the political manipulation of the human weakness inherent in uncertainty. A chicken-and-egg conundrum is that we can't accept something as fact without a prior consensus, but we can't reach consensus without shared confidence in the facticity of an alleged fact. To govern ourselves and make policy decisions, we need some consensus as to the factual predicates supporting policy alternatives. Hence today's challenge: the policy-making process can be frozen by the artful manipulation of uncertainty to create opposition to sensible policies unfavorable to those in power.
A mature adult manages the weakness of uncertainty by choosing to act under criteria other than just intellectual ones, ie, under an inner beacon of shared values. Combine disciplined thinking with a concrete portrayal of how policy options affirm, or not, decency, the dignity of all, the common interest/new and real public benefit that comes from all people, including the weak and marginalized, having genuine opportunity. That's the narrative of hope we need, pioneered in the Occupy movement.