A recent, lengthy column in the Chronicle of Higher Education bemoans what Stephen Colbert used to call “truthiness” and what the author calls an “attack on truth”:
There is simple ignorance and there is willful ignorance, which is simple ignorance coupled with the decision to remain ignorant. Normally that occurs when someone has a firm commitment to an ideology that proclaims it has all the answers — even if it counters empirical matters that have been well covered by scientific investigation. More than mere scientific illiteracy, this sort of obstinacy reflects a dangerous contempt for the methods that customarily lead to recognition of the truth. And once we are on that road, it is a short hop to disrespecting truth.
The author lays much of the blame for this state of affairs at the feet of postmodern literary critics and cultural-studies folks who advanced the argument that truth is relative, and there is no such thing as objectivity.
There is much more, and the entire column is well worth reading, but I think the argument against postmodernism is misplaced. (I think fear, a product of modernity’s disorienting change, has far more explanatory power.) I have my own problems with postmodernism, but there is a difference–which the author glosses over–between “truth” and “fact.” And that difference matters.
Science deals with the discovery of testable facts-– the sort of knowledge that can be confirmed or debunked by experimentation and reason. Facts are demonstrable, and the data upon which they are based can be shared with others who have the necessary skills to evaluate them. The broader meanings and conclusions we humans draw from the facts at our disposal, however, are subject to social construction.
Morality, philosophy and religious doctrines are efforts to identify truths of the sort that cannot be verified in a laboratory and must inevitably remain matters of belief. Or faith.
The author is right about one thing, however: When we choose to disregard facts established by science, we also abandon any pretense that we are searching for those broader truths, or even acting in our own rational self-interest.
When our anti-intellectual policymakers cling ever more frantically to their “willful ignorance,” we’re all in trouble.