This contemporary moment begs the question: what is a fact? And how do facts circulate? These questions are historical cornerstones in the study of the production of knowledge, and scaffold work in disciplines from philosophy to anthropology; however, in a post-truth climate asking after the genesis and dissemination of facts takes on a new and curious significance. The production and transmission of facts also engages new questions: where and how do people discover facts? What is the relationship between a fact and its reader? What is a fact’s effect?
The following will briefly think on the complexities of the fact as it has been thrown about in the past month, with special attention to the media (as a vector for transmission, a group of people and an object of study) that specializes in the production and dissemination of certain kinds of facts. These are stories about stories, about knowledge and power, and about the particular leakiness of information–if it ledes (a word for the opening text of an article) it is safe to say that it will likely bleed far from its initial and intended context. It is worth reflecting on what happens when a fact–a category already up for grabs–bleeds?
Harvard recently hosted an event entitled, “The Future of News: Journalism in a Post-Truth Era.” Earlier this month, the Harvard Gazette posted a comprehensive report on the meeting that convened reporters and thinkers from major outlets to weigh in on truth, facts and the media. The talks on “post-factualism” bridge the erosion of public trust in the media, what it means to be a reliable source, the notion of coastal elites and thinking carefully about language. Does being post-fact necessarily mean fake? At NPR, George Lakoff seems to be drawing some important distinctions while pointing out what is at stake when we say news is fake. It is also worth asking, of course, whether the unity of the fact as a category is a human issue or a data issue.
Some specific and likely dire consequences of the shakeup of facts and their circulation can be seen in the realm of ecology and health. If we are post-truth, the LA Times asks, what will happen to the environment? In her op-ed, Barnett writes: “Regardless of alternative facts, fake news or scientific censorship, nature tells the truth.” The Atlantic has an illuminating interview with climate scientist Andrew Weaver on turning to politics. As a member of Canadian parliament, he has some choice words about the importance of bridging science and politics in the face of climate change. Weaver says, “in science, the person with the best evidence wins. I think the public is ready for a more bottom-up, evidence-based approach to decision-making.” If climate deniers are indeed here to stay, how will the future take shape? Maybe the Lake Oroville near-disaster is a case study in what happens “when we manage society for how things were, not how things are.”
Over at The Hill, writers explore some troubling reporting from the International Agency for Research on Cancer. What does it mean when a tangle of private and government interest and public health communication goes haywire? And how do our standards for truth in risk reporting take shape? What if our demand for a certain kind of factual narrative gets in the way of actual facts? At Vice, Leyla Mei cuts down the Patient Zero myth. Perhaps sounding the alarm isn’t always the best strategy either–what if a lede bleeds out? These are debates to watch.
There are grave human costs to the shifting ontology of facts and truth that we must continue to track. Over at Savage Minds, Nadia El-Shaarawi breaks down some of what it means when we talk about “extreme vetting” and refugees. Her piece takes on the threatening figure of the refugee that continues to persist despite (or even because of) contradictory evidence.
More links of interest:
“What We’re Fighting For” – The New York Times
“Sara Hendren: The Body Adaptive” – Guernica
“Do Cyborgs Have Politics?” – PaxSolaria
“Engagements with Ethnographic Care” – AnthropologyNews
“The (Anthropological) Truth About Walls” – Scientific American