Friday, April 28, 2006

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Years ago, when I was teaching Psychology at a boarding school, I had my students go out into the main circle and count the birds that flew over during a 15-minute period (it was part of a statistics and scientific-method section). They all came back, of course, with different counts, but each one felt that he or she had the “facts.” I let them argue for a while, then started asking questions. “What constituted ‘flying over’?” “How do you know you didn’t miss some because of where you were standing or where you were looking?” “Does a bird in one of the trees fluttering from one branch to another count?”

Soon, they got the picture: a fact isn’t a fact simply because of one person’s observations or discoveries. A fact is established through repeated confirmation and agreement.

This is something that a certain part of the right doesn’t get. These, generally, are people who pose as intellectuals, but who have never put in the rigorous work and thought that it takes to earn that status. David Horowitz, for example, is whining right now because the “facts” of his most recent book have been shown not to be facts at all, but individualistic (and often deliberate) misinterpretations. Horowitz doesn’t understand: the “facts” conform with his beliefs, so they must be true!

Some others don’t even know when or why “facts” are significant (let alone what they are). One Horowitz-lite, the self-proclaimed ‘independent scholar’ Daniel Flynn, complained to me about my commentary on a presentation of his, saying it was light on “facts.” As I was recording my responses to his opinions (which he seems to think are “facts,” not opinions), I didn’t need “facts” myself. What “facts” I did use all pertained directly to his performance. Certainly, it doesn’t take “facts” to answer his basic question on “Why the Left Hates America”—for the question itself is based on an assumption he never established (and one that can’t be established), that the “left” hates America.

Making claims is never the same as establishing facts. Yet Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, David Horowitz and the many manqué mad-right stars don’t seem willing to accept this at all. If they believe if, and can contort information to seem to be in line with their belief, that’s as good as a fact to them.

Once, in this country, we did have a group of people who could be classified as “public intellectuals.” They were a diverse lot, with beliefs that countered one another’s. What distinguished them from the blathers of today (particularly those on the right) is the complete lack of care so common in contemporary commentary. The public intellectuals of the past were nothing if not careful—and honest.

I miss them.

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