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“Alternative facts” naturally trump objective reality
“Why won’t they accept the facts?”
“Why can’t they accept the facts?”
Such laments can be heard everywhere, on every topic and on all sides.
Scientists who make breakthrough discoveries wonder why their mainstream colleagues do not share the excitement and jump on the bandwagon but rather resist, often vigorously, refusing to acknowledge the validity of the novelty (1).
The mainstream view acts like a dogma on many topics: as to extinction of the dinosaurs, mechanism of the sense of smell, HIV/AIDS, global warming and climate change, string theory in particle physics, Big-Bang cosmology --- on all these, and more, research funding and publication are largely restricted to the accepted view. “Peer review”, widely regarded as a safeguard of quality, is actually a mechanism for safeguarding the mainstream “scientific consensus” (2).
Deploring the unwillingness of others to acknowledge plain facts is everywhere.
Scott Atlas (3) and many others have been and continue to be beside themselves in the context of the COVID “pandemic”, unable to understand why so many authoritative institutions seemed ignorant of well-established facts of public-health science.
“Morning Joe” Scarborough (4), self-styled traditional political conservative, rants at length over the unwillingness or inability of so many of his former conservative colleagues, friends, and family members to recognize the tangibly demonstrated misdeeds of Donald Trump.
I have been frustrated personally for decades over the general unwillingness to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence from film, sonar, and underwater photography that there are unidentified large animals in Loch Ness (5). I have been unable to understand for more than a decade why there is not general recognition of the obvious facts demonstrating that HIV does not cause AIDS (6). I am also among those who cannot understand the insistence that carbon dioxide is responsible for global warming and climate change when the long geological record demonstrates factually a lack of correlation between carbon dioxide and temperature (7).
Reading more about climate-change controversy, I came upon the book, The Grip of Culture (8). It is an extended discussion of the cultural phenomenon of climate catastrophism, but its discussion of cultural entities can help to illuminate controversies about “facts” in general, be it on matters of “pure science”, or of public policies, or on political and social matters. The book enabled me to understand better what I have really known for a long time without fully accepting it, not wanting to accept it: beliefs are a cultural phenomenon, developed and established for cultural reasons and in ways where factual realities do not play the decisive role.
The illusion is common, that we believe a thing because it happens to be true; but in reality we think that something is true because we happen to believe it.
An analogous illusion is endemic among scientists, researchers, academics, intellectuals in general: that arguments, controversies, can be settled by getting the facts straight. Scholars, scientific researchers, practicing doctors. medical scientists, engineers, all devote their energies to gathering trustworthy, reliable, factual knowledge. It does not come naturally for them to be continually aware that the wider public, the media, the official authorities and policymakers, may all behave as though the laboriously acquired reliable factual knowledge did not exist or did not matter. Yet that is the case. Beliefs, even “alternative facts”, trump objective reality because of human nature.
We human beings are social animals. Our most fundamental aim is to belong to a group that shares a common outlook on the most existential matters.
Belonging to a group has many immediate and obvious benefits; which also means that deviating from one's group brings considerable disadvantages. The Grip of Culture posits that behavior conducive to group cohesion will have been selected for during human evolution In a process of “cultural group selection”; there has been “gene-culture co-evolution”.
All the laments about why “they” don't or can’t accept the facts come from minority voices, mavericks and outsiders, wondering why the mainstream group clings to its traditional views instead of breaking radically with at least some of those views. The reason, the answer, is in the benefits of group membership and the disadvantages of leaving the group. It is perfectly natural for unorthodoxies to be resisted, no matter what the facts of objective reality may happen to be.
Various aspects of this general phenomenon have been discussed in a number of different contexts. As noted earlier, Bernard Barber (1) pointed out that the scientific community has always resisted significantly novel discoveries. Thomas Kuhn (9) described the process as a succession of “scientific revolutions” in which the unacknowledged novelty is resisted until that no longer becomes possible. Max Planck (10) is credited with pointing out that the scientific revolutions come about not because the traditionalists accept the new findings but because the traditionalists die out; prompting the paraphrase of “Planck’s dictum” as “science progresses one funeral at a time”.
Festinger (11) is often cited for describing the phenomenon of “cognitive dissonance”: in order to avoid contradiction of one's beliefs, we are able not to notice, to ignore, evidence against our held beliefs; or at least to fail to comprehend the significance of contrary evidence.
Janis described the phenomenon of “Groupthink” (12): members of advisory groups suppress individual reservations in order to allow the group’s advice to appear unanimous and thereby more convincing. Abba Eban (13) accordingly described a group “consensus” as a view disseminated by a group in which none of the individuals may actually hold that view personally.
As West points out, humans naturally congregate into cultural entities that may be religious, ideological, or secular. That process begins with development from the moment of birth. Several writers have discussed the fact that “none of us is born human; each is what he learns to become” (14).
Cultural entities are defined by characteristic narratives. Narratives, stories, tales, engage emotions that serve to produce loyalty to one's cultural entity. Plain facts may point to reliable ways of doing something, but they do not offer any reasons for doing something, nor do they entail any particular moral or ethical values (15).
The importance of parental and other environmental influences in babyhood and childhood have been detailed at length, in the context of childhood trauma and PTSD, in The Body Keeps the Score (16). The human brain is similar to that of other mammals, but with a greatly enlarged neocortex. Each individual mammalian brain develops under the influence of what happens from the moment of birth. Instinctive reactions, reflexive emotions, are learned and become ingrained. Only in much later years do the prefrontal lobes of the neocortex of the brain begin to be able to modify the instinctive reflexes lodged in the mammalian brain, according to The Body Keeps the Score. There seems a clear analogy here between the functions of the mammalian brain and the Freudian “ego”, and between the functions of prefrontal lobes and Freudian “superego”.
One’s cultural identity is ingrained by the narratives learned as the mammalian brain develops. Basic beliefs become axiomatic, and evidence to the contrary Is not noticed, or ignored, or resisted. That is why the “alternative facts” implied by the enshrined cultural narrative tend to be more powerfully influential than objective facts and cold reason.
Of course, the cultural identity formed largely in childhood is joined in later life to other cultural identities as one participates in professional, political, recreational, and personal-relationship and other social groups. But in all of them there is the ever-present tension between adhering to group culture and taking an individualistic view.
West’s whole book Is too replete with examples and discussion to allow an easy synopsis. As already mentioned, it focuses specifically on the contemporary cultural entity of “climate catastrophism”, but many of its insights are universally applicable. Particularly noteworthy in considering the relation between objective reality and beliefs hosted by a cultural entity is West’s seemingly counter-intuitive assertion that “Cultural narratives have to be false in order to work” --- the reason being that falsehoods ingrained in a cultural narrative are impervious to disproof by objective reality’s facts and cold reason. In some contexts, that has been fairly widely understood, as with the Nazi leaders and many other successful demagogues who understood the effectiveness of continually harping on the Big Lie, as well as the effectiveness of beginning indoctrination in childhood.
Thus, alternative facts naturally trump objective reality — when society’s lowest common denominator, the plurality, the mob, play the decisive role.
There are not many obvious examples of societies successfully resisting talented demagogues wielding Big Lies. The question becomes, what sociopolitical arrangements can best mediate differing cultural entities, ideally in a way that enhances the possibility that objective facts will guide public policies.
(1) Bernard Barber, “Resistance by Scientists to Scientific Discovery, Science, 134 (1961) 596-602
(2) Henry H. Bauer, “Science in the 21st century: knowledge monopolies and research cartels”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 18 (2004) 643—660; Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How dominant theories monopolize research and stifle the search for truth, McFarland, 2012
(3) Scott W. Atlas, A Plague upon our House, Liberatio Protocol (Post Hill Press), 2021
(4) MSNBC TV, weekdays 6-10am
(5) “Genuine facts about ‘Nessie’, the Loch Ness ‘Monster’", http://henryhbauer.homestead.com/LochNessFacts.html
(6) Henry H. Bauer, The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory, McFarland, 2007; The case against HIV, http://thecaseagainsthiv.net; “Confession of an ‘AIDS denialist’: How I became a crank because we’re being lied to about HIV/AIDS”, pp. 378- 82 in You Are STILL Being Lied To -- The REMIXED Disinformation Guide to Media Distortion, Historical Whitewashes and Cultural Myths, ed. Russ Kick (Disinformation Co., NY, 2009), https://mega.nz/file/wegVGAqL#0kJGxh0KWMhW3OsZJUFonh6c7cetmCQAhJ-0b1B1aAo
(7) “A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?”; https://scimedskeptic.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/a-politically-liberal-global-warming-skeptic/
(8) Andy A. West, The Grip of Culture — The Social Psychology of Climate Change Catastrophism, The Global Warming Policy Foundation; https://www.thegwpf.org/content/uploads/2023/07/West-Catastrophe-Culture6by9-v28.pdf
(9) Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1970 (2nd ed.).
(10) Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers, Greenwood Press, 1968
(11) Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken & Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World, University of Minnesota Press, 1956; Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Stanford University Press, 1957
(12) Irving L Janis, Victims of Groupthink; A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, Houghton Mifflin, 1972; 2nd ed., Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, 1982
(13) “Consensus means that everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually”; https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/abba_eban_167934
(14) Michael Oakeshott, “A Place of Learning” in The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education (ed. Timothy Fuller, Yale University Press, 1989, p.21); see also “We are not born human”, Bernard-Henri Lévy, New York Times, 22 August 2018
(15) Henry H. Bauer, “Two kinds of knowledge: maps and stories”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 9 (1995) 257-75
(16) Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score — Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Viking Penguin, 2014