Nec­es­sary but not suf­fi­cient

Facts are only the start of de­bate

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

Facts don’t care about your feel­ings.” If the dig­i­tal right has any­thing close to a palat­able slo­gan, it’s prob­a­bly this one.

It ac­com­plishes what dis­parag­ing talk about “snowflakes” and “so­cial jus­tice war­riors” does not. It isn’t an in­sult per se, and it isn’t nec­es­sar­ily mind­less rhetoric. It’s ac­tu­ally a pretty dif­fi­cult premise to ar­gue with – es­pe­cially for the aca­dem­i­cally minded.

And it is an ap­proach that is em­ployed to great ef­fect by Jor­dan Peter­son, pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto and Grand Poobah of the in­tel­lec­tual New Right.

When he tells us, for in­stance, that bi­ol­ogy makes it clear that trans­gen­derism is non­sense, or that there are psy­cho­log­i­cal mod­els prov­ing that women and men think dif­fer­ently, he im­plies that any at­tempt to ar­gue with such cold, hard logic ex­poses the ad­vo­cate as lit­tle more than an ide­o­logue.

The un­com­pro­mis­ing em­piri­cism of this po­si­tion is ex­tremely at­trac­tive. At a time when we are beset from all sides by con­flict­ing in­for­ma­tion and viewpoints, it can be com­fort­ing for some­one to step for­ward and tell us that it’s over: we don’t have to think any more.

But it is all too easy to over­look the fact that gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion and data is only the first step to­wards ac­quir­ing knowl­edge.

If you’ve ever stud­ied ped­a­gogy, you’ll prob­a­bly be fa­mil­iar with Bloom’s Tax­on­omy, a model of learn­ing that vi­su­alises it as a hi­er­ar­chi­cal con­cept, made up of six stages. With­out go­ing into too much de­tail, Bloom – an Amer­i­can ed­u­ca­tional psy­chol­o­gist who died in 1999 – tells us that know­ing or even un­der­stand­ing a piece of in­for­ma­tion is only an early part of a process that ends with in­tel­li­gent and crit­i­cally eval­u­a­tive ap­pli­ca­tion.

When teach­ing the stu­dent, Bloom tells us, it is not enough that they merely take on board some piece of in­for­ma­tion. With­out anal­y­sis, ap­pli­ca­tion and in­ter­ro­ga­tion of data, the stu­dent runs the risk of mak­ing the kinds of log­i­cal leaps that are an­ti­thet­i­cal to real learn­ing.

We might call this the fal­lacy of face value, wherein crit­i­cal think­ing gives way to a kind of bas­tardised “com­mon sense”, which tells us that the ex­perts have over­com­pli­cated things.

Facts are cer­tainly im­por­tant, but the im­pli­ca­tion that they are the be-all and end-all of de­bate is at best in­tel­lec­tual dis­hon­esty and at worst miss­ing the point al­to­gether.

When Peter­son and his ilk present a fact, his op­po­nents are en­ti­tled to ask: “So what?” In academia, facts are a frame­work for wider dis­cus­sion.

This fetishi­sa­tion of facts might be one rea­son (of many) that de­bate in the in­ter­net age can be so frus­trat­ing. A fact is a fact is a fact, says one side. A fact is an op­por­tu­nity for ex­plo­ration, says the other.

Per­haps more frus­trat­ing is the fact that this over-reliance on con­crete par­tic­u­lars of­ten leaves peo­ple un­will­ing to syn­the­sise and eval­u­ate avail­able ev­i­dence in order to make ed­u­cated as­sump­tions. “If x did not specif­i­cally say y, how can you pos­si­bly prove that they hold z views?”

This seems to be the un­der­ly­ing is­sue that many on the left have with Peter­son, and with many right-lean­ing thinkers in gen­eral: an un­will­ing­ness to ac­cept that while cer­tain in­for­ma­tion may make us un­com­fort­able, it’s still just the first rung on a lad­der that many on the right seem un­able to climb.

Facts may not care about our feel­ings, but we should all care about their abuse in dis­course. Facts are the bricks and mor­tar of de­bate, but they are not the end of the dis­cus­sion.

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