Necessary but not sufficient
Facts are only the start of debate
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.