“In the Age of ‘Alternative Facts,’ Fake News, and Fascist Lies... How Do You Know What’s True? And Why Does It Matter?”
An invigorating salon at Revolution Books in NYC
by Sunsara Taylor
February 15, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
An incredibly diverse group of 25 or so people from different parts of the world packed into Revolution Books on February 3 for a wild and invigorating discussion, “In the Age of ‘Alternative Facts,’ Fake News, and Fascist Lies... How Do You Know What’s True? And Why Does It Matter?” It was a great mix of high school students and graduate level academics, folks who had been out protesting the Muslim ban, members of the Revolution Club, volunteers at Revolution Books, and first time customers.
In preparation, I had been rereading Ardea Skybreak’s book, SCIENCE AND REVOLUTION; On the Importance of Science and the Application of Science to Society, the New Synthesis of Communism and the Leadership of Bob Avakian. Early on, Skybreak explains, “Science is sometimes taught as if it’s just a bunch of dry precepts or formulas—just a bunch of end-point conclusions people are supposed to remember—but that’s not science. Science is a process. It is a lively method of investigation. Think of science as a way that allows you to ask a whole lot of questions, about everything and anything, and that gives you a method and approach to enable you to systematically and methodically investigate things, to act sort of like a detective out in the world, to deeply investigate natural reality, or social reality.”
With this in mind, I decided to open the evening up with a question, to get everyone thinking and working together on the theme of the night, “How do you know what is true and why does it matter?” I asked, “What does it mean to think critically?”
A Black 14-year-old dove in first, suggesting, “Critical thinking means trying to figure out what is the main point out of a lot of points being made.” A second student said, “It means thinking more deeply... reading between the lines. Like, if you read a newspaper article you think what might be behind this story... and how does it relate to other things I am reading?” A white man in the back of the room posed, “It means interrogating something... looking to see if you can find fault in it. Even if it’s your own idea, see if you can poke holes in it, like with forensics.” A young man from Egypt added, “You should ask seven ‘why’s.’” He suggested questions like: Why is the idea being put this way? Why are certain facts included and not others? And other questions asking, why?
I posed that a pattern was emerging. In different ways, people were getting at the need to examine an idea systematically—to identify the essence of what is being argued, to examine it from different angles and how it relates to other ideas and information. These are, indeed, important elements of thinking critically. But, all this still left unanswered—and unasked—a deeper question: What method should be used in this process? To put it another way, it’s good to “think deeply,” but using what criteria and with what approach? By “trusting your gut”? By gathering evidence? By consulting religious scripture? By taking a poll?
People thought for a minute. This time, a young high school teacher went first. She began confidently, “You should go with personal experience,” but then paused, adding, “But also you might go with things you’ve read.... oh wait, I am not sure.” Someone else suggested using common sense, like if someone says a murder took place in a cul-de-sac on 135th Street in Harlem but you know there aren’t any cul-de-sacs there, then you know they are wrong. Another person suggested that you have to ask what are the interests of the person telling you something to determine if they can be trusted.
But, what if you don’t personally know whether there are cul-de-sacs in Harlem? Or, what if there are cul-de-sacs? That doesn’t necessarily mean that the murder took place. Or, what if someone does have an interest in an idea being true—like a researcher who comes up with a new medical cure? Does that mean automatically that they shouldn’t be believed?
We kicked all this around for a while—including taking apart the idea of “common sense.” Sometimes things people assume to be “common sense” are true (like, you can’t fly to the moon in five minutes), but other times “common sense” is not true (like the idea that, “America was founded on freedom and democracy,” when, in fact it was founded on slavery and genocide). In reality, “common sense” is just a way to refer to things that are so widely accepted as true that most people don’t think to question them. But, that is not a good gauge. Just because a lot of people believe something doesn’t make it true! It's essential, in contrast, to evaluate things based on evidence.
This is something Skybreak drives home very powerfully, including when she says, “I don’t really care what most people think, if it’s not right. You have to show me the evidence of why something is true. And if one person is putting forward something that is true (that corresponds to actual reality) and yet nobody else agrees with them, that doesn’t make it not true! Show me the evidence. And, conversely, if great numbers of people believe something to be true—’everybody knows this’ or ‘everybody knows that,’ there’s a general consensus—I have to say that, as a scientist, I don’t find that particularly convincing! You are really going to have to show me the evidence.”
After a bit more wrangling, I drew from Bob Avakian’s article on “‘A Leap of Faith’ and a Leap to Rational Knowledge: Two Very Different Kinds of Leaps, Two Radically Different Worldviews and Methods.” BA walks through how everyone all the time is making leaps in their thinking, going from just perceiving a bunch of information to making a leap to how they synthesize that information and what they draw from it. What BA makes clear, and what many in the room were starting to think about for the first time, is that people use different methods for making this leap,that these different methods are not all “equally valid,” and that there are actually really big stakes bound up with which method people use.
To illuminate this, BA uses the example of football. If you don’t know the rules of football, when you watch it it appears like just a bunch of players slamming into each other with no rhyme or reason. You are simply perceiving what is happening, but you haven’t made the leap yet to correctly figuring out what holds it together. If you keep watching long enough, you can start to recognize the patterns in how the game is played and come to grasp the rules that are shaping and underlying the patterns you are perceiving. Through this process you are making a leap from perceptual knowledge (simply perceiving what is happening) to rational knowledge (understanding the underlying dynamics holding the patterns together).
Or, to draw from another example BA provides, say you are sitting on a jury. Both sides present a lot of information and arguments. During this process, you are gathering perceptual knowledge. But, to come to a verdict you have to sift through all that information and weigh the different arguments and come to a verdict. This requires a leap. This leap, if it is based on thoroughly weighing the different evidence presented and correctly identifying the patterns that hold it together, is a leap to rational knowledge.
Picking up on some of the approaches offered in the discussion thus far, I posed that there were other ways you could make leaps in your thinking that wouldn’t be justified at all. For example, you could go from personal experience of having been robbed and, flowing from that, really wanting to see robbers go to jail. But the fact that you were robbed in the past has no relevance on whether this different person accused of robbery is guilty, and if that is the basis on which you make a leap to a verdict, it would be very wrong. Or, you could say, “I don’t need to listen to the evidence, I will just pray on it.” Both of these are methods of thinking that take you away from a correct understanding of reality. No matter how “deeply” you thought and applied these methods, you would not be thinking scientifically nor would you be justified in the verdict you reached.
Several people, including a young Black woman nursing a baby, nodded vigorously when I pointed out that people make leaps in their thinking all the time, but most of the time it happens so automatically they don’t even realize they are doing it. I asked people to speak further to this question of method—and to give examples of different methods being applied in the world around us. And, I asked people to speak to whether any of this stuff about method has any consequences in the world.
This opened up a round of even deeper wrangling. Someone posed that while it is true that people use different methods, it’s not fair to compare leaps of science to leaps of faith, “They are like apples and oranges.” They argued that because both make leaps to conclusions that are not simply contained in the facts, both are equally valid. After a bit, a young person active with Refuse Fascism posed, “The way I see it,” he explained, “if you go by faith you start with your conclusion and then you go out and find facts to confirm it. But, if you are being scientific you go out and investigate the reality and the facts and you draw your conclusions out of that. They seem like the opposite.”
Someone else responded, “But, people can come to the same conclusion through different methods.” They gave examples of various things that religious forces have come to that are not in conflict with what scientists have come to understand.
This, too, kicked around in the room for a while until yet another high school student argued, “That makes me think of what my math teacher is always saying: You can get the right answer for the wrong reason, but then you will get the next answer wrong. You need to get the right answer for the right reason, so that you can solve the next problem and the next problem. Now I am thinking this applies everywhere—not just math.”
We used this very important insight to examine things like the flood of lies coming from the Trump/Pence regime. Kellyanne Conway, for example, had just LIED and made up a massacre that never happened, and then attacked the media for not covering this non-existent massacre. It’s very important to expose that lie. But then tomorrow, when she lies again, how can people tell? Even if you are able to keep up with the tsunami of lies and refute every single one, if this is all you do people will start to tune out. Or they’ll think, “Well, who can say what’s really true? Everyone just has their own opinion,” and pick the voice that most appeals to them. This is no good!
Conway and the Trump regime are not only spreading lies, they are actively training people not to think critically. Instead they are training people to believe what they say simply because they say it, and to treat every other source of information as “fake.” In contrast, we need to arm people not only with the facts that expose their particular lies, but also the scientific method so people can increasingly sort out what is true for themselves.
A political scientist objected, “Kellyanne is being scientific. She’s asserting her facts and drawing conclusions out of them.” This was just nuts, and reveals the tremendous relativism that grips much of academia. No. There was no evidence to back up Conway’s claims of a massacre so they are most definitely not “facts.”
Returning to a major theme of Skybreak’s book, a member of the Revolution Club spoke forcefully about how science is an evidence-based process, you start with evidence from reality and draw conclusions based on analyzing and sifting through that evidence, and then you return it to reality both to test it and confirm if it is correct and to change that reality in line with what is really possible and what you see as desirable. It doesn’t matter how many times Kellyanne Conway or anyone else in the Trump regime (or anywhere else!) asserts something and it doesn’t matter how many people believe something, if there is no evidence for it it is not a “fact” and it has nothing to do with science!
Later, Raymond Lotta returned to something that had been posed about “faith and science being separate realms that have nothing to do with each other.” He countered this argument by showing how every claim made by religion can and should be examined with the scientific method. To illuminate this point, he walked through the ways that the myth of creation in the Bible is disproven by the material evidence of evolution. But not only that, he went on, the origins of various religions and why different peoples made up different religious myths can also be examined by science. He walked through, for example, why the patriarchal societies that invented Christianity put such emphasis on woman being the cause of “original sin.” But that is not all, he continued, the question of why different people practice different religions can be examined by science. He gave the example of Black people being kidnapped and converted to Christianity at gunpoint through slavery. But this is not all, he went deeper, science can also be applied to examine what the objective effect of religion has been in maintaining systems of oppression. He gave examples of how religion has trained people not only to accept oppressive moral codes, but also to find “meaning in their suffering and exploitation,” as well as to prevent people from asking the questions of “why” and looking for answers in the real world, with the scientific method.
Every time Raymond posed that “science can go even deeper” many faces in the room lit up brighter and brighter with the joy of discovery and new thinking. Several, including the high school student who had referenced her math teacher, let out delighted laughter each step along the way.
Things went in many different directions and touched on much more than I am able to do justice to in this write-up. As a young Asian woman put it, the conversation was messy, but so is the real world that we are trying to understand. But it was also invigorating, surfacing for people questions of method they had never even recognized before and enabling everyone to dive in together and get somewhere important. Throughout the night, we drew heavily from—and pointed people back into—the breakthroughs Bob Avakian has made in both recognizing the incredible importance of the scientific method to the process of understanding and changing the world, and in putting communism on a thoroughly scientific foundation.
Hands were still in the air when we decided to end the formal discussion, to give people a chance to talk more deeply informally, to browse the books, and more. A stack of Ardea Skybreak’s book was passed around for people to look at and purchase, as were copies of Bob Avakian’s books BAsics, The New Communism, and Away With All Gods!. People bought copies of these and other books and knots of people formed up and stayed for a long time, continuing to wrangle.
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.