The Attack on Truth

A recent, lengthy column in the Chronicle of Higher Education bemoans what Stephen Colbert used to call “truthiness” and what the author calls an “attack on truth”:

There is simple ignorance and there is willful ignorance, which is simple ignorance coupled with the decision to remain ignorant. Normally that occurs when someone has a firm commitment to an ideology that proclaims it has all the answers — even if it counters empirical matters that have been well covered by scientific investigation. More than mere scientific illiteracy, this sort of obstinacy reflects a dangerous contempt for the methods that customarily lead to recognition of the truth. And once we are on that road, it is a short hop to disrespecting truth.

The author lays much of the blame for this state of affairs at the feet of postmodern literary critics and cultural-studies folks who advanced the argument that truth is relative, and there is no such thing as objectivity.

There is much more, and the entire column is well worth reading, but I think the argument against postmodernism is misplaced. (I think fear, a product of modernity’s disorienting change, has far more explanatory power.) I have my own problems with postmodernism, but there is a difference–which the author glosses over–between “truth” and “fact.” And that difference matters.

Science deals with the discovery of testable facts-– the sort of knowledge that can be confirmed or debunked by experimentation and reason. Facts are demonstrable, and the data upon which they are based can be shared with others who have the necessary skills to evaluate them. The broader meanings and conclusions we humans draw from the facts at our disposal, however, are subject to social construction.

Morality, philosophy and religious doctrines are efforts to identify truths of the sort that cannot be verified in a laboratory and must inevitably remain matters of belief. Or faith.

The author is right about one thing, however: When we choose to disregard facts established by science, we also abandon any pretense that we are searching for those broader truths, or even acting in our own rational self-interest.

When our anti-intellectual policymakers cling ever more frantically to their “willful ignorance,” we’re all in trouble.

Big trouble.


  1. You’re so right Sheila. It’s perplexing and scary when policymakers are provided with evidence – even overwhelming evidence like the 99% of scientists who say climate change is real and humans contribute to it – but some policymakers won’t face facts.

    The root of such willful ignorance seems to be money. When wealthy contributors feel threatened by facts, they’ll spend millions to overwhelm them. Too bad they won’t spend millions to solve the problem rather than denying it.

  2. Neither fundementalism in religious interpretations of a fact nor strict constructionism in legal interpretations of a fact tend to recognize the element of “social construction” that is inherent in such efforts. To be willing to study and critique one’s own standing place requires humility and humility is lacking in a culture that has changed pride from being a deadly sin into a vittue. But this flaw is not limited to fundementalists and strict constructionists. We all live within this culture so we all must take care when interpreting what is before us. We must all seek the virtue of humilitas no.matter how counter-intuitive that may appear.

  3. Willful ignorance is most strongly demonstrated by those people who agree with what the problems are today, complain about losing their food stamps, Medicaid assistance with Medicare, the high cost of everything, et al, then IF they do vote, they vote the same people into office who are the root of all therir problems.

  4. Most people try hard to not be wrong. They try, but many aren’t very good at it. So the folks that I’ve met who deny climate science for instance believe that they’re right because they are following those who seem credible to them but the fact is that the rubes are easy to fool and the snake oil salesmen are good at being slick. The perfect recipe for record snake oil sales. A booming economy at least in that market.

    Every once in a while I run into someone who asks a completely legitimate question about me and climate science. “How do you know that you’re right?”

    Well, I’ve studied and practised science for most of seven decades. I can back up my climate science with facts and data and theory. I study science journals every day to keep up on new developments. I avoid Fox News. I debate with people to try to find the “bottom line” where whys run out.

    I understand that most people spend their time in other fields so I try to offer them condensed versions of what I choose to invest my time in learning.

    The real problem in the point the Sheila is making today is how can people be really right, not feel good right, in a fast paced highly complex world where knowledge is expanding at speeds such that complete dedication to very narrow fields is required just to keep up?

    Well clearly good research is required. That takes time away from our biggest pool nowadays of discretionary time, entertainment. It takes open mindedness combined with critical thinking skills. It takes education. It takes discussion with others face to face as the best way to judge credibility. It takes careful thought of priorities. What is most important to really understand? It takes realistic appraisal of business and politics. BS detection.

    I have found in general it useful to follow a useful simple cognition model. Our brains are full of three sensory memories. Our experience. The behavior of others who we believe we are like (culture). The experience of others that we have learned (education). When it comes to critical research trust education (one critical education priority IMO today is statistics) and experience but question culture.

    We each require knowledge of some part of what we collectively know. What we collectively know is expanding by leaps and bounds. So for openers we individually need to be learning by leaps and bounds continuously.

    There is room for much improvement.

  5. Bingo Sheila – and when you add this to the incessant disinformation campaigns now under way that strive to capitalize on or enhance willful ignorance in virtually every extant media form you undermine the most critical element in our political discourse – free and open debate. What are these people so afraid of and where did they get such a dismal attitude as human beings? I cannot for the life of my understand why anyone with any sort of moral compass within themselves would think that these political dirty tricks are the right things to do and yet it just grows worse. Donald Segretti of Watergate notoriety can’t hold a candle to this current crop of dirty tricksters.

  6. Nancy, I don’t know how many times that figure has to be shown to be false before global warming alarmists stop using it. First, it’s 97%, not 99%, and it’s climate scientists not “scientists.” And it’s not even all climate scientists, it’s a very small subset of climate scientists of the total, ones who have done papers, which were funded by grants which funding was premised on the recipient proving anthropogenic global warming.

    People who use the 97% figure generally have no idea where it came from. It came from the results of an on-line survey published in 2009 by Peter Doran and Maggie Kendall Zimmerman of the University of Illinois. The survey was sent to 10,257 scientists with 3,146 responding. The 97% figure is based on the responses of 79 of those scientists.

    The first survey question was: “When compared to pre-1800 levels, do you think mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant.” That is an intentionally, loaded question. Of course temperatures have risen since the 1700s, the depths of the Little Ice Age. 100% of those polled should have said “yes,” but surprisingly only 90% did.

    The second survey question was: “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?” The question fails in a couple respects. First, it doesn’t identify what “human activity” is being talked about. Urban sprawl contributes to higher temperatures, just like a paved lot is going to produce warmer surface temperatures than the grass field it replaced. The question does not mention anything about the burning of fossil fuels. Second, the question does not identify what is meant by “significant.” One scientist might think a 5% impact by mankind is significant, while another might think 25% is significant.

    Of the 3,146 responses, 82% said “yes” to this question. This combined with the 90%, produces an 86% figure. How do they get to 97% then? The 97% figure from the survey comes from a whittling down of the accepted number of responses from 3,146 to 79. The 79 scientists are those who said they have recently published 50% of their papers in the area of climate change. Of these, 76 of 79 answered “risen” to questions one (96.2%). As to question two 75 of 77 answered “yes” (97.4%).

    When you look at other scientists, not funded by grants premised on finding anthropogenic global warming, you find a high degree of skepticism. Meteorologists for example are some of the leading critics of the AGW theory.

    Anthropogenic global warming theory is based on feeding certain information into computer modeling to make future projections. It is not based on studies of things that have happened in the past. Not surprisingly the models have already proven to be terribly flawed.

    We need to stop demanding that scientific THEORIES should be above question, not subject to demands for proof. Just because a THEORY has “consensus” of support, that doesn’t mean it’s above challenge. If it was we wouldn’t have had Einstein’s Theory of Relativity which proved Newton to be wrong centuries later.

  7. P.K.O., forgetting survey and scientists, how would you explain the contrast between pictures taken in 1935 of the glaciers in Glacier National Park and where the glaciers are today?

  8. Paul provides an interesting example of the issue in Sheila’s blog and my post.

    There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Paul believes his post is factually correct. Right? Is it?

    I’m sure that he can post a source for his information but I would propose the link above as a more informed source. Dr John Cook from the Universe of Queensland in Australia, the author of has been researching the nature of climate science denial for many years using the scientific method as his process. He’s one of the foremost peers in the peer review for climate science because he is truly a peer, a fully qualified climate scientist beholden to no fossil fuel business interests.

    But to understand his position much research is required. There is probably not a word that he has published that I have not read. His credibility to me stems from the totality of his work, not a mention here or there of something that would support what I wish was true.

    But in addition to that I understand radiative energy physics which has conclusively known for well over 100 years that 1) atmospheric greenhouse gases explain why the earth has always been warmer than the moon which is equidistant from the sun 2) the most variable greenhouse gas historically is carbon dioxide as our fixed supply has migrated between land, life, atmosphere and water 3) the burning of fossil fuels has to return to the atmosphere carbon dioxide removed from it 300+ million years ago when they were formed and our climate was extraordinarily warm and 4) the only variable that correlates with the measured increase in modern climate warming is increased atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide which correlates with the rate at which we are burning fossil fuels.

    So the only real question is what is the matter with the apparent 3% of climate scientists who do not understand basic energy physics?

    Many it has been shown are paid by the fossil fuel industry to sow doubt, the only marketing strategy left to sell massive future costs to consumers today for a commodity that can be readily produced with much more benign consequences.

    People like Paul have two choices. Get the education and do the research personally or trust those who have.

    An uncomfortable position to be in.

  9. One other point:

    “A hypothesis is either a suggested explanation for an observable phenomenon, or a reasoned prediction of a possible causal correlation among multiple phenomena. In science, a theory is a tested, well-substantiated, unifying explanation for a set of verified, proven factors. A theory is always backed by evidence; a hypothesis is only a suggested possible outcome, and is testable and falsifiable.”


  10. We have the willful ignorance and the “maybe but I do not care” attitude or mother earth will fix it.

    The willfully ignorant that believe humans have no impact need to “google” sixth mass extinction. The recent past saw the destruction of the Mammalian Mega Fauna in Eurasia and the Americas at around the same time modern humans appeared. I am a Baby-Boomer when I was a boy walking around in our yard barefoot was risky business. The white clover in our yard had numerous honeybees and bumble bees. My yard today is covered with white clover, no honeybees in sight and very few bumblebees. Once in a while I see a white butterfly, but none of the monarchs and other pretty butterflies I remember as boy. Humans have also be a part of the spread of invasive species such as rabbits and cane toads in Australia or pythons in Florida and “killer bees”.

    In 2010 the number of registered motor vehicles topped 1 Billion!!! That is a billion more than 1885. In 1929 Ford produced 1,507,132 autos in contrast in 1909 Ford produced Ford 17,771 autos. For decades we had lead added to gasoline, which poisoned the earth. How can anyone think all these automobiles spewing pollution today and in the past have no effect on the earth???

    Today the Exon-Valdez disaster and the even more recent Gulf Oil Spill is largely forgotten. We have rivers and lakes here in the USA where there are fish consumption advisories.

  11. Reducing fossil fuel combustion has so many economic, social and health benefits that sowing doubt about whether climate change is caused by human activity seems to be an opportunity for the doubters to win while our atmosphere gets more polluted, our dependence on imported oil grows and the overall health of the planet is degraded.

    We have some evidence that alternative fuels provide benefits that fossil fuels can not. So the discussion comes down to which ideology will be “right”. Who cares? Let’s do something constructive and progressive that has demonstrable benefits beyond the naked cost to the consumer and positions humans to survive another 1000 years.

  12. While the discussion has been going on, we have been adding more people, more cars, more consumption and more waste. If you don’t believe the science, just take a look around your environment. Louie is right. My yard is full of flowering plants that would normally be full of pollinators, honey bees, bumble bees, moths and butterflies. We have seen a grand total of 5 honey bees this season, some bumble bees, moths and an occasional butterfly. I spend great parts of most days out working in my yard.
    Wash your windows, put white cloth of any kind out to dry on a line for a few hours, wipe down your patio table. What you will discover is a fine layer of grit. If you live near a busy street as I do, the grit is fine rubber particles, black dust that we are seeing in greater and greater amounts yearly. We breath it. It is on our hair, hands, anything we routinely touch or ingest.
    Common sense should tell you that adding more and more people and their waste without any thought to the consequences is a recipe for disaster. We are killing off more and more species in our ever growing demand for fossil fuels and food. Eventually, we will outstrip our resources. (Water is going fast.) Disease and natural forces will likely take a huge toll at some point if we do not change our course.
    All the manipulation of data by those who continue to gain profit in the short term not withstanding, the evidence is there to see. Open your eyes, get educated.

  13. Another point: modeling

    Computer modeling today is one of the most fundamental tools of engineering and science. Why? Complex math can be manipulated accurately and quickly and inexpensively and big data displayed in ways that make sense to our senses.

    The application of climate science is to allow us to project what’s necessarily out of the range of our senses to within them. Like the future. What’s important about climate change is how it will effect future weather, sea level and ocean acidity because those changes can require adaptation of our civilization from our past experience. No longer can we just pack up the tents and move.

  14. I see three states of ignorance:
    (1) ignorant – characterized by lack of knowledge
    (2) willfully ignorant – characterized by resistance to changing the first state of ignorance because of a personal stake in remaining ignorant, such as financial interest or sense of self
    (3) delusional – characterized by extreme resistance to accepting established fact, to the point of irrationality.

    Unfortunately, state 3 is bordering on epidemic.

    Regarding subjectivity, an art critic who was discussing the relativity of art once said, “The more you know about art, the less subjective is it.” I suspect that is true of just about everything.

  15. My opinion is that labeled “willful ignorance” is better labeled inadequate education/research. People like to be right and either invest enough in education and research to be so or slide by by accepting what supports what they wish was true.

    Education and research is time consuming and cognitively challenging. One has to keep an open mind until it’s done. Not an easy row to hoe.

  16. And Paul, have you read even one page of the IPCC report, so that you know the climate change warning is not from a couple of cloud watchers, but from a broad spectrum of scientists from many areas relating to climate? Please, before the planet become Venus’ twin, and you have no idea what is happening, at least check out the IPCC report.

    And when a scientist says “significant”, that means “statistically significant”, which means, with a two-tailed test, it’s P < .05. It's not an arbitrary judgment call or the research could not be used as a basis to build future research. That remark shows some real willful ignorance.

  17. Concerning Ignorance:
    Back in the 1960s through 1990s Conservative Christian Republicans use to know the difference between religion and science.

  18. I have been reading Sheila’s posts for a month or two, along with comments, and thank all of you for your thoughtfulness and willingness to speak out – especially you Sheila. Note: I am from Canada, but was raised in the lower 48, so I am both constantly dismayed and nervously interested in what is happening.

    Now I apologize for what may be a long response (and also that it contains a swear word) – just that it seems relevant…

    There is a marvelous little book called “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt. 2005. Princeton University Press. On page 63 and following is this:

    Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled — whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others — to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it is his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

    The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality…one response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. …

    Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial — notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. and insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.

    Thank you for letting me contribute to this conversation.

  19. 100% of us should be skeptical of every hypothesis. After all there is no data, no evidence yet of its validity. It may be plausible but its not certain.

    Almost none of us should be skeptical of theories. They are supported by evidence that is beyond the resources of most of us to dispute. The skeptisism for theories is reserved for those with possibly more expertise and better data.

  20. A quote on Facebook this morning, referring to another issue in the news, seems to fit here.

    “Americans always do the right thing but only after they have exhausted every other alternative.”

    I will make one change and state that Republicans evidently have not exhausted all of their “Attacks on Truth” as evidence by their references to the Charleston, SC, massacre of nine people in church by an admitted and proven racist. They will go to any length, using all alternatives they can dig up, to deny their blatant racism or that racism exists in this country. This is also evidenced in their, is it now 56 attempts, to repeal and/or defund the ACA. There is also the ongoing battle over same-sex marriage when all evidence (the truth) is against them and their Bible thumping referrals. We now await the verdict from SCOTUS on these issues and others pertaining to our voting and civil rights. Why these issues are before SCOTUS when they are protected rights in the Constitution and Amendments is a vast waste of time and tax dollars as well as ignoring the truth.

    They haven’t yet exhausted all attempts to get their way by shutting down this government so are threatening to try again. Why don’t they admit defeat, pick up their marbles and go home?

    The above quote has been attributed to a number of sources; among them is Winston Churchill. The earliest evidence of this quote found by Quote Investigation was Abba Eban; Israeli politician and diplomat, in March 1967. He later used the quote, rephrasing “Americans” to “nations”. Right on both accounts but we need only concern ourselves with what is happening in this country today. When Republicans (that herd of the presidential wannabes) deny the confession by the actual racist killer of nine praying individuals in a church; we must admit there is no hope of them ever recognizing – or admitting to the truth – which is biting them in the ass on all issues pertinent to the 2016 election and what is happening in America today.

  21. @Joann

    I’m sure you realize, you can’t compare Israelis and Americans: The Israelis can’t afford ” to bury their heads in the sand” like Americans have been able to do in the past and get away with it.

    Can we continue to do that and get away with it? I seriously doubt it. Don’t you?

  22. Marv; I was NOT comparing Israelis with Americans, I repeated a quote by an Israeli which described his view of Ameria. Can you possibly disagree with his view; either in 1967 or in 2015? I have no disagreement with it; do you disagree that Republicans are staging a continuing “Attack of Truth”? His statement is more true today than it was years ago and yes; Republicans, a few turncoat Democrats and too many voters plus non-voters do have their heads buried in the sand. None of this is comparing Israelis with Americans but maybe that isn’t such a bad idea.

  23. Another often overlooked point is that with the change in climate(regardless of cause) we are going to have to make some difficult choices. Storm patterns and intensities have changed. This results in more violent storms, with increased rain intensity. Our storm sewers were designed and constructed based on the climate data for the 20th century. The data need to be updated and our design and sizing of storm water conveyances need to be modernized. However, with the change in storm patterns, it is possible that we could spend more money on larger pipes only to find that we have less frequent storms resulting in those larger pipes sitting dry, until the intense storm drops an inch of rain in an hour. Very challenging and hard to sell to congress, state legislators and mayors.

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