Civilization creates its own fatal disease which is the predominance of popular notions over realistic ones. This disease proves difficult to diagnose because it is invisible, intangible and omnipresent. Like a virus in a computer network, it spreads through any and every program, elusive in its lack of a center to attack.
If these writings seem to rage too much against scapegoats — The JewsTM, “thugs,” The Rich, government itself instead of the voters who empower it — it is to avoid falling into the pitfall of popular notions, which perpetually prefer a tangible and easily-understood target to the more complex task of unraveling different threads and separating truth from lies.
Other popular illusions get short shrift sometimes but merit our attention, with two of them being the “fact”-based narrative and the obsession with details that demands lengthy research and vocabulary to merely discuss an item at a deeper level than “insight porn,” the pop culture styled contrarianism that creates a Thomas Kinkade level of philosophy: bright colors, simple scenes, and essentially a pleasant illusion avoiding the deeper problems within.
Many of us distrust the “fact”-based narrative for a simple reason:
There are no facts, only interpretations. – F.W. Nietzsche
That is to say: our language cannot convey wholly what is in reality, so it is inherently selective. This extends to fact-finding itself, which must choose facts to fit a narrative instead of assessing all facts and then looking to see what remains. A selective narrative produces a 300-page book of compelling ideas, where an assessment of all facts would produce a 10,000-page spacy analysis that few would read, until a final chapter appears which seems to magically make broad conclusions.
The left will always attack with the idea that conservative ideas are not “fact”-based, because the left specializes in cherry-picking data especially within a recent time frame, mainly because their goal is to explain away the unbroken historical record of failure to democracy, egalitarianism and subsidy-based economies (“socialism”). They have more to conceal than they have to say, so they specialize in generating “facts” that are in fact a very selective reading of reality, transferred into narrow categorical containers to produce a binary, and then spun into broad universal conclusions derived from relatively thin evidence.
Over the course of my life, I have seen both popular wisdom and the latest scientific studies fall. Not just arrive at a state of doubt; outright fail. This is because there are numerous levels of selection bias. Paul Krugman, a talented writer whose conclusions are often wrong because they are based on false assumptions, hits the nail on the head — broken clock right twice a day, perhaps — with this statement:
It doesnâ€™t matter that the skeptics have been proved right. Simply raising questions about the orthodoxies of the moment leads to excommunication, from which there is no coming back. So the only â€œexpertsâ€ left standing are those who made all the approved mistakes. Itâ€™s kind of a fraternity of failure: men and women united by a shared history of getting everything wrong, and refusing to admit it.
In other words, there is a selection bias among those who have become recognized leaders in their field, and it is not unfair to assume that much of this consists of destroying any ideas which conflict with their own. Their careers are based on their ideas; unlike even fifty years ago, when people were promoted based on their character and generalized abilities, in the current time people are vaulted to the top of their profession for attracting public interest. This leads to the second form of selection bias.
Crowd selection bias exists as a positive distinction, meaning that the masses reward what they find appealing. Note that these are not the masses as a whole, but the specific plurality which consumes news and intellectual products (usually books and movies). They ignore anything which is too complex or offends their conventional wisdom, but if they find a champion for an idea they find compelling, they will lift that person up through their purchases and attention. These heroes are the talk of the town for a few years, then are forgotten because their theories did not redefine the world. Thus Thomas Piketty passes into history and joins a list of other names I could cite here, but none of us would recognize them. They are past favorites, now comfortably serving as heads of departments or laboratories across the West.
In addition to the above selection biases, a type of negative selection bias exists which is fear of offending. We on the realist fringe are familiar with this one! Any idea that is too dangerous, or too insane — and the opposition likes to conflate these two much as the Soviets did — will be viewed as potentially incurring risk of offending either a plurality that is vocal or worse, a group or individual with protected pity-status. Those are dangerous and must be avoided, and so these are filtered out before they reach the surface.
Those three alone guarantee that “facts” as released into the mainstream will rarely provide useful information; “useful” is a better test than crowd favorite “valid,” which merely means placed in a form that is coherent. More likely, the facts issued forth will take the form of the far wall of an echo chamber, repeating what is already believed by excluding anything which does not fit that narrative.
Some useful facts make it through. These are either advanced by those who know their importance, or sneak past in a variety of guises. The best guise is insignificance, or the noting of a small detail and allowing others to interpret it. Another is as internal criticism within already accepted theory or ideology. Yet another is the infamous backwards attack, in which the researcher or writer advances a terrible argument in favor of an idea in order to show how hollow the idea is. These different types of guises are generally employed by those who work for the crowd heroes who run the departments.
None of these filters however disguise the raw problem with “fact”-based reasoning: the facts are chosen in order to be popular, and the method is bad. Modern science consists of surveying data, picking a factor to look at, and implying a causative relationship through statistical means that address only the data itself. Inherent in that are a number of assumptions which rely on universal tendencies to data, or similarities between context based on the form of information and not the specifics of its derivation, and these fail time and again. No one cares: this is an industry, not a moral crusade to be realistic.
On the other side from the “fact”-based narrative is another narrative which seems to be different: the detail obsession of specific domains of knowledge and vocabulary, which hold that to discuss a topic you must have read thousands of pages of dense material and mastered many small nuances. If humans retained their ancestral intelligence, they would see this for what it is, which is job protection through obscurity. Remember “security through obscurity,” the idea that if you make your computer products cryptic enough no one will hack them, despite the fact that hackers specialize in the cryptic because much like regulation offers more options to cheat, it offers more different wrinkles to exploit? Job security requires that specialized workers make their tasks so obscure and rife with tedious detail that outsiders cannot critique, oversee or redesign them. This perpetuates “the way we do things around hereTM” in perpetuity, guaranteeing jobs but reducing competitiveness. The same is true of academics and other thinkers, who want to claim ideographic space on the great blueprint of known ideas, and the defend it by making entry impossible, and forcing those who would enter to adopt enough of the language of the discipline as to force them to accept the specific precepts of its owners.
Within this topic, I side with the philosophers: all ideas reduce to a very simple core, and there are not many actual ideas, so generally what one finds is a variation on a previous idea. What is needed is not an in-depth look, but a clarification of the basic concepts in as few words and specialized terms as possible, or discussion is moved into a domain controlled by the specific knowledge which makes extrusion to other domains of knowledge nearly impossible. Academia hates this idea because it would put the philosophers and literature teachers back in charge, and since the best of those tend toward realism, they would focus on collapsing the empty spaces of rhetoric and domain-anchoring dogma and replace it with simpler, clearer concepts. Compare The Republic or Reverence to the average book of academic writing and the difference leaps from the page: good thinking expresses itself clearly in few concepts and then reveals their depth; bad thinking expresses itself in a nearly flat hierarchy of specialized concepts, hiding meaning within, then explains it through examples which only gradually reveal what is actually being said.
As always, the problem of humanity chases us here. Why is it that all of our knowledge is corrupted, all of our leaders are bad, and all great civilizations extinguish themselves? The only smart money says that a similar pathology, or repeated behavior that is indifferent to its results, explains all three. We got a hint of this in the news this week when attention whoring made the news:
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) on Saturday backtracked from recent comments in which she seemed to suggest that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was getting more attention than she deserved by admitting what’s widely known about Washington: everyone seeks attention.
So that we all catch the tacit admission here, let us look at the normal, healthy leadership. A good manager seeks what must be done to succeed and then works to accomplish it. But as McCaskill says, democratic Washington acts on the opposite principle: it seeks what is popular, and then finds a way to justify it by arguing toward some recognized policy goal. In other words, we are no longer in the domain of leadership, but in entertainment, except that it uses the mantle of authority given to leaders to grant itself gravitas and extort money from us all. People, she said that politicians make their careers by attention-whoring; no one mentioned leadership or acting on what is important here. Grab headlines and win, just like the “fact”-based studies, and do what is right and be ignored.
In this light, our society resembles a closed circle: each of us does what is popular, so that we may become popular, based on what has been popular in the past. Surface-level alterations, such as what hipsters excel at like adding tubas to indie-rock bands and proclaiming it “a new sound,” are in fact affirmation of sameness in the same way the exception proves the rule: if the only differentiation possible is aesthetics only, then no other idea is possible, which affirms the predominance of the idea. This closed circle means that we as a society are like a dog chasing its own tail, entirely self-referential and oblivious to the larger reality around us. “Fact”-based argument, and argument from detail-obsessive specialized domains of knowledge, are methodologies which endorse and promote this outlook. Its end result is that reality is ignored and supplanted by social reality, or the collective consensual hallucination formed of what people desire, judge or feel — in other words, what they wish were true instead of what they deduce or induce to be true. This is the end result of all crowd selection algorithms, whether democracy, consumerism or simply social popularity, and constitutes a revelation of the implicit goal in those methods which is to obscure difficult truths by re-directing our focus elsewhere.
All of this leads to the point of the essay you are now (still?) reading: universalism creates subjectivity. Our theory is that in order to find objective truths, we must create an objective truth which is shared among people. However, by doing so, we grant a weight to that objectivity which guarantees it will be manipulated, and because people have different levels of the power of discernment — this is distinct from subjectivity; it suggests that we have different degrees of the same abilities, not different abilities which produce different truths — they will then use the same objective symbols and tokens but mean different things, gradually poisoning the objective truth by redefining its tokens. A better approach is to reject the objectivity/subjectivity dichotomy and instead take an esoteric approach, which may be summarized as “the truth reveals itself to those who are ready, in varying degrees according to readiness.” With esotericism, we expect no objective truth to be universal, and correspondingly guard against poisoning by cherry-picked facts (in “scientific” “studies”) and biased language controlling specialized domains of thought alike.