The Assault on Reason

Zia Haider Rahman at the New York Review of Books: “Albert Einstein was awarded a Nobel Prize not for his work on relativity, but for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. Both results, and others of note, were published in 1905, his annus mirabilis. The prize was denied him for well over a decade, with the Nobel Committee maintaining that relativity was yet unproven. Philosophers of science, most notably Karl Popper, have argued that for a theory to be regarded as properly scientific it must be capable of being contradicted by observation. In other words, it must yield falsifiable predictions—predictions that could, in principle, be shown to be wrong. On the basis of his theory, Einstein predicted that starlight was being deflected by the sun by specified degrees. This was a prediction that was, in principle, capable of being wrong and therefore capable of falsifying relativity. The physicist offered signs others could look for that would lend credibility to his theory—or refute it. Evidence eventually came from the work of Arthur Eddington and the arrival of instruments that could make sufficiently fine measurements, though Einstein’s Nobel medal would elude him for two more years because of gathering anti-Semitism in Europe.

Mathematics, so often lumped together with the sciences, actually adheres to an entirely different standard. A mathematical theorem never submits itself to hypothesis testing, never needs an experiment to support its validity. Once described to me as an education in thinking without the encumbrance of facts, mathematics is unlike the sciences in that no empirical finding can ever shift a mathematical theorem by one iota; it is true forever. Mathematical reasoning is a given, something commonly understood and shared by all mathematicians, because mathematical reasoning is, fundamentally, no more than logical reasoning, a thing universally shared. My own study of mathematics has left me with a deep respect for the distinction between relevance and irrelevance in making a reasoned argument.

These are the gold standards of human intellectual progress. Society, however, has to deal with wildly contested facts. We live in a post-truth world, by some accounts, in which facts are willfully bent to serve political ends. If the forty-fifth president is to be believed, Christmas has apparently been restored to the White House. Never mind the contradictory videos of the forty-fourth president and his family celebrating the holiday.

But there is nothing particularly new about this distorting. In his landmark work, Public Opinion, published in 1922, the formidable American journalist, Walter Lippmann reflected on the functions of the press:

That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough.… as a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power.… Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts, as United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying. None of us is in a position, however, to verify all the facts presented to us. Somewhere, we each draw a line and say on this I will defer to so-and-so or such-and-such. We have only so many hours in the day. Besides, we acknowledge that some matters lie outside our expertise or even our capacity to comprehend. Doctors and lawyers make their livings on such basis.

But it is not merely facts that are under assault in the polarized politics of the US, the UK, and other nations twisting in the winds of what some call populism. There is also a troubling assault on reason….(More)”.