Knowledge as the Only Modern Value

main-building-inscription-view-from-east
Source, though really it’s just John 8:32

This is a commentary on Lou Keep’s piece on HyperNormalisation.

My aim is to repeat what he says, and this warrants an explanation as Lou is an excellent writer. I’ll save that for a future blog post, but the short version is that writing about it forces me to actually understand his argument and condense it into something aiming to be clear, concise, and without words like “jeremiad”.  I apologize to Lou in advance for disfiguring his piece past the point of recognition:

HyperNormalisation – Now in Technicolor

The  BBC documentary of the same name is less important.  What is important is this argument which you may recognize from elsewhere: people in the modern world, are being fed false facts [by the media]. This causes them to be complacent [as opposed to revolting].  Lou’s 5,000 word essay looks at this statement (from now on “statement” in bold), and uses it to make a point. This point is (more or less) that modern society ignores the is/ought problem and acts like knowing facts is sufficient for doing; when in reality different people respond to different facts in different ways depending on their values. Lou uses the word “truth”, but I’ll stick with “facts” as that is what is meant, and the word “truth” has historically been seen as  something distinct.

The Obvious

Every good piece of writing tends to have arguments you already know about and agree with. For me, these were the following. Firstly, from the you’re-not-stuck-in-traffic-you-are-traffic-department:

I would say that’s a neat trick, “Look over there at that media, not we media”, but it’s not a trick. I think he actually believes it, as do other members of the media. This is terrifying

Then, from the there-is-nothing-new-under-the-sun-department:

Julius Caesar was reinterpreted as a Deity, and prayed to as such. How are we to interpret this if “lie becoming truth” is characteristic of modernity?

Both of these points are easy to understand, and there’s nothing groundbreaking about them. They are more or less consistent with the statement, and not the main point of Lou’s piece, because the main point is

The Is/Ought Problem

People making the statement assume that falsehoods cause complacency. The underlying assumption is that if people knew the facts, then they would act differently.  But knowing something (Is) doesn’t imply action (Ought):

This assumes that “truth” has some kind of power. I mean, if lies do, then truth definitely does. Use truth in exchange, enough of it will slay the demon […] Truth, a rote pile of facts and neato information, results in nothing.

A specific example:

The fact that 18% of Americans think the sun moves around the earth has no motive force behind it. What do you do with it? 82% of you will mock the dumbasses, and 18% will not get why they’re being mocked. Those are different responses, in case you weren’t aware of that, i.e. this simple truth doesn’t have any inherent action underlying it.

Or a corollary: if you’re told what action someone takes, then that doesn’t tell you what facts they know (and vice versa). Lou’s point is that in modern discourse, people making statement don’t get this, and incorrectly assume that falsehood is the only possible reason for complacency. This makes a lot of things that previously made less sense to me make more sense.

I have good news for anyone who comes  across an “inconvenient truth” and bad news for those hoping to spread them: none of them mean anything.

What you call “truth”, i.e. a bushel of factoids, leafed together solely with the pithy twine of your self-regard, doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t make people act, it doesn’t make them think. Assuming that it does is madness, as though properly manipulating a syllogism will finally make “change” “occur”.

If “truth” dictates action, and if people don’t act how you think they would they would if they had the truth, then:

Conspiracy!

Step one: Truth makes people act (how I want them to).
Step two: But the people are not acting (how I want them to).
Step three: They must not have the truth, because of […].

This is interesting, and I think is related to how people don’t realize how diverse people’s thoughts (and values) can be. Lou ties this to that other modern pathology – narcissism – and of course to nihilism:

Nihilism is the period at which our highest values become unsustainable. It doesn’t look like bombs and leather jackets. It looks like ashen-faced, Serious Men puking trivialities and staring slack-jawed when this fails to provoke anything.

I’m not sure I agree, more on that below. But there’s still the question about whether or not the manipulation part of the statement itself is true or not.

You need someone so good at lying and distorting that they can annihilate the entirety of the internet, and of public education, and of…

But if we disregard that and assume facts really were misrepresented on a wide scale, who would be easiest to fool?

Educated people are more susceptible to manipulation by the media

The problem with elites is that they’re smarter than the average rube, and they know it, which is why they’ll never get the point. They’re smarter because they do read the journals the periodicals and the magazines. They’re “informed”. But being informed means no filter, i.e. direct from the prop machine. Which means that they are prime propaganda territory, not Joe the Plumber.

Educated people who are informed get their propaganda straight from the source – the media. Joe the Plumber gets the trickle-down version from a wider variety of sources including coworkers, friends, family, etc.

I like this argument, and it has a Chesterton-like feel to it (I suspect Lou has read Orthodoxy), but at the same time I think it is only partially true – people who think tend to be educated [citation needed],  and people who think may be less susceptible to manipulation by the media [citation needed], which would reduce the susceptibility to manipulation of the educated in an average sense. Lou ignores the question of whether education may be correlated with ability to not be manipulated, which is a shame because this is  the standard argument against what he writes.

Some Comments

In my opinion, Lou makes some very good points. But I wish he had said “facts” instead of truth, as this conflation of the two is really what his argument is about (which Lou acknowledges).

1. “Truth” here is considered as a series of facts. This is the common conception of truth, and the one we’re examining, so that’s how I’ll use the word in this essay. Heidegger BTFO until I can make my point.

If this conflation isn’t made, we can throw away the notion that this has something to do with modernity – truth in a more complicated sense has been seen as a value from ancient times (some examples1, also the related aphorism “knowledge is useless unless it leads to wisdom”, etc..), but in pre-modern times people were more happy to speak about objective values or truth in a more mystic sense which completely changes the relationship between truth and action. Maybe the modern view of truth is closer to it being a series of facts, but I don’t think this is entirely the case – there’s always a moral connotation to “truth”, and moral connotation implies values, which Lou wants to keep separate.

Also I don’t quite get how this ties to nihilism: assuming that facts imply action to me assumes objective values which is more or less the opposite of nihilism. Nihilism is not “Serious men puking trivialities and staring slack-jawed when this fails to provoke anything”, nihilism is if people say valuable things but this fails to provoke anything. The over-reliance on truth as a value shows that modern society is less nihilistic in the sense that those making the statement believe in objective values. The problem seems to be that they don’t realize people don’t have uniform values. But probably Lou uses a different definition of nihilism with with this makes more sense.
Quotes

These didn’t really fit in anywhere above:

People are more consistent than we like to think, they just don’t show their work.

The easy critique of “speaking truth to power” is that power already knows the truth, they just don’t care


  1. In Christianity, there’s Jesus’ “I am the way, the truth and the life” and associated “And you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”. In Islam, “The Truth” is one of the names of GodConfucius: “The object of the superior man is truth.” 
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2 thoughts on “Knowledge as the Only Modern Value

  1. Hi – sorry for coming late to comment on this. It’s quite a good summary, and I really appreciate the engagement.

    I don’t have anything to argue with in the summary, so let’s address the points of disagreement (?). That’s much more interesting for a conversation, anyway.

    1. You’re right, of course, to replace “truth” with “facts” – about 90% of my decision to do that was simply because I wanted to dodge definitions of truth. It’s not that the conversation is uninteresting (it’s fascinating), but… well, as you picked up on, my argument could easily be reframed as “we replaced ‘truth’ in a broader sense with ‘facts’ as though these are the same thing’. I was worried that I’d then have to write two separate arguments: first, why truth and facts are not quite the same; second, why facts fail to cause behavior. I opted to make the second first, not because it’s logically prior (it isn’t), but because it somewhat shows *why* such a conflation is harmful.

    2. To address:

    > the question of whether education may be correlated with ability to not be manipulated, which is a shame because this is the standard argument against what he writes.

    Very broadly – the question of college teaching critical thinking seems relevant, but the majority of studies I know are quite pessimistic. Of course, education correlates with cognitive traits that might influence manipulability, but I’m quite skeptical of this. So far as I know, elites display similar and occasionally *worse* bias when it comes to interpretation of politically sensitive subjects. My favorite study (N=1111) is here, but I can provide others if you’d like: https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1794/22105/833.pdf.
    Numeracy is close enough to proxy for IQ here. One might quibble that IQ isn’t the trait related to being manipulated, but it’s certainly the one many people seem to be thinking of regarding education and manipulabiltiy. From the abstract:

    >As expected, subjects highest in numeracy—a measure of the ability and disposition to make use of quantitative information—did substantially better than less numerate ones when the data were presented as results from a study of a new skin-rash treatment. Also as expected, subjects’ responses became politically polarized—and even less accurate—when the same data were presented as results from the study of a gun-control ban. But contrary to the prediction of SCT (Science Comprehension Thesis), such polarization did not abate among subjects highest in numeracy; instead, it increased. This outcome supported ICT (Identity protective Cognition Thesis), which predicted that more Numerate subjects would use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks.

    Still, this is all hypothetical, because (as you point out) I don’t really believe in media being sketchy propaganda. I’m more concerned about identity and narcissism.

    3. As for nihilism: I’m mostly using Nietzsche’s definition (which is, admittedly, not a definition so much as what I can gather from the use all across his works), where it’s not the lack of *all* values, but something more like the process of losing higher values. Ultimately, for him, this leads to a renunciation of the meaning of the world. Nietzsche’s essay the title of mine refers to has some clarification there, at least.

    Here,”truth” is still a value (In a footnote, I do point out that belief in efficacy of truth is the one thing keeping us from really extreme nihilism), but it being defined as “facts” is very much a loss of higher forms, or belief that there *could* be any of those higher forms. This is, perhaps, a personal prejudice, and I worry it will require some argumentation over what “truth” is, when this has already been a rather long comment. Alternately: I suspect that creation is a kind of lying, inasmuch as art is often exaggerating or distorting “facts”, and I may take art>”truth”.

    Either way, the “facts” definiition leads into more extreme variants of nihilism: imagine that people continue to assume the efficacy of facts, and continue running into the issue of them not doing all that much. At a certain point, two things may happen: a) they give up and repudiate the value in “truth” at all (after all, facts aren’t doing anything), and thus we’ve lost that final sense of meaning (not actually the final, but the last really big one); b) they assume the conspiracy must be *so totalizing* that it’s meaningless to fight, and thus nothing is worth doing; c) they don’t care, which is… well, actually may be the best of the options.

    I hope that’s… vaguely satisfying: There’s more to say about nihilism, but I’d like to try and approach it from a different angle this time. I’ve given a rather cursory definition there (not to mention: it’s quite absent why it’s even a *bad* thing). The series I’m writing now is trying to do that from a more epistemological angle, and ideally it should provide a more compelling definition. I don’t mean, “Obviously you’d understand if you read everything I’ve written! Do so now!” both because it’s not in anything I’ve written and also that’s awful. I mean more of a swipe against myself: I’m slowly trying to whittle down a quick, easy definition, but I’m afraid I’m just not clever enough to do so before accidentally writing my way to it. I suspect you know how that is: we can sort of see it adumbrated, and produce long bits of writing that work around an idea, but it takes a ridiculous amount of time to get to the proper, concise version of it (assuming one exists). Here, for instance, I probably could have pointed more towards politics as a value of ours (albeit in a very vague, weird way), but I simply hadn’t thought it through well enough before writing the damn thing.

    Either way: thanks for the essay and the thoughts! I think you’re quite right that I should’ve been more careful about truth/facts and getting into nihilism, and I’m somewhat chiding myself for it now. If you have any more questions let me know, and I’m quite interested to hear whether the stuff in (2) addresses your worry!

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    1. Matty Wacksen

      My sincere apologies for the late reply.

      1. That makes sense.
      2. I only read the abstract of the linked paper, but it seems to measure ability to understand scientific arguments, which to me is something very different to “ability to resist/notice manipulation”. The idea that education is necessary/sufficient for democracy because it leads to more competent and aware people has been repeated almost ad nauseam in many contexts. I included a reference to this idea in my summary mainly for the sake of completeness, not because I know whether it is true or not.
      3. I didn’t realize you were referencing Niezsche’s essay, which I’ve now read. What Niezsche calls “truth” (being a kind of shared illusion a people group has) is more or less related to what you call “values”? If you define nihilism as loss of higher (and also shared?) values that makes sense.
      3.1 (Your paragraph beginning with “Either way…”) Yes this entire paragraph makes a lot of sense. There’s also option (d), which is that they modify their definition of “facts” to include more values, or don’t explicitly say that actually they have more values than just “facts”. This is kind of what I think the “your truth is different from mine” crowd is trying to do.
      3.2 (Your paragraph beginning with “I hope that’s..:”). Yes that makes sense. I’ve read some of your other blog posts, and especially what you’ve written about politics as a value complements your “Truth and Lies in a HyperNormal sense” essay nicely.

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