We've had much discussion about living in a post-fact society, but I'm not sure we really appreciate just how much trouble the whole business of "facts" is in.
I don't mean the obvious public signs, like a national Vice-Presidential candidate who simply lies his way through a nationally broadcast debate. I'm not talking about how many of us keep our head buried in the internet bucket, listening to nothing but the echoes of our own voices.
I think our problem is deeper than that.
We've seen, for instance, something now called the replication crisis, the growing discovery that many landmark (and not-so-landmark) studies are simply one-offs, research completed exactly one time and attempts to replicate the results have either not been made, or have been made and turned out to be unsuccessful. Keep digging and you find that many "facts" about what constitutes "normal" for human beings are just plain non-factual.
The institutions that are traditionally the center of fact-discovery, or the kind of research that lets us Know New Things are in trouble, beset by everything from financial to ideological problems. Billionaires like the Koch brothers now hire professors to present the preferred set of "facts" to students. With tenure a thing of the past, professors and scholars will feel more pressure to avoid coming up with "facts" that might make anyone uncomfortable. And the pressure on colleges and universities is to replace coursework with micro-credentials, with simple competency-based tasks which can by their very nature only be defined in terms of what we already "know." You can't create a competency-based performance task built around the creation or discovery of new knowledge. You can only recycle.
At the same time, we are trying to build facts about things we cannot know. We cannot know what is going on in another person's head, in their thoughts, their feelings-- but education reformsters want to quantify that and attach a number to it so that we can kick it around as if it is a fact. Every day brings one more article that tries to bandy about facts about something for which no facts can be generated. Here's just one example from Education Next-- an article trying to consider the facts of what disciplinary techniques produce good results, as if there's a way to know the connection between how an eight-year-old is scolded for punching a classmate and whether or not that child thirty years later will be a good, decent, responsible adult. In education we want to know so many things that cannot be known, and so we insist on making up "facts" as proxies, numbers that we can claim correspond to actual facts. We talk about "student achievement" as if the numbers attached to the idea are facts, when they are just test scores from a single badly-written, narrowly-focused standardized test (perhaps fed through an unproven and unreliable equation).
Meanwhile, our own government has defined down what constitutes a fact. The definition of "evidence" used by the feds and enshrined, among other places, in the Every Student Succeeds Act includes demonstrating a rationale-- in other words, any half-baked argument I've ever made on this blog can be counted as "evidence." The last federal policy paper I looked at said that "research-based" includes any "conclusions or conjectures" from experts in the field, so I guess "facts" stop just short of wild-assed guesses, but not by much. And really-- if conjectures and rationales qualify as research and evidence, then how hard is it to be an "expert" in a field, particularly a field like education where we swim in an ocean of facts that are not actually facts.
Look, education has always been short on facts. Experimenting on children is Bad, so we've mostly held back on that. And studies conducted on a group of sophomores at one particular university aren't exactly broadly helpful.
But we live increasingly in a fact-starved world, a world in which facts are not only beaten and thrown down the stairs until they look like a ball of silly putty run through a blender, but we aren't even all that interested in looking for facts in the first place. And because we are a People of Irony, the fewer facts we use, the more we insist we are data-driven and evidence-based.
Hey, I'm a good old-fashioned "truth is more important than facts" any day. But it's really hard to get to the truth when your facts are not facts, and we are increasingly paying a price as a society for swimming in a giant vat of bovine fecal matter and pretending we're beating Ryan Loche (who may be an ass, but he's a fast ass) in an Olympic pool.
The scariest thing is not that we are ignorant of what the facts are. The scariest thing is that many of us don't even know what a fact is.