TORONTO, ONTARIO - Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke has been receiving a lot of publicity from a recent column in the form of an obituary for the concept of facts. Sadly, Huppke has a point.
Once upon a time, the late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's quote about facts was the last word on the subject. "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." Huppke implicitly points out that this is no longer regarded as true; paradoxically, the existence of facts is no longer regarded as a fact, or an empirically-derivable reality. Now, reality is based on beliefs or ideology, and demonstrable truths take a back seat. NPR's piece on the Huppke editorial cites Stephen Colbert's concept of "truthiness" as a replacement for facts, but whatever we call it, it's not the same bedrock for life of my youth.
The truly amazing part of this transition is that, while people all over the political spectrum in the United States are to blame for advancing the deprecation of facts, most of the big blows have come from political conservatives. Once upon a time, I seem to recall conservatives accusing liberals of having a relative world view in which there was no absolute truth. They thought their world view was based on immutable things, while the liberal had no grounding because their beliefs shifted based on circumstances.
Granted, it wasn't "facts" but "truths" usually cited by conservatives, implying belief over provability, but in abandoning the concept of demonstrable facts, the conservatives that have made up facts have shown that they are just as relative in their reality as they had accused liberals of being. In fact, they have rather proven the liberals' point that one's perspective on the world is relative--if we can't agree on demonstrable facts, then clearly one's perspective and life experience does matter, which is what the liberals have been saying all along.
Leave it to me to put a personality spin on the whole situation--one of the reasons that facts can be declared dead in the United States is that it's a fundamentally emotional-world society. (I've argued that people in the United States don't care about the truth before.) In a balanced society, the logic of the spiritual world would fight back with a defense of facts. But, the spiritual world is so irrelevant in most contexts in the United States that it has no ability to fight back.
Ironically, the only thing that will bring facts back to their former status in the United States is for a campaign on their behalf to arise. Stephen Colbert has done his part, but until there are a critical mass of people who can sell the concept of facts, Rex Huppke's editorial may continue to ring true, and that's sad.