CRF Blog

After the Fact

by Bill Hayes

In After the Fact for the New Yorker, Jill Lepore reviews The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data by Michael P. Lynch.

Lynch has been writing about this topic for a long time, and passionately. The root of the problem, as he sees it, is a well-known paradox: reason can’t defend itself without resort to reason. In his 2012 book, “In Praise of Reason,” Lynch identified three sources of skepticism about reason: the suspicion that all reasoning is rationalization, the idea that science is just another faith, and the notion that objectivity is an illusion. These ideas have a specific intellectual history, and none of them are on the wane. Their consequences, he believes, are dire: “Without a common background of standards against which we measure what counts as a reliable source of information, or a reliable method of inquiry, and what doesn’t, we won’t be able to agree on the facts, let alone values. Indeed, this is precisely the situation we seem to be headed toward in the United States.” Hence, truthiness. “I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books: they’re élitist,” Stephen Colbert said in 2005, when he coined “truthiness” while lampooning George W. Bush. “I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart. And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today.”

The origins of no other nation are as wholly dependent on the empiricism of the Enlightenment, as answerable to evidence. “Let facts be submitted to a candid world,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. Or, as James Madison asked, “Is it not the glory of the people of America, that whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?”

When we Google-know, Lynch argues, we no longer take responsibility for our own beliefs, and we lack the capacity to see how bits of facts fit into a larger whole. [more]