Opaque Empiricism

Feb 2022

The world has never been so devoted to empiricism, yet the truth has never been so opaque. Not only has the promise of empiricism fallen short of satisfying man’s existential need for a cogent world view, but it has even failed in its own wheelhouse: to observe the natural world and in turn develop a functional knowledge of the physical systems that surround us. We often hear some form of the phrase “you can convince yourself of anything depending on where you look” — a sore throat becomes self-diagnosed chronic lymphoma with as little as half an hour on webMD. We are told to “trust the science” with the faith of Abraham bringing Isaac to the alter, all the while the science has never been more contradictory. Edward Abbey makes this observation in Desert Solitaire when he notes “according to some astronomers the major stars of this constellation are approaching us at an inconceivable speed. According to other astronomers, however, these same stars are receding from us at an inconceivable speed. Opinions on the matter are revised, exchanged, forgotten and revived with comforting regularity, just as in the other ‘hard’ or ‘exact’ sciences” [1].

The interesting question is not whether or not empiricism is obfuscating the truth (this seems obvious), but why it is having this effect. This requires a distinction between honest empirical pursuits and dishonest ones. When deployed honestly, empiricism allows us to advance the sum of human knowledge. That being said, these endeavors are carried out by the fallible hand of man. Steinbeck notes the following on the subject: “there is a curious idea among unscientific men that in scientific writing there is a common plateau of perfectionism. Nothing could be more untrue. The reports of biologists are the measure, not of the science, but of the men themselves” [2]. Honest empiricism may have unintended externalities, but it remains distinct from dishonest empiricism because its pitfalls remain unintentional. The latter uses the guise of empiricism to coerce, control and confuse. We will focus chiefly on empiricism being used dishonestly (or simply irresponsibly) to service these insidious ends.

And so we turn to propaganda, a chief cause for this muddying of truth. Empiricism in the modern world has acted as a vessel for the propagation of propaganda. Propaganda is so dangerous and effective now because it is increasingly hard to distinguish from information. In fact, propaganda often simply is true information — thus its roots in empiricism. One may find this implausible, but take the example of an advertisement for a car. An advertisement may be chock-full of technical details about the product: this many liter engine, this suspension tune, these sensors leveraging LIDAR technology. But if the viewer is not sufficiently well-versed in car mechanics or mechatronics, he will simply be left with a general impression of the product. When asked about the car, he may respond “it seems great!” without being able to articulate anything further. Did that information provide the viewer with a more rational basis to select the car? If he was drowned by the information, retained none of it, and has only a felt response to the product, the answer is unequivocally no. Extending this principle to more subtle fields, we might look to the droves of books being churned out with extensive data, graphical representations, tables, and references. Instead of providing clarity to the reader, the books drown him with statistics that become meaningless. The public is oversaturated with data, yet lacks understanding. This is not incidental: perhaps one may get the public to believe climate change is “unsettled” with a well researched book. But a feeling, not a thinking public is created out of that readership.

Creating a programmatic response, a visceral reaction to a certain symbol, catchword, or idea is the goal of propaganda. It intends to disarm the propagandee’s cognitive faculties in order to generate consensus or mobilize a group. Sober thought and reason are its enemy. Modern propaganda is so successful because it is hidden under a guise of rationality, data, and science. Even the thinking man is caught off-guard until he takes the time for deeper reflection. One has been taught to trust data, yet who decides which are presented, how they are presented, and how they are interpreted? In many cases “the public is left to draw obvious conclusions from a cleverly presented truth” [3]. Often it is more effective to simply withhold inconvenient truths than to lie about them. An elucidating example of this point was that “about one fifth of all press directives given by Joseph Goebbels (the Minister of Propaganda under Hitler’s Germany) between 1939 and 1944 were orders to keep silent on one subject or another” [4]. "Truth” and “fact” are being leveraged to create a more subtle and powerful form of propaganda in the modern age.

There are other factors contributing to propaganda’s success, particularly in the highly developed west. In the United States, one’s guard against propaganda is down. He feels protected from it by his country’s ethos of “individual liberty” and “freedom of speech and press”. Yet these well known catchphrases have lost their substance, they serve more to charge the listener or reader with a certain feeling, and to cognitively disarm them — both explicit aims of propaganda. This feeling of immunity stems from the naïve notion that propaganda is false information that comes from an obvious authority. When one hears the term, he might think of Stalinist Russia, or Mao’s Republic. Yet the majority of propaganda in the West is diffuse. It is hard to spot and to label. It is ubiquitous.

Additionally, modern propaganda would not be so successful if it did not service a need. What is looked at as generally evil or at least undesirable by the layperson actually is in demand. Modern man has freed himself from the shackles of smaller, more rigid organizational structures of old — his traditional family, his village, his parish, only to find himself face-to-face with society en masse. He is incredibly lost and lonely amidst a faceless crowd, amidst a relentless din of the city, amidst a moral vacuum. He seeks a footing, solid ground. He seeks a worldview. Propaganda provides. It takes falsehoods, and more often truths, “cleverly presented”, distilled down in such a way that one finds solace in the “rational” ideologies crafted for him. They allow him to easily absorb a ready-made world view without a thought. This can only work in a modern, mass society.

And thus we have come full circle to the failed promise of empiricism, which is today’s ideological vessel of propaganda in the West. It services a need for both parties involved: the state, the corporation, or the elite gains from propaganda’s deployment through manufacturing unity and thus bolstering its power, and the public gains a feeling of security and an understanding of the world, albeit a shaky one. Yet we see this narrative break down as we come to terms with the shortcomings of this new religion. Even the layperson is struck by the contradictions of our time. Today’s falsehood is tomorrow’s truth which in turn becomes next week’s newest blasphemous falsehood. We place our faith in a method that at its best fails to inform in any broad manner, and at its worst is intentionally deceptive and morally abhorrent. It is like the public trusting a man who has studied a singular grain of sand with scientific fervor his whole life with the preservation of an entire beach. All the while, this expert doesn’t even notice that he is standing on a beach. Imagine his feeling of impotence if he were to look up and see the trillions of grains surrounding him!

And so we find ourselves at the spear’s head of “progress” yet less certain about not only fundamental truth, but even simple fact. Before empiricism can bear the load of providing a metaphysical dream, it should at least prove its worth in aiding in our sense making of the physical world. But the masses seem to be catching on and witnessing that while empiricism is being used in many cases nobly for the pursuit of knowledge, it is perhaps even more frequently being used as an ideological means for the deployment of propaganda. Bearing this in mind, one may try to engage with information with more “fastidiousness about truth” [5], attempting to let the mind do the thinking over the heart.

 

Notes

[1] Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

[2] John Steinbeck, The Log From the Sea of Cortez

[3] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes

[4] Ibid.

[5] Paul Graham, “How to Think for Yourself” http://paulgraham.com/think.html