Speaking facts to power

That’s not a typo. If you were expecting “Speaking truth to power,” read on.

In December, 2015, a blogger named Jade Greear, began a piece with the well-known expression “Speaking Truth to Power.” [1] Greear continued:

Those four little words comprise a powerful expression, one you’ve probably heard a lot this past year….Coined by the Quakers in the 1950’s, “speaking truth to power” is certainly not a new way of taking a stand and mobilizing society around change.

There is not one truth. That is sad, in a way, but a truth is a narrative and the narrative you build is based on where it starts. There are many perfectly valid starting places so there are many valid narratives. A contest among these “truths” is the common condition of large complex societies.

The people who rule a nation are the beneficiaries—often they are also the instigators—of the ruling narrative. The narrative “uses” facts. It “deploys” them as so many pawns; valuable but disposable. Speaking facts that are contrary to the narrative is usually—not always—a futile business and very often a dangerous business as well.

Greear cites Judith Sherwin, an attorney and Adjunct Professor at the Loyala School of Law:

“Sir Thomas More did it at the cost of his life when he spoke truth to power against King Henry VIII; Martin Luther King Jr. did it at the cost of his freedom when he ended up in the Birmingham jail and eventually at the cost of his life.”

More and King

Let’s take those two as test cases. Thomas More was convicted of treason and beheaded for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy to Henry VIII. Is it meaningful to say that Henry was or was not “Supreme Head of the Church of England.” I say it is not meaningful.

facts 1About his execution, More is reported to have said, “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.” It is More’s claim to the ultimate sovereignty of God and the valid, but subordinate, claim King Henry has on his loyalty. More took his stand and paid the price as many honorable men and women have done through the ages. But what he said to the king, cannot be said to a “a truth.” Nor can it be said to be a fact. It is a witness. [2]

I would say the same of Martin Luther King Jr. The authorities in Birmingham forbade public protests. Dr. King participated in such a protest—thereby breaking the law—and they put him in jail. It is true that the powerful in Birmingham discriminated against black people. It is true that Dr. King broke the law.

Better truths

The relationship of one truth to another will always be uneasy. It would be easier to say that one narrative was more moral than another. Justice for all Americans, regardless of race, is “moral” and the suppression of some Americans because of their race is “immoral.” That makes perfect sense to me, provided that one is not said to be more nearly true than another. My view is that one is more nearly right than another.

It is one of the great weaknesses of liberalism in America that we continue to believe that the views of our opponents are “mistaken” rather than “wrong.” A narrative doesn’t have to be factually supportable in order to be an effective “truth.” If the truth is in the narrative, then facts—some facts— can be marshaled to support it. You don’t undercut the “truth” of the narrative or diminish its power by pointing out that it has the facts wrong.

Take global warming, for instance. Here are two relevant truths. The average global facts 3temperatures have been increasing at rates unprecedented in the modern era. The elites have nothing but contempt for “people like us” and will say whatever they want with no concern at all for our welfare. One of those is not “truer,” as we like to say, than another. Each “truth” determines the subsequent actions of one community or another—the scientists by the first truth, the “climate deniers” by the second.

Ask yourself whether one of these is “really true” and the other not. Both are true. They are not competing for verification. They are competing for air space. This is a perspective on truth and factuality that is denied by liberals by and large, both in principle and in practice. We still think that the truth can be established by the facts. We would choose the facts, of course.

There are some settings in which that is true. The examples of Thomas More and Martin Luther King Jr. don’t lead in that direction, but it is a direction worth pursuing anyway. I have an example that helps to illustrate this difference even though it shows scientific agreement in too favorable a light.

“Executive Monkeys”

In 1958, Joseph Brady published an article in Science called “Ulcers in ‘Executive’ Monkeys: It used monkeys who were yoked together so that a bad choice produced a shock both for the monkey that had made the choice—hence “executive monkey”—and for the passive partner who had not. Brady found that stomach ulcers, a measure of stress, were much more prominent in the executive monkeys than in the yoked partners.

In 1972, Jay Weiss published an article in the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology showing that, in fact, the opposite was true. It is the yoked animals not the decision-making animals, that experienced the stress and showed the ulceration.

What’s going on here? Weiss was able to show that the results of Brady’s experiment were an artifact of which monkeys were chosen to play which roles. Brady reviewed the research design and agreed. The conclusions he had drawn were produced by a bad research design and were appropriately corrected by Weiss. End of story. (Well…it isn’t ever really the end.)

facts 2What we have here is a clash of narratives each supported by experimental data. The narrative supported by Brady’s findings is about the stress of decision making. The monkeys bore the burden of choosing and paid the price. The narrative supported by Weiss’s findings is about the stress brought on by powerlessness. The animals (rats in Weiss’s case) received shocks with no opportunity at all to avoid them and that is what produced the stress and the ulcers.

These are both worthwhile narratives and it may well be that they are both true in some setting or another. They are “truths.” But using the same narrative, a change in methodology produced different sets of facts and only one truth was supported by those facts. So the unsupported “truth” was withdrawn and research continued in the direction of the narrative that these facts support.

Speaking facts to power

I bring this idealistic instance of scientific controversy up in order to show how different it was from the Martin Luther King Jr. and the Thomas More examples. It is different from most scientific controversies too, but I have a further point to make too.

I want to talk to the liberals who think that establishing the facts is going to make a difference to the truths that the reigning powers preach. These liberals—I am a liberal but I am not one of those liberals—think that the entrenched elites will respond to Dr. King the way Brady responded to Weiss. They think that Henry VIII will respond to the “truth” told by More or than the Birmingham police will respond to the “truth” told by King in the way Brady responded to Weiss. I tell you them will not.

Here is a “truth,” a narrative that is continually affirmed despite the clear factual evidence against it. The U. S. is among the most taxed nations of the West and out business success suffers because of it. That is a truth claim and it supports some proposals for taxation and undercuts others. So you an economist and you do a study of the comparative tax burden of western nations and you find what everyone finds: the U. S. in one of the least taxed nations in the world.

Now is your chance. You are going to tell these facts to the people who have been denying them. You are going to “speak facts to power.” People hold the “truth” they are holding for reasons that have almost nothing to do with factuality. Speaking facts to power is a waste of your time.

What is not a waste of your time?

Telling another truth is not a waste of your time. Producing a counter-narrative is not a waste of your time. These narratives will be impervious to the facts, of course. You don’t built truths out of facts the way you build walls out of bricks.

Let’s take this as a sample truth. The more nearly equal the incomes of a country are, the better will be the health of the population. A lot of facts can be adduced to support that. I recommend The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The book version is more complete; the TED talk by Wilkinson, which you can see here, is shorter and easier to grasp. He shows in painstaking detail that for a whole range of desirable social outcomes—good health among them—the more nearly equal the incomes in the country are, the better the results.

That is a truth worth telling to power.

It can be attacked, of course. Counter-examples can be found. Someone can point out that the burden of the case Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett make is based on correlations. This level of inequality “correlates with” those health outcomes. It is tempting to try to say that the conditions the inequality supports “cause” the health outcomes, but that is a much harder case to make.

If you don’t think it is harder, look at how long we waited between the time when the correlation of lung cancer and cigarette smoking was established beyond debate and the much later time when some mechanism was found that could plausibly account for the correlation. For decades, the power of the correction was suppressed with anecdotes like “my grandfather smoked all his life and he lived to be 104 years old.”

What I am saying is that this truth—we could dramatically increase our health by narrowing the distribution of incomes—is a truth worth telling. It can be factually attacked and factually supported. But it is a truth worth putting into the arena with the current one, which is that the current provision of health and of medical care in the U. S. is the best we can do.

Liberals want to attack that “truth.” They want to show that it is factually incorrect. They are offended by unsupported assertions.  They want to speak facts to power. But the power is built on the “truth” that we have the best system we can afford and that in this system everyone gets what he or she deserves. The narrative and the power structure go together and neither of them cares about facts that do not support it.

What I would like liberals to do it to oppose that “truth” with another “truth,” which is that by reducing income equality, we can achieve much better health and much better healthcare. Both of those narratives—both “truths”—can be attacked and defended with facts. Neither can be defeated by facts. It takes a more comprehensive, a more important truth, the defeat a narrower truth.

So I say that telling facts to power will not do what we want to get done. To do what we want to get done, we will have to oppose one “truth” with another.

[1] huffingtonpost.com12/22/2015 10:40 am ET | Updated Dec 22, 2016
[2] It is interesting that the Greek work for witness is martyrion, from which English derives martyr.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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