Part 1: Facts
I respect Ben Shapiro. To use the old cliché, he says what he means and he means what he says. He is a much needed counterbalance to the prevailing group-think that holds down one side of the scale in universities and large companies, both in and outside of the USA.
Not many people have the stomach for the scorn, rage and ostracism that expressing alternative beliefs, brings. He has endured consistent slander. It is a low blow, in particular, for so many journalists to accuse someone who has lost relatives in a genocide committed by Nazis, of being a Nazi.
He is a powerful orator. Love him or hate him, most people (other than Andrew Neil, that is) will think twice about crossing swords with him. His ability to think on his feet and respond in the high-speed stakes of live debate, remains deeply impressive.
It is with respect, then, that I say that his oratory gravitas, brilliant as it is, papers over a few sins.
Facts and feelings
A phrase Mr Shapiro has become famous for:
“Facts don’t care about your feelings”.
I am in agreement with some of this statement. What enrages Ben, understandably, is that too many people adopt beliefs based on their feelings, as if strong feelings, in and of themselves, are sufficient to bend reality like gravity bends space-time. It’s as if they live by the maxim: I feel, therefore I am.
Mr Shapiro is correct to point out that sensibilities do not amount to an argument. Perhaps there are some circumstances in which sensibilities should hold some sway, some of the time, but, it is also obvious that a world ruled exclusively by sentiment, all of the time, amounts to a tyranny of arbitrary will by those who have the power to decide which sentiments matter. I am pleased Mr Shapiro opposes this totalitarian impulse.
I agree, likewise, that the world may be different to what we want it to be, and that it would serve us well, in many instances, to base our perceptions on what reality is, rather than what we would like it to be.
The scientific method
What I object to in his famous sentence, then, is only his use of the word “fact”. This may seem like a minor foible, but it isn’t. It’s a major weakness in his statement and in his argument style. The word is defined by various dictionaries along the lines of:
A piece of information presented as having objective reality.
In other words, a fact is something that is known to be indisputably true.
Anyone familiar with the scientific method knows that this kind of statement is a nonsense. The scientific method is built on skepticism, doubt, challenge and change. It does not promise truth, only an imperfect formula for pursuing it.
Only when we second guess ourselves, challenge our assumptions, and re-imagine the problem in front of us in as many ways as possible, do we stand any hope of asking meaningful questions, and drawing meaningful conclusions.
The danger of certainty
Here’s a concrete example of a belief in “fact” that went tragically wrong in a real life situation: Angela Cannings was prosecuted in 2002 for murdering all three of her babies. At her trial, she insisted that each child had, in turn, died naturally from a cot death. The expert witness, Professor Roy Meadow, disagreed. He claimed that the probability of 3 deaths in a row, as had happened, was so statistically improbable that it amounted to proof of murder. The jury, won over by the Professor’s unwavering certainty, found Mrs Cannings guilty. The judge sentenced her to life in prison.
But, as with all information, what we conclude from it depends on our starting assumptions. Professor Meadow assumed that Mrs Cannings’ children were genetically “normal” members of society. With this premise, it followed that Mrs Cannings had a 1 in 75 million chance of giving birth to three children who would go on to sequentially die from Sudden Infant Death Sindrome (SIDS), or cot death. Unwaveringly certain of his probabilities, Professor Meadow did his best to condemn Mrs Cannings to a life in prison.
But Professor Meadow’s starting premise was wrong. It was later found that Mrs Cannings had a familial history of cot deaths afflicting multiple generations. Genetic analysis pointed to a condition that predisposed her children to die in this way. She was not, as Professor Meadow had assumed, an “ordinary” member of the genetic populace.
Recalculated with new information, the probabilities were quite different. Mrs Cannings was released from prison. Professor Meadow, for a time, was struck off the medical register.
I can scarcely imagine the pain of losing three children, much less being imprisoned for their murder and treated like a monster. But such was the outcome of the Professor’s unquestioning self belief.
You can read more about the case here:
As the above story, I hope, shows, much of how we come to see information stems from how we are taught to see it, and what we assume in advance it will tell us. Blindly believing that we have all the data required to declare a statement to be objectively true, is fraught with peril.
In scientific terms, the notions of evidence, hypothesis and theory, are vital because they lay out a process for interrogating reality. They underpin a strategy of scepticism, interrogation and doubt. Theories by their very design, exist to be falsified. Evidence, by its very nature, is messy. How was the data measured? What was omitted? Did we measure what we thought we were measuring? How should the data be interpreted? Is our sample size large enough to draw any conclusions at all? What is our working model to account for the data? What other models might explain the same thing? Of the assumptions we consciously made, which ones might have been invalid?
When Mr Shapiro talks about facts in the way that he does, he demonstrates a Professor-Meadow-like certainty. He implies that he is bestowed with the unique observational powers to know all relevant information. He implies that there are no nuances, no caveats, and no faulty premises that might lead him to draw incorrect conclusions. He implies that the data gathering process that he relies on, is some how flawless.
Shapiro, as a result, counters the blind narcissism of “listen to my feelings” with the blind arrogance of “listen to me because I know facts.”
His punchy oratory style sprays these self-confident truths like bullets at opponents ,who have no hope of investigating the claims presented to them in the time available.
If Shapiro’s goal is to clock up victories in the eyes of people who already share his views, then he succeeds. But if his goal is to ease the grip of myopic cultural warfare on the minds of today’s youth, and to encourage clear thought and open mindedness, he falls short. The number of Youtube clips beginning with, “Ben Shapiro owns [insert leftist]” or “Shapiro destroys [insert SJW]” bears testament to someone celebrated for inflicting injury on the enemy.
Mr Shapiro is not responsible for what other people say and do. But he is responsible for how he responds to his portrayal. Why not challenge his audiences to avoid the very black and white thinking so diagnostic of the other side? Why not remind people that debates should be about reflection and exploration, not egging on an intellectual cage fighter to land cheap shots against an unprepared adversary?
Andrew Neil, in his BBC interview with Shapiro, raised the issue of this kind of divisive Youtube clip. Shapiro retorted that he wasn’t responsible for what other people posted online. But he might have halted a rampaging Mr Neil, I suspect, if he’d added, “and I really wish they wouldn’t behave like this, because it’s a very counterproductive way to be in this highly charged cultural arena we find ourselves in. And it does me no favours in my quest to have a serious discussion about important issues that affect all of us. Thank you for raising this point, Andrew.”
I, like Mr Shapiro, shake my head at the pervasive tribally rigid non-think that characterises so many of his opponents. Watering down his translucid certainty and adopting language suggestive of doubt and self-reflection, would go a long way, in my view, to promoting intelligent discussion among those who are receptive to it.This would ultimately serve his cause by winning the hearts and minds of reasonable people, many of whom are still undecided about what to make of the world in front of them. On some topics, that might even include myself.
In the words of Bertrand Russell:
The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.