In Aeon magazine, English professor Emily Ogden from the University of Virginia has a disturbing piece in which she argues that “debunking” is not a quest for truth but rather a scene in the grand drama of defending modernity against the alternative ways of knowing that populate our postmodern world. According to her published CV, this is the only subject to which she has devoted significant attention over the nine years since she earned her PhD in English, and, to be frank, her argument is a load of postmodern bunk with a small kernel of correct observation that goes too far toward demonstrating why those outside the academy are suspicious of its sophistry. You might expect me to disagree with the thesis that “debunkers” are biased performance artists, but instead I am going to disagree with the limited view she takes of epistemology as psychodrama.
Consider, for example, the cartoon she makes of the very notion of attempting to distinguish between truth and lies, an act she sees as a biased white male effort to impose capitalist hegemony on women and minorities, who are, presumably, beyond the reaches of reason:
Debunk is a story of modernity in one word – but is it a true story? Here’s the way this fable goes. Modernity is when we finally muster the reason and the will to get rid of all the self-interested deceptions that aristocrats and priests had fobbed off on us in the past. Now, the true, healthy condition of human society manifests itself naturally, a state of affairs characterised by democracy, secular values, human rights, a capitalist economy and empowerment for everyone (eventually; soon). All human beings and all human societies are or ought to be headed toward this enviable situation. Some – and these are often non-Western people, people of faiths other than Christianity, people of colour – have regrettably gotten themselves faced in the wrong direction. They are still ‘barbaric’ or ‘medieval’ or even ‘primitive’. Maybe they are even getting more so. Turns out the debunking will have to continue. We’ll have to keep de-worming on an individual, an institutional, or a geopolitical scale until everyone is all right.
For whom is this a modern fable? It might be for the New Atheists like Sam Harris and perhaps the Steven Pinker school of Pollyanna cheerleading for modern American capitalism, but it bears absolutely no resemblance to anything I have seen from the actual people who work tirelessly, often with personal or professional sacrifice, to try to engage in public education to correct the record. “Debunking” an episode of Ancient Aliens is not going to save democracy, nor will decrying Gwyneth Paltrow’s latest vaginal health aid lead to secular values reigning over others.
What is infuriating, as we shall see, is that Ogden understands the importance of truth in the usual sense but argues that the social bonds between people should hold more weight than facts and evidence.
Ogden clearly seeks to identify “debunking” with the historically dominant demographic in society, white males—specifically the bourgeois capitalist ones—for whom rationality is a weapon used to deny non-Western peoples, women, and minorities an equal intellectual stake in society. But she then personalizes the argument by alleging that skeptics receive an almost sexual gratification from debunking:
Even on the individual scale, debunking is not the simple scene of deworming that we might be tempted to picture. What we should imagine instead of an impartial skeptic is a person who gets a charge out of being the rational member of the exchange – someone who is drawn, for reasons that might or might not be clear to him or her, and that are probably difficult to articulate, to the drama of unmasking. The adversarial scene of debunking breaks down into a strange collaboration between debunker, charlatan and dupe.
Here you might expect me to reject the argument on the grounds that skeptics are unbiased advocates of truth, but the reality is more complex. Skeptics are indeed drawn to debunking for reasons other than a Socratic obsession with pure reason, but the reason for debunking isn’t to participate in some fanciful drama of modernity. It happens for the same reason that people always come into conflict. One person’s actions directly threaten the interests of the other. For most skeptics, they pursue debunking because a charlatan, idiot, or fraud’s falsehoods pose a threat to something that the skeptic loves. By countering misinformation, the skeptic seeks to safeguard what he or she values.
But Ogden isn’t actually concerned about the impact of debunking or what good the debunker hopes to achieve. Instead, she wants to undermine the idea of rationality and reason altogether. Her goal is to prove that debunking is bad because it suggests that individuals have agency, while she believes that we are subject to broader social and even biological forces that control our behavior and therefore render reason just another way to oppress minorities. Her particular beef is with what she calls “secular agents,” people who are capable of understanding the limits of their own knowledge and therefore act rationally:
Wherever you stand, though, I bet you can also think of some experiences that don’t fit this model. Maybe at some point you fell in love. Maybe you have ideas of yourself that came from your family – ideas that you hate, but that you can’t get rid of. Maybe you have some long relationships in which you know that there is a complicated set of agreements about what everyone will pretend is true. Maybe you’ve managed to psych yourself up in order to give a speech, or sparkle at a party, or be a clutch player, or seduce someone. For a while, you acted like someone else. It wasn’t really acting, in the sense of pretending, but at the same time it wasn’t really you.
I don’t even know what that is supposed to mean, nor how it is relevant to the question of whether it is legitimate to distinguish between truth and lies. Her various examples are unrelated to one another. Brain chemistry is “you” in the most literal sense—it’s your brain—while many of the other examples are either intentional self-deception or psychological phenomena. Regardless, even if everyone involved pretends that a lie is true, only an extreme postmodernist would then argue that the truth ceases to have any meaning or value. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is not an aspirational story.
At the end of the article, Ogden finally concedes that debunking is valuable when it exposes con artists and prevents harm. She even admits that truth has a value beyond social cohesion, but then rejects the idea by prioritizing social bonds over factual accuracy. Her position is basically that of Groucho Marx (“Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”):
But the social dynamics of debunking should not be overlooked, either, especially when the stakes aren’t particularly high – when the alleged lie in question is not doing a whole lot of harm. At these times, what is debunking? It’s a performed refusal to play along, and to recognise the value of playing along. It’s the announcement that one rejects the as-if mode in which we do what social bonds require, and not what strict truth requires. It’s an announcement of that rejection. But the reality behind the announcement might be more complicated.
It's fascinating that she doesn’t consider the social dynamics of delusion and fraud, nor does she interrogate her own unexamined assumption that people should be allowed to assume a degree of social power through lies and fraud so long as it promotes progressive social ends. It amazes me that she simply assumes that facts, evidence, and truth will favor powerful white men. It seems that she has conflated the consensus reality of the elite with objective truth.
She concludes that debunkers act out of an attraction to belief that they are unable to embrace because it is one they refuse to acknowledge. That seems to be an explanation that is wrong on two counts. First, many skeptics openly discuss how they were interested in fringe subjects or were former believers themselves. The attraction to these belief systems is not hidden. But more importantly, Ogden’s view completely disregards the question of whether debunking a faulty claim serves important interests beyond social bonding, such as protecting individuals from exploitation, maintaining the integrity of data or research, or even preventing monetary losses. “Playing along” with a liar and a fraud is not simply being sociable; at worst, it is pathological. At best, it is taking a submissive position by letting the fraud dictate the terms of the relationship.
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