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Borking, the Internet, and the Lost Meaning of Fact


This post was originally featured on The Soapbox on January 31, 2013.

After the passing of Judge Robert Bork on Dec. 19, 2012, L. Gordon Cravitz took the opportunity in his Information Age column in the Dec. 24th Wall Street Journal to speculate that if the internet had existed at the time of his controversial nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 Bork likely would not have been “borked.”  “To bork” was a verb (“borking” was the noun) born of the fight over his nomination, and it came to mean the systematic vilification and defamation, especially in the mass media, of a nominee for public office.

Bork’s nomination fight began with Senator Edward Kennedy’s July 1, 1987 speech on the Senate floor in which he painted a stark picture of “Robert Bork’s America” based on Bork’s reputation as an unapologetic advocate of an originalist judicial philosophy and his legal writings.  In this America, “…women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens….”  After Kennedy’s speech, a powerful backlash, led by liberal politicians, organizations, and intellectuals who pursued a strategy that gave birth to a new verb and noun, managed to scuttle Bork’s nomination.

Without consensus on what constitutes a fact, it is extremely difficult for facts to overcome distortions, regardless of the speed with which the Internet can disseminate them.

Cravitz argued that “…with all the tools available on the Internet for facts to overcome distortions” the “intentional distortions” that characterized the borking of Bork would have been “instantly correct[ed].”  However, Cravitz’s argument regarding the power of the Internet is based on the deeply flawed assumption that everyone agrees on the definition of the term “fact.”  In American culture, the meaning of fact has been distorted almost beyond recognition, if it hasn’t already been outright lost.  Witness the rise of the “fact-checking” fad among news organizations, political organizations, and bloggers whose conclusions are more often than not opinions masquerading as facts.  Without consensus on what constitutes a fact, it is extremely difficult for facts to overcome distortions, regardless of the speed with which the Internet can disseminate them.

For a good example of the distorted meaning of fact, consider the uncomfortable exchange between MSNBC program hosts Chris Matthews and Andrea Mitchell on September 3, 2012 that occurred on Mitchell’s show Andrea Mitchell Reports (watch video).  Matthews appeared on Mitchell’s show to promote his special one-hour profile of President Obama airing later that night on MSNBC.  After a few minutes of promotion, his interview turned to a discussion of current political topics, including a comparison of the Democratic and Republican conventions, which Matthews eventually turned into an attack on Republicans generally.  He charged Republicans with intentions to suppress minority voting by supporting voter ID laws and to encourage white anger by attacking welfare programs.  When Matthews pushed Mitchell to agree with him, Mitchell stuttered that he was presenting “opinion” (if she wanted to use a more sophisticated term, she could have labeled it “interpretation.”)  Matthews rebutted: “It’s not opinion, it’s factual.”

Whether or not Matthews’ statements should be considered factual or interpretive depends on how fact is defined.  What then is a fact?  Or to put it another way, how should fact be defined to give the Internet the best chance to actually accomplish what Cravitz asserts?  To begin to answer this question, one could start with a dictionary.  Google defines fact as either “[a] thing that is indisputably the case” or “[i]nformation used as evidence or as part of a report or news article.”  From Matthews’ perspective, his claims about Republican political strategy were indisputably the case.  As for Mitchell’s attempt to dispute his claims, or at least qualify them as interpretation, Matthews could argue that Mitchell was just being stubborn.  Or he could argue more boldly that she was oblivious to fact in the same way an ideologue would be, like a Stalinist when confronted with facts of Stalin’s crimes.

While careful to point out that many facts are often “dripping with ideas,” Barzun and Graff asserted that the purest facts “…are those statements that express a conventional relation in conventional terms.”

But such an argument would be a hard sell since Mitchell is obviously an intelligent person.  And it is not hard to conceive that in any scenario in which there are two opposing viewpoints, especially in politics, some proponents of either viewpoint would consider their positions indisputable.  The second part of Google’s definition—information used as evidence—brings us closer to a workable definition of fact.  It actually hints at the traditional understanding of fact once shared by historians, journalists, and even physical scientists.  This understanding viewed a fact as a metaphorical brick which when assembled with many other such bricks produced a structure of interpretation, or in the language of scientists, theory.

To be sure, this definition is still a little hazy.  So it should prove productive to turn to an explanation of what constitutes a fact offered by the eminent historians Jacques Barzun and Henry Graff in their classic work The Modern Researcher, which should be familiar to generations of college history and journalism majors.  While careful to point out that many facts are often “dripping with ideas,” Barzun and Graff asserted that the purest facts “…are those statements that express a conventional relation in conventional terms.”  They provided three examples: “Thomas Jefferson was born on April 2, 1743,” “The Monroe Doctrine was promulgated on December 2, 1823,” and “President Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau.”  These statements “…expressed fixed relations of time, things, and persons…” “[t]hrough conventional phrasings like ‘born’ and ‘was shot,’ conventional names like ‘Monroe Doctrine,’ and conventional terms for day, year, and length.”  In so doing, these statements “…may be said to be strictly factual because each term is clear and distinct and remains so by tacit agreement.”

Though intricate, Barzun and Graff’s definition of fact sought to limit factual statements to the simplest descriptive statements wringed of ideas to the greatest extent possible by using the most conventional language possible.  Thus, they probably would have objected to the factual status of the statement “President Garfield was murdered by Charles J. Guiteau” because “murder” has much more complex connotations than the plainer passive verb “was shot” (although they might have approved of the factual status of the statement “Charles J. Guiteau was convicted of murder on January 25, 1882.”)

Actually, Barzun and Graff expanded on the Guiteau example themselves to demonstrate how ideas could seep into factual statements, especially causal ideas: “But if in the Garfield example we add to the phrase ‘shot by Charles J. Guiteau,’ the words ‘a disappointed office-seeker,’ we immediately pass from conventional fact into a different realm of discourse.  True, it is a fact that Guiteau had sought a government post and had failed to get it.  But putting these events into a phrase next to the statement of Garfield’s assassination generates an idea.  The effect is to say: ‘Guiteau’s disappointment was the motive for the assassination.’  This is an inference, a hypothesis, an idea….A psychoanalyst might maintain that the cause alleged was not sufficient; that Garfield was shot because he had a beard that reminded the killer of his stepfather; that, in any case, all human acts result from more than one motive.”

Barzun and Graff’s definition of fact challenges Matthews’ claim to the factual status of his statements.  First of all, they were not simple descriptive statements expressing conventional relations in conventional terms, especially given the tone of condemnation with which they were made.  They were also deeply soaked with ideas, namely causal ideas, in the same way that Barzun and Graff’s modified Guiteau example was.  In substantiating his claims about voter ID laws in particular, Matthews could have made much simpler descriptive statements such as:

  • The Pennsylvania Voter Identification Protection Act was introduced into the PA House by Republican Daryl Metcalfe.
  • The Act passed the PA Senate 26-23 and the PA House 104-88.
  • All the votes in favor of the law were cast by Republicans.
  • All Democrats voted against it.
  • PA House Republican Majority Leader Mike Turzai said the voter ID law will “…allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania…’”

Matthews then could have invoked a general causal principle of historical interpretation that laws passed with one-sided partisan support imply ulterior political motivations, not broad civic motivations.  Based on this principle as well as the facts, he then could have presented the interpretation that the PA Voter ID was a partisan law that Republicans hoped would discourage voters traditionally loyal to the Democratic Party—the elderly, the disabled, and racial minorities—from voting.  This interpretation could even have been considered the most plausible interpretation given the facts and the validity of his causal principle (which would have been inferred from a number of similar historical events.)

It is the erasure of the distinction between facts and interpretation that has occurred in American culture over the last several years that has made it so difficult to have constructive dialogues between competing interpretations.

If Matthews would have taken this approach, he would have acknowledged a clear distinction between facts on the one hand and an interpretation on the other.  It is the erasure of the distinction between facts and interpretation that has occurred in American culture over the last several years that has made it so difficult to have constructive dialogues between competing interpretations.  Likewise, it is what makes Cravitz’s argument about the Internet so off-the-mark.  If everyone maintains that all of their interpretations are factual, i.e. indisputably the case, then there is practically no way to have a constructive dialogue and judge whether some interpretations are better than others.  If, however, a distinction can be maintained between facts and the interpretations upon which they are built, then interpretations can be evaluated based on the accuracy of their respective facts, the combined strength of their respective facts, and the reasoning with which they are put together.

There is, however, another definition of fact distinguishable from those that utilize the brick metaphor.  Actually, this definition lends support to Matthews’ belief that his statements were factual, not opinionated, so in fairness it merits discussion.  This definition varies by the dictionary, but in essence it can be stated as either: “the quality of being actual” or “something that has actual existence.”  The perfect example of this definition is evolution.  Under the brick-like definition of fact, evolution would be an interpretation (or in scientific language a theory) derived from the facts of innumerable fossils of thousands of species and of observed differences in living species.  To counter the objections of people with religious agendas seeking to exploit the ambiguities of the terms interpretation and theory, scientists who embrace the brick-like definition of fact might describe evolution as a proven interpretation/theory.  But there are other scientists who embrace the actuality sense of fact.  Evolution is a process of nature that actually exists, or in other words it is a verified independent reality.  Therefore, they would assert that evolution is both interpretation/theory and fact (for a good discussion of this alternative definition of fact, consult the Wikipedia article “Evolution as fact and theory.”)

Under this definition of fact, Matthews once again could defend his statements as factual.  He could maintain that his statements about Republican campaigning in 2012 were factual because that was what actually happened.  But here’s the problem: evolution is an interpretation/theory/fact of the physical sciences and Matthews’ criticism of Republicans is an interpretation of the social sciences.  There are some very important differences between the physical and social sciences.  For example, in physical science, there is a clear distinction between the inquiring subject (the scientist) and the object (of nature) being studied, so objectivity is more easily achieved.  In social science, the inquiring subject (the journalist, the historian, the sociologist, or whomever) is a member of society studying society, so objectivity is far more difficult to obtain.  There are many more differences between the physical and social sciences, but there is no need to delve deeply into them.  The point should be clear enough that the conclusiveness of the social sciences comes nowhere near that of the physical sciences.  It is therefore not credible to make the same sort of claims made in the physical sciences that interpretations in the social sciences can be both interpretation and fact.

If the internet, at least as it exists in the United States, is ever to have the power that Cravitz claims, American culture must first re-embrace the meaning of fact.  It must redraw a clear line between facts and interpretation, and it must regard facts as the bricks with which interpretations are constructed.    Although that will not completely prevent disputes between competing interpretations, at least interpretations can be evaluated according to the accuracy of their facts, the combined strength of their facts, and the reasoning with which they are put together.  Otherwise, American culture will move closer and closer to substantiating Nietzsche’s famous claim that there are no facts, only interpretations.  And if that happens, the internet will become powerless to prevent “borking” or myriad other forms of character assassination like “swiftboating” and “McCarthyism.”

  • To me, the Internet is essentially a giant megaphone. Sure, it provides the opportunity for near-instantaneous fact-checking, but it also offers just as much opportunity for misinformation and half-truths. Being exposed to a world full of ideas and opinions only does us good if we listen to everything and make a rational decision, but to those who are either too lazy, too busy, or too arrogant to consider alternative viewpoints, the Internet turns into a massive echo chamber. I think the “birther” movement against President Obama is a perfect example of how borking can still exist, even in the Internet age.

    While the Internet still carries a lot of potential to revolutionize the way we think, I see nothing inherent in it that will bring us closer to the facts.

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