Saturday, August 25, 2007

The New Republic of Factual Relativism

I’m about to start teaching a new semester of Advanced Legal Research, so I’ve been thinking a lot about “What is Truth?” Trying to find facts not backed by an agenda has become nearly impossible in this age of propaganda and information overload.

So my favorite new term is “factual relativism.” It’s what the right wing does while it’s accusing liberals of moral relativism. I thought I made it up but other people beat me to it. Foiled again.

Anyway, factual relativism is the idea that the Universe is as we want it to be, notwithstanding any evidence we may have to the contrary.

The tobacco industry honed the technique into a precise and deadly weapon. Now factual relativism permeates government and right-wing media (and oh-all-right, probably some left-wing media, too, from time to time).

Here’s an example:

The vast majority of scientists believe that global warming is occurring and that it’s caused by human activity. Hell, even the Bush administration admits it – though in a wimpy way – on the EPA’s website. But because a few stragglers (mostly corporate tools) disagree, Bush’s radio goons feel justified in shouting that global warming is just so much liberal paranoia. Desired policy dictates the facts, instead of the other way around.

That’s factual relativism.

Now, philosophically speaking, I’m an idealist, which means I’m not sure we’re really physically here at all (honest). But even if we’re not, we all seem to perceive a universe that operates in pretty consistent ways and with pretty predictable consequences for given actions. And one of those consequences is global warming.

Notwithstanding the concession on the EPA site, factual relativism is one of Bush’s few areas of expertise. Indeed, I’ve never seen a president engage in it to the extent Bush does.

It’s one thing to argue about Darwin and evolution. Believe what you want as long as you don’t shove it in my (or my kid’s) face. But the habitability of the planet is quite another matter. Does the extreme right honestly believe that global warming is all a ruse? Or is big business purposely trying to snow the rest of us (pun intended)? Is the right consciously compromising our ability to survive on Planet Earth just for short-term dollars? Or does it just not want to believe?

Factual relativism, of course, doesn’t just affect the environment. It affects medical research, public school education, and how judges decide cases. Even scientific methodology itself (just what is scientific theory?).

What’s new, at least to me, is how fashionable factual relativism has become. The Bush administration orders EPA documents cleansed of references to global warming, and we don’t care.

We are becoming immune to evidence.


  1. Until we have a President that belives in the merits of global warming conservation, the causes of it will be debated. I'll be so happy when Bush is out of offive