What "alternative facts" have wrought

by Alan Sokal

Published in Arc Digital, January 22, 2021.

Imagine that the election really had been stolen. Four-hour lines and broken voting machines in Black neighborhoods of Milwaukee and Atlanta. Thousands of absentee ballots thrown out for minor technical flaws in Michigan and Arizona. Massive postal delays leading to late delivery of mail-in ballots all around the country. Finally, by a 5-4 decision — with Amy Coney Barrett as the key vote — the Supreme Court rules that, under Pennsylvania law, ballots postmarked prior to election day but arriving after election day cannot be counted. This throws Pennsylvania, and the election, to Trump.

In such a scenario — which was by no means inconceivable — wouldn't millions of us pour out into the streets to defend democracy by protesting a stolen election?

Now suppose that a small minority of activists — maybe antifa — had decided to go farther and occupy the Supreme Court building or the Capitol, clashing with police. Wouldn't many of us understand and sympathize with their actions, even if we didn't fully approve?

According to a PBS/Marist poll taken the day the rampage at the Capitol, 7% of Republicans strongly supported those actions, and another 10% supported them; 36% were opposed and 45% were strongly opposed. By contrast, the figures were 3–4–18–68 among Independents, and 1–3–8–88 among Democrats.

Furthermore, 47% of Republicans characterized the storming of the Capitol as "mostly a legitimate protest", with an equal number calling it "mostly people acting unlawfully". (Note that the question refers specifically to Trump supporters breaking into the Capitol, not to the broader rally that preceded it.) Among Independents the split was 25–65, and among Democrats it was 3–96.

Finally — and most significantly — PBS/Marist also asked: "Do you trust that the results of the 2020 election were accurate, or not?" Fully 72% of Republicans thought that the election results were not accurate, compared to 36% of Independents and 2% of Democrats. Even more striking results were found by a Washington Post/ABC poll: 66% of Republicans and Republican leaners think that there is solid evidence that the 2020 election was tainted by widespread fraud.

Think about it. If 66–72% of Republicans sincerely believe that the 2020 election results are inaccurate or even fraudulent, is it any surprise that 47% of them think that the assault on the Capitol was "mostly legitimate" and that 17% of them outright support it? Indeed, mightn't we feel exactly the same way, were we in their place?

But of course we are not in their place, and there is no symmetry between the two situations. In my hypothetical scenario, the election really was stolen; the shenanigans were massive and enough to change the results. In the 2020 election, by contrast, the Trump team had ample opportunity to challenge the results in the courts: in fact, they did so in every battleground state, filing dozens of lawsuits, and their attempts were rejected in scathing decisions by judge after judge, including Trump's own appointees, so risible was the alleged evidence of fraud that they offered.

So the fundamental problem isn't just the breakdown of democratic legitimacy. It's the breakdown of consensus on basic facts. 31% of Americans, and 66% of Republicans, are suffering from the delusion that the 2020 election was fraudulent.

And the source of that delusion is obvious: Trump himself, abetted by more than half of the Republican members of Congress — most of whom presumably know better — and amplified in the hyper-partisan echo chambers of social media.

But perhaps the key problem lies even deeper: not just the breakdown of consensus on basic facts, but the breakdown of consensus on how to determine basic facts. Or maybe about whether there even is such a thing as objective fact, something beyond mere opinion.

And here, alas, the right wing wasn't the first to cast stones.

For millennia — ever since at least ancient Greece — philosophers have debated what constitutes knowledge and how one can legitimately acquire it. But when philosophers returned from their seminars back into the real world — while cooking dinner or crossing a city street, for instance — even the most ardent anti-realists generally adopted the common-sense view that there do exist objective facts — situations in the external world that are independent of our beliefs — and that, sometimes at least, we can obtain reasonably reliable knowledge of those objective facts, through evidence and reasoning.

That the Earth is approximately spherical, not flat. That the dinosaurs went extinct long before humans roamed the Earth. That Joe Biden won the 2020 election.

But, starting about 40 years ago, a small coterie of social-constructivist sociologists of science began to break this consensus, with radical claims like:

These ideas were in turn picked up by postmodernist scholars — mostly in departments of literature, it must be said, not philosophy — and from there percolated into the rest of society. There, they became part of the mother's milk — the unexamined conventional wisdom — of some sectors of the "woke" left. "There is no objective, neutral reality," writes Robin DiAngelo, author of the best-selling White Fragility.

What goes around, comes around. Now everyone — Trumpists included — can have their own "alternative facts".

Let me be clear: I'm not claiming that postmodernist academics are responsible for the rise of the alt-right. That would be an absurd accusation, and grossly unfair. Postmodernism played no part in creating climate-change denial, coronavirus conspiracy theories, birtherism or QAnon. The mainstreaming of what used to be called, rightly, the extreme right obviously has multiple causes — economic, social and political — that have nothing to do with a bunch of arcane academic writings.

Moreover, the intellectual history of postmodernism — like that of any significant current of thought — is vastly more complex than any quick sketch can capture. Many different strands of thought, some of them decades or even centuries old, contributed in one way or another to forging the congeries of sometimes-conflicting ideas that I have labeled, for brevity, "postmodernism", and which some people would prefer to call "radical perspectivism". Finally, the path from academia to society at large is even more complex, and has yet to be adequately investigated by sociologists.

When all is said and done, postmodernist academics and their activist followers are not to blame for any of the evils of today's right wing. What postmodernist relativism has wrought is, rather, something more insidious: by devaluing the concept of objective truth, it has undermined our own ability to combat objective untruths — to develop herd immunity to a pandemic of viral disinformation, as one writer eloquently put it.

Now the genie is out of the bottle, and I honestly don't know how to put it back in.

Alan Sokal is Professor of Mathematics at University College London and Professor Emeritus of Physics at New York University.