Sunday, August 20, 2017

Seeking Truth: A Community Activity

As a philosopher, intellectual, and academic, I am concerned with seeking truth.  I want to know what is true and what is not so that I can make good decisions. 

Sir Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, argued that (1) we can have objective knowledge, and (2) science (and the search for objective knowledge generally) is a community endeavor in which the “best” theories are those which are most tested and survive the widest range of tests. Popper is hardly alone in arguing for a social role in research, though many of these would not accept Popper's belief in objective knowledge.

This community vision of research is manifest in research institutions: each field has its journals and publications, and those publications are filled with a variety of different views of scholars debating each other. Whether in the humanities or the sciences, scholars debate a variety of viewpoints.
Each scholar, presumably, believes in the value of his or her own work, and presents it as something “true.” I feel that this is so even in the works of those who debate the existence of ultimate truths.  Some of Derrida’s works are so cryptic as to be more like Zen koans—questions without an answer—but not all; his works sometimes read as if asserting  truthful claims. But this is the condition of the scholar: to attempt to put down in words something of vast complexity.  The Tao Te Ching begins by saying that the Tao that can be spoken of, is not the absolute Tao, and it still goes on to propound its views of the world. Every scholar has a bias in favor of his or her own work—not a malicious bias or desire to deceive for personal gain, but rather the bias of the individual who believes in the quality and integrity of his or her own work (let’s just put aside people who intentionally falsify for now).
Each scholar desires to do something original (which, on the whole, is the basic qualification for publication), and this originality manifests as the variety of published theories that make up the scholarly literature. While some kind of bias is inevitable—we all have to make choices of what to read and what to leave aside— biases based on ignorance are not desirable. Scholars ought to read widely, to examine a range of views, to test them, to challenge weak ideas.

To me, the same is true with journalism: two journalists doing good work with integrity may come to different conclusions on some issue due to use of different evidence. Different organizations have different biases just as different academic journals have different theoretical biases. As one who relies on the media for a lot of information about current events, it seems to me wise to read many different sources of news to get a wider sense of what is being said. With the internet, it is easy to read news from different news sources around the world and around the country.  I read things that are obviously conservative and things that are obviously liberal/progressive, and my views are shaped in part by comparing the quality of the arguments and evidence presented.

This post was sparked by a line in an article in the National Review, a conservative journal (http://www.nationalreview.com/article/450626/charlottesville-donald-trump-alt-right-blame-both-sides-wrong).  The line that struck me was the comment: “they know there were two sides out there [in Charlottesville, VA]. And they know the media has tried to obscure that fact.” What struck me about this was the comment “the media has tried to obscure the fact.”  Firstly, it is worth noting the singular verb form “has,” which suggests that the author is thinking of “the media” as a single, unified entity. The use of the singular “has” could have just been a grammatical error (“media” is the plural of “medium,” and those concerned with grammatical correctness would say that it is grammatically correct to write “The media have”), so it’s not certain that the author is thinking of them as some unified whole, but it is suggestive. Realistically, however, many diverse people and organizations make up “the media” and they have not, en masse, tried to obscure this fact. Different media outlets have given different amounts of attention and blame to the antifa.
“The media” is not a unified bloc. It is made up of disparate voices. Fox News is one of the loudest of those voices, and it would be inaccurate to say that Fox News (as a whole) has ignored the antifa. If we’re talking about “the media,” certainly the most commonly viewed sources, including Fox, should be counted.  And for that matter, the highly respected National Review, in which this article was published is also a prominent part of “the media.”  So it’s not accurate to say that the antifa and violence perpetrated by the antifa have been ignored by the media.  It’s unfortunate that this inaccuracy suggests an attempt to deceive about the range of opinions being expressed, but part of the current conservative worldview is the notion of a vast “liberal media,” while somehow not noticing that many of the biggest media outlets—the Murodch empire, Sinclair, and others—promote conservative positions and candidates.  Are there news outlets that show a liberal bias? Of course. But liberal news outlets are not the only news outlets.
As consumers of media we need to review a range of sources, and to then use critical judgement to choose amongst them. Getting news from a single source—however high its quality—is ignoring the whole range of views that should be the fabric of any critical examination of an idea.

Many graduate students struggle to become independent researchers because they try to understand published literature as the truth, not as the fabric of a larger debate. Until they learn to challenge the sources that they read, they can’t really begin to develop the necessary critical vision to understand the wide scope of issues of concern.  As consumers of media, we may be more willing to challenge news media, but too often these challenges become limited to an ad hominem dismissal: “if Fox said it, then it can’t be true,” or “if The New York Times said it, then it can’t be true.”  This is crucial if we believe that arriving at truth is essentially a communal effort.

It is also essential if we seek social unity. If we seek a unified society, we cannot operate by dismissing what others say, and we’ll struggle to operate if we focus only on points of disagreement. To find any semblance of social unity, we have to look for points of agreement.
Of course, as I discussed in previous posts, there are limits: an egalitarian society that believes in free speech is obliged to reject those who believe that only a select group deserve free speech. It may seem impossible to find common ground with someone who espouses racial hatred, but the reality is that societies already are made of both those who desire egalitarian society and those who espouse racial supremacy which means that either common ground can be found, or there is war.

Seeking truth is a community activity. When communities diverge on what is viewed as truth, violent conflict can ensue.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Limits to tolerance and self-defense

I try to avoid partisan politics. I think the Democrats and Republicans often have far too much in common. But Donald Trump is a step beyond. 
It is wrong to draw a moral equivalence between the white supremacists marching to defend the statue of Robert E. Lee and those protesting them, even if there were violent perpetrators on both sides.

John Stuart Mill suggested that liberty could only be allowed insofar as it did not impinge on anyone else’s safety and/or liberty (I may be mis-remembering—it’s been a while since I read Mill). Liberties must be balanced so that one person does not harm another.  This idea is, of course, captured in the laws that govern our free society: murder and theft are criminalized to protect people from those who would choose such courses of action for their own satisfaction. And this idea is particularly embedded in notions of self-defense: killing in self-defense is not a crime; it may even be heroic.  Violence against other people is compatible with being a responsible member of a tolerant society—at least in some situations.

Whether violence is wrong or not depends on the situation. One concern in trying to evaluate the morality of some violent action is understanding the motivation of the actor: what motivated the violent act? Again, if the motivation is self-defense the morality is different than if aggressive.

I’m not trying to get inside the head of any one person, but it is clear that the “unite the right” marchers had aggressive motivations: they want to change America; they don’t want people of color to have any voice. Some have actively declared that they are at war (http://www.businessinsider.com/the-daily-stormer-charlottesville-threats-2017-8).
The counter-protestors, including the antifa, had more defensive motivations: they want to defend the egalitarian principles that the U.S. espouses (principles that, admittedly, the U.S. has not always lived up to).
The unite-the-right marchers would like to take away the rights and liberties of many (people of color, Jews).  They wish to impinge on the liberties of others. This is bad. This is antithetical to the principles espoused in US law, including the Constitution.
The counter-protestors wished to defend the liberties guaranteed by US law.
These different motivations necessarily color any interpretation of violent acts. Yes, antifa may have perpetrated some unjust violence, but their purpose was noble.  (And I’m going to ignore the possibility that some amongst the antifa are really just doing it for the pleasure of committing mayhem—that’s not really antifa, that’s just violence for the sake of being violent. Realistically, in almost any large group of people, there will likely be some whose real motives are reprehensible. It seems unlikely that the antifa had significantly more such people that the unite the right marchers.)
There was nothing noble about the unite the right marchers. It is possible that some may have only resorted to physical violence in self-defense, but their intent is to do violence to others by taking away their rights.

Donald Trump says there were some fine people marching in the unite the right march. No. Fine people do not march with Nazis. Fine people denounce Nazis. Fine people denounce racists. Such basic choices reflect moral character.
There were many fine people marching with the counter-protestors. Marching to defend the principles of equal protection before the law—the best of the principles that shaped this land of liberty—is noble. Marching to stop the spread of racism is noble.  Were all the counter-protestors noble? No—it’s rare that a whole group of people will be unified in a noble purpose. Some of the counter-protestors may have taken actions that should be condemned.
But saying that there is blame on both sides simply ignores the fundamental issue that brought the people to the protests in the first place. Some of the people went there to protest against American values and American laws. Some of the people went there to protect American values and American laws.  Whatever the actions of individuals in those larger groups, it is clear that one group is motivated by something reprehensible, and the other group motivated by something of which all U.S. citizens should be proud.

Unity does not grow out of encouraging or sheltering groups that call for disunity. Groups that claim that only some people—people with the right skin color or heritage—ought to have rights are calling for disunity.  This is completely different from a group that calls for suppression of those who want to create disunity. 

People who believe in the values of the United States Constitution should oppose racism and racist groups because such groups are inimical to the U.S. principle of equality before the law.  (And yes, I am aware that the original version of the Constitution was racist, but it has been amended since then.) Even though the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and assembly to allow political dissent, this guarantee is intended to protect discourse. It is not meant to protect and nurture groups that impinge on the liberties of others.


To defend the United States Constitution and the values it represents, it is necessary to denounce racists, and white supremacists, and any “fine people” who want to help the racists and white supremacists—including Donald Trump.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Paradox of Tolerance, free speech, and political correctness

Recently, an engineer at Google was fired for writing a document that offered reasons for gender disparities in the Google workforce.  The whole incident received a great deal of publicity, with some taking the view that Google took the right position by firing him, and others viewing it as wrong and as squelching the free flow of ideas.  
Many on the right argued basically that this incident proved that “liberals” aren’t really liberal, but rather that they squelch dissent.  On the left, meanwhile, people argued that such discourse must be avoided, not because they want to squelch dissent, but because they want to make a place that is safe for everyone, including preventing speech that might be considered threatening.
Similar discussions come up frequently. Another recent incident receiving similar media coverage was related to rental properties listed on airbnb for a protest in Virginia (This post was mostly written before the events in Charlottesville and Seattle in the past weekend).

This general issue—espousing tolerance as a value, and being intolerant of those who agree—was called “The paradox of tolerance” by the philosopher Sir Karl Popper.  In The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper wrote:
If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed….I do not imply…that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies…but we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they…may forbid their followers to listen to any rational argument,…and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. (Open Society and its Enemies, vol. 1, chapter 5, footnote 4)
As a person who highly values the high principles espoused in the Declaration of Independence, who values the liberties promised in the Bill of Rights, and who pretty much grew up thinking that what mattered were, in the words of the old Superman television show, Truth, Justice, and the American Way—a construction in which, to me as a child, truth and justice were fundamental to defining the American Way—I am much inclined to Popper’s point of view.  Obviously, I’m very interested in the truth.
Paradoxes like the paradox of tolerance make it hard to understand what is justice, though. When is it appropriate for the tolerant to stop intolerance?

The notion of “political correctness” dovetails into this discourse.  Complaints against political correctness often are framed in terms of keeping people from telling the truth.  Or at least keeping them from telling the truth as they see it. It is viewed as an inappropriate restraint on expression.
I wonder about that complaint because I wonder to what extent it might not be better to frame many of these same issues as matters of manners, courtesy, and/or tact.  As a child taught to tell the truth, I struggled with the idea of “white lies”—social lies that are tactful or polite, if not honest.  If I go to a party, I tell the hosts I had a good time, regardless. Is that being politically correct, or is it being polite or tactful? If I hate the shirt or hat someone is wearing, I don’t have to tell them that, and restraining myself is not some gross imposition, but rather just a choice about how to treat people.
And, to wind this back to the Google case, if I, a man, work with some women and I don’t think women are capable (in general), do I need to tell that to my co-workers? It seems almost obvious that we could view the injunction to refrain from shouting out strong judgements about entire classes of people as being motivated by simple courtesy. or tact.

Of course, if you view members of a particular group as inhibiting efficiency, you might well wish to express this belief as part of a program to realize greater work efficiency. And this winds back to the idea of the paradox of tolerance.  In any large group of people—whether Google or a nation—there will be those who say “this group will be better if we exclude certain types of people.” For those who believe in developing a workplace (or society) where everyone can feel safe, it is necessary to argue for the exclusion of those who preach intolerance.


Logic will not lead to a simple answer here as to whether a nation that believes in free speech has right, reason and cause to forbid certain types of speech.  Perhaps the question needs to focus on the processes of argument: are ideas being argued in the realm of rational discourse, or are they being argued in the emotional realm where fists and pistols come into play? If democracy is a marketplace of ideas, we want the best ideas to prosper because they are the best ideas, not because they are espoused by thugs willing to use non-rational means to win their arguments.

While I have not checked the sites myself, I read that some of the white supremacists involved in the Charlottesville rallies argue that this already is a war. If there are protestors (on any side) who believe that the current debate over how to shape American society is a war, then that gives additional depth to Popper's warning about people who stop debate and replace it with "fists and pistols."

For a tolerant society to exist, it cannot allow members of the society to preach that other people cannot participate as equals in society. If one group argues that another should not be allowed to participate in society--as in Germany in the 1930s and through the war, where the Nazi party argued that Jews could not participate as equals (or at all)--the first group is actively threatening the second, and such threats should be treated as criminal in the same way that other threatening language (as in felony assault) is criminal.  

There is, of course, a fine line to tread, where rational discourse in favor of alternative social structures is allowed: political discourse cannot be shut off unduly, but the safety of members of the polity must be protected.

If the United States of America aspires to live up to the principles it espouses, then groups that deny the basic principle of the equality of people must be controlled so that they do not pose a threat to people who disagree with their opinions.  A tolerant society is not required to tolerate those who say the society should be destroyed, and indeed must act against those who would destroy the social fabric. To be that country that the Declaration of Independence aspired to be, and the country that the Constitution (in its amended form) aspires to be, it is necessary to suppress those who express intolerant views in ways that threaten the peace and safety of citizens. The guarantee of free speech should not be used to protect those committing violence against other members of society.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Truth and the speaker

For the ease of expression, I will speak about "truth" and "falsity," though I do not think there is a simple, objective “truth”—or at least logic does not easily lead us to such a thing.  As I said in my previous post, however, it seems to me intuitively the case that some things are obviously true and some are obviously false.
For example, I drank some water just after starting this post.  I think that is absolutely true.  And it is absolutely false that I drank some whiskey just after starting this post. I think that there are many things in the world that can be said to be true or false and it’s useful to be able to distinguish the two.
Ultimately, I think this is the purpose of research.  Even those who reject the idea of an absolute truth are, at the least, looking for ideas that can be used by many, not just a few.

As I have said in previous posts, knowing the truth is important.  To buy something at a store, I need to know where the store is.  To buy the right thing, I need to know what my needs are. To make an effective plan for dealing with research, I need to know how research works. And so on, and so forth.

The idealized scientist/researcher challenges accepted ideas.  For example, Darwin or Galileo.  But which ideas do we challenge?  Which ideas do we accept?  

Often, one reason to accept or challenge an idea is because of the speaker.  But the identity of the speaker is no guarantee of the truth or falsity of a given claim.  The ad hominem argument—the argument “to the man/person” (I think is the translation of the Latin)—attempts to build a claim about the truth of a statement based on identity of the speaker. This is logically a fallacy: the truth of a statement does not depend on the speaker.

There are times when this really bothers me.  In political arguments, the ad hominem fallacy is infuriating and generally misplaced.  To say that research is suspect because the researcher is affiliated with a particular political party is, quite frankly, asinine. If you believe that research is flawed, you should be able to do better than “I don’t trust the person who did it.”  

Even in the case of a proven serial liar, there is a good chance that the next claim will be true. The identity of the speaker does not guarantee the truth/falsity. Ideally, a critical thinker—including scholars/researchers/scientists—will check an idea on its own merits.

But practically speaking, we can’t do that. We can’t check everything. And so we rely on trusted sources.  Hopefully we have a good knowledge of the ideas we are using, and understand their strengths, weaknesses and controversies; hopefully we do not just accept/reject ideas because of the speaker, but practically speaking, it’s often effective to do just that.


From the perspective of a writer, it’s a crucial and invaluable tactic: we cite some scholar or philosopher, and that is the terminus of a line of exploration.  Again, the scholar ideally has theoretical reasons for the choice of a given idea, and does not choose the idea on the basis of the speaker. But in the battle to keep a presentation to a reasonable length, calling on well-known names can be an invaluable tool in reaching and convincing an audience, while avoiding the morass of theoretical debates that surround most important ideas. 

Monday, July 31, 2017

Is there Truth? Dealing with theoretical disagreements

One of my enduring interests is in trying to understand the nature of knowledge. In my studies, guided by my logical mind, I am absolutely confident that knowledge is limited, imperfect, and that there are no facts, no “capital-T Truth,” no absolute system of objective knowledge—no “God’s Eye View” to use a phrase from the philosopher Hilary Putnam. And unconsciously and intuitively, I am absolutely certain that some things are absolutely true and somethings are absolutely false.

I do not have an answer to this dislocation between my logic and my intuition. This is one of the reasons that I so often turn to the phrase from the Tao Te Ching, that the Tao that can be [spoken of/named] is not the absolute Tao. But saying that there is no answer is often unsatisfactory.

The idea that knowledge is contingent on historical or social or other factors—that it is not objective—is a lens that can be used on itself: the idea that knowledge is contingent, is an idea that is, itself, contingent. If you believe that knowledge is contingent, where do you choose to stand? To what do you commit? (I have some answers to these questions that I find at least marginally satisfying, but those answers are not what I want to talk about.)

In a recent post, I was talking about the political nature of knowledge—how beliefs guide our actions, shape our morals, and generally influence those decisions that move into the political sphere—the sphere of dealing with individuals and groups. Beliefs cause conflict. I had a professor once whose beliefs clashed with mine in ways that left us unable to work together. Fortunately, I was able to work with other people. But I was thinking about this conflict in the context of a scholar with whom I am currently working who has a number of theoretical differences with her professors, and this is contributing to difficulties.

Managing this kind of theoretical difference can be very difficult. Ideally professors would welcome other ideas—but, again, belief shapes action: if you believe that an idea has an insufficient grounding, you won’t accept work based on that idea. A professor who disagrees with a theory may not think “I should be open minded,” but rather “If only I could help this student understand their error.”

Getting through a situation like this is difficult, but I think it can be negotiated. I do not think that a student should give up ideas just because a professor doesn’t like those ideas. In my case, the ideas that my professor didn’t like were grounded in a large community of scholars doing good research, so it was hardly the case that I had good reason to abandon these well developed ideas because one professor objected. For the scholar with whom I am currently working, there is a similar concern: both she and her professors share some theoretical roots, but their theories diverge, and she has good reason to reject their line of reasoning and follow her own because it grows out of solid foundations. At the same time, we can’t say that her professors are “wrong” because judgement of right and wrong requires some absolute standard for comparison. We can say that their ideas are incompatible with hers, but by what standard do we choose one set of ideas as right and one as wrong, when one of the basic presumptions is that knowledge is contingent?

To me, the answer is pragmatic: there is no abstract answer, but action can be taken.

Faced with someone who disagrees with fundamental theories that you accept, I think there are generally three important steps:
1. Demonstrate that you understand and value their view. Look for places where their view overlaps with yours.
2. Focus on specific points of difference, and emphasize how they are limited differences within a larger framework of agreement.
3. Describe your specific framework as an alternative to, not a replacement of the other.
A possible fourth action is to call on specific published scholars to support you, but I haven’t included that in this list because citing the “wrong” scholar can cause problems: you don’t want to cite a scholar that your audience hates. Calling on a Freud or a Marx, or some other polarizing figure, can trigger emotional responses. But if you can use citations that your professors like to support your own arguments, then citation can be very effective.

Emotionally, I really believe that there are right and wrong, and when I get into a theoretical debate, the emotional side can really trigger a stronger attachment to ideas than I can logically defend. In a world where knowledge isn’t absolute, it should be possible to avoid some sorts of theoretical conflict by trying to accept and negotiate difference rather than trying to strongly defend a point.

I think theoretical debates are important because theory shapes action, and action has real impact in the world. But is winning a theoretical debate important? It depends on context, but I would always recommend that students try to avoid theoretical debate when it comes to writing their dissertation—is there some way that a contentious theoretical debate can be transformed into an exploration of a theoretical alternative?

This is hardly a well-rounded essay—ending, as it does with questions. But then, the truth [Tao] that can be told is not the absolute truth [Tao], so maybe an inconclusive ending is appropriate.

Monday, July 24, 2017

"A Better Deal"?

Really? That's the best message you can come up with Democrats? Talk about tepid and uninspired!
I generally vote Green or Peace and Freedom, so I'm more sympathetic with Democrats than with some of the other parties, but this is hardly going to inspire me to vote Democratic. Or anyone else.
They're trying to reference the New Deal, I suppose, but that hardly seems like a winning strategy: Republicans have been hating the New Deal for almost a century, so referencing it isn't going to inspire people who aren't already pro-Democrat.
I suppose they're also referencing Trump and his reputation as a deal-maker. But that hardly seems like it will differentiate them from Trump in a positive way--"better" is nebulous. There's nothing there that can make them anything more than being "not Trump."
Democrats, I offer the following two alternatives that are almost surely superior and more compelling: "A Fair Deal" and "An Honest Deal." Both still use the "deal" references, but also show some specific direction for how they're different. Both rely on important moral touchstones that Democrats don't use effectively. Somehow, Clinton was branded "crooked" while Trump skated through numerous self-contradictions and obviously false statements while being the representative of the party closely tied to the moral imperatives of fundamentalist Christianity.
"A Fair Deal" references the importance that people place on the idea that the economy is "fair”—an idea suggested by recent research that people are more concerned with “fairness” than inequality. (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-017-0082)
“An Honest Deal” references an obvious issue, and in the context of commercial exchange “an honest deal” is a close synonym for “a fair deal.” But the idea that you’re getting an “honest deal” is potentially important in convincing people of the value of important regulation of economic behavior: most of the behaviors that Democrats try to regulate could be framed in terms of honesty or playing fair. Polluting could be described as “cheating,” as a way of getting an unfair advantage, and that kind of discussion can be blended back into Free Market theory: to suggest that the markets have to be free of cheaters.
I haven’t thought deeply about these. They’re the product of only a few moments of reflection after seeing the new “A Better Deal.”

All Knowledge is Political

When I say “All knowledge is political,” I am not thinking of the epistemological concerns—I am not concerned with the question of whether or not knowledge can be objective or not. That question is of interest, but not my subject here. I am interested in the political ramifications of accepting something as knowledge, and in that sense, it is related to my two recent posts about research institutions.
Accepting an idea has political ramifications. The stronger our belief in an idea, the greater our commitment to responding to that idea, and therefore, the greater that idea’s impact on political behavior. In my earlier post on political allegiance, I wrote about how partisan political attitudes towards certain ideas (e.g., evolution and climate change) would naturally lead to a partisan sorting: those who strongly believe in climate change have a strong motivation to align with the political party that accepts climate change. This sorting is a directly political dimension of knowledge: a belief in how the world works leads to political choice.
There are many such issues. Abortion, for example, is politicized according to beliefs about whether abortion is right or wrong. Beliefs about economic behavior become politicized, leading to choice in party alignment. The issues that define the political parties grow from beliefs about how the world works, thus all knowledge is political. Not all beliefs are necessarily partisan, but they can become more so: anti-abortion Democrats were more common once than now, for example, but as Democratic opposition to abortion became more conventional, anti-abortion Democrats had an increasing motivation to leave the Democratic party. This is the sorting process that I mentioned in the earlier post.

But this political nature of knowledge is not only a matter of national partisan politics, it’s in every arena where people interact. Scholars have to deal with politics in many places—publication is not pure blind review, for example, and university departments are often rife with political differences, some of which stem from beliefs. When I say “All knowledge is political,” I am being, I suppose, a bit hyperbolic, inasmuch as there are some ideas that do not immediately lead to political action. Knowing how to boil an egg, for example, is not likely to carry many political ramifications—at the least, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which disputes over how to boil an egg impact a community. But to the extent that ideas lead to action affecting people, those ideas are political in one dimension or another (in the general sense of “political” as meaning interactions among members of a community).

As a philosopher whose interest is the search for “truth,” whatever that may be, it seems to be completely appropriate for political action to follow knowledge. This is essentially the idea of evidence-based practice: we want to act on the basis of ideas that have been tested and demonstrated to be sound.
The opposite is not true, however. It may be unavoidable that knowledge will be shaped by political factors—certainly there is a vast body of philosophy that discusses such political factors that shape that which gets accepted as knowledge—but that does not mean that research should be founded on political concerns. Knowledge may be unavoidably shaped by political or social conditions, but this does not mean that research should be shaped by adherence to political ideology. Research should be exploratory and should strive for objectivity, even if objectivity is impossible in practice. In a sense, the goal of research should be to confirm, deny, or elaborate on/modify theories. And yet, even in such contexts, there are political influences that are undeniable—the very choice of subject of interest may be guided by political concerns.
This post, I suppose, is influenced by the current situation in the US, where news media outlets are regularly attacked as being biased—and some absolutely are, even explicitly. News organizations, like academics, are supposed to set out in search of the truth, of the facts, of that which is true for everyone, but the politicization of news, and the partisan lines drawn, work against this ideal. Outlets that expressly support one view or another—e.g., Huffpost on the left, or Breitbart on the right—have to be approached with great caution for the precise purpose that their material is driven by ideology, rather than non-partisan search for understanding. Such explicitly conservative or explicitly liberal news organizations would have been frowned upon in a different age when newspapers at least laid claim to objectivity. Fox News used to try and present itself as fair and balanced, but the need to be fair and balanced no longer seems to be necessary, as news outlets become increasingly politicized by the very choice of which stories to pursue.

The political dimension of knowledge cannot be eliminated. But if society hopes to avoid increasing partisan division and conflict, shared foundations need to be identified on which to build some sort of consensus. As a philosopher, I believe that the search for truth guided by good standards for research can provide such foundations. Some common ground is necessary for cooperation. Where can this be found if we let all knowledge be shaped by partisan politics? The idea that there can be knowledge that is shared—that is generally true, generally objective—is a crucial element in building some sort of consensus. The idea that we should strive for objectivity, even if it is not possible, is also political, in that it would guide actions and debates.

Bertrand Russell once wrote something like “with subjectivity in philosophy comes anarchy in politics” (in his History of Western Philosophy). Russell, obviously, was espousing objectivity, and in this paraphrase, and yet he captures the important political dimension of knowledge that knowledge leads to action, and without some sort of consensus of knowledge, there is a corresponding difficulty of finding consensus in political arenas.
I don’t know the answer to the increasing partisan differences in the US, and the increasing presence of false or misleading information masquerading as knowledge, but I would say that trying to find common ground in accepted truths and values would be a good place to start. Is there anyone who thinks that researchers/investigative reporters should be trying to find confirmation of what they already believe? Research—the search for knowledge—needs to strive for disruption: it is not about accepting common knowledge, but challenging it. Ideas should be challenged—but only on their own merits. Attacking an idea because of the person who espoused it is to surrender to the ad hominem fallacy and to lose sight of the attempt to understand the world.

Is there any way to find a common ground that grows out of earnest attempts to develop our understanding of the world?