It’s too bad some shaman can’t resuscitate David Hume and show him the latest explainer from Vox. He needs to know how badly his foundational work has been eviscerated. One of the 18th-century Scottish philosopher’s most famous propositions, the distinction between facts and values, has been disposed of by the trendiest subset of pundits around. This group comprises those who believe, and will tell you with nasal certitude, that empirical explanations of normative political positions are not a category mistake but a paradigm shift. These folks are the legions of the Tyson-Dawkins axis of rationality. They believe that values — judgments about the way things should be — can be explained in terms of facts — judgments about the way things are. And they rebut Hume simply by not having heard of him.
The pundits in question would recoil at the title. Working for websites like Vox, FiveThirtyEight, or Politifact, where “pundit” is a dirty word for “old-school opinion journalist,” they do not dispense opinions, heaven forbid. No, they are modern dispensers of unvarnished fact: saviors of the discourse, bringing empirical standards to bear on a rotted profession. This apparent dedication to objective truth can only be expressed with righteous tongue. Ezra Klein, the self-styled visionary, says his mission as editor-in-chief of Vox is simple: “Explain the news.” Vox, by Klein’s own lights, is dedicated to providing readers with “the crucial contextual information necessary to understand” what’s going on in the world. Nate Silver, the statistician behind FiveThirtyEight, is motivated by a perceived deficiency in the journalistic world of “rigorous and empirical” standards of objectivity. FiveThirtyEight, he says, is dedicated to using statistical methods in an effort “to find the signal in the noise.” They promise certitude in a world of confusion, recalling the old progressive impulse to replace political conflict with bland technocracy. But a thought occurs: What if certitude is an inappropriate response to a complex world?
This is where fact-checkers swoop in, assuming an authoritative role as the referees of truth. Whether using a cutesy “Pinocchio” system like the Washington Post, or a “Truth-O-Meter” like Politifact, fact-checkers purport to offer readers an ultimate verdict free of pesky bias. Pundits, these fresh faces would tell you, are just stuffy old men who churn out tired columns full of opinion and free of evidence. Such subjectivity is what the new breed of truth-seekers are here to correct.
Granted, these sites can be thoughtful. There is often great stuff on FiveThirtyEight, and even sometimes on Vox. Dare one say their opinions are sometimes worth taking seriously? And of course fact-checking is an important thing to do . . . when it’s done honestly. But honesty and thoughtfulness are unfortunately not the dominant folkways on the oft-clicked pages of objective journalism.
Instead, writers on these sites make claims while callously overlooking the values that animate them. They present themselves as having tracked down the objective truth, but fail to recognize the value judgments they made along the way. These value judgments are both epistemological — dealing with knowledge — and normative — dealing with morals. Fact-checkers use fluid, arbitrary scales to make absolute claims about what is or is not the case. Too often, they fail to situate empirical claims in the normative arguments from which they derive.
Politifact rated Donald Trump’s claim that “crime is rising” a bald-faced lie, bestowing upon it the dreaded “Pants On Fire” label. Oh, dear. Looks bad. Never mind that, as evidence shows, violent crime has indeed risen in 2016. For Politifact, “the overall trend of falling crime rates over the past 25 years” is sufficient to indict Trump with their lowest rating. Trump may have misled, but his statement was hardly false. What’s (capital-T, with a helpful green light) True, on the other hand, is Hillary Clinton’s claim that Trump’s “proposed tax treatment of hedge-fund managers ‘makes the current loophole even worse.’” They cite as evidence the “benefit” that “many hedge-fund managers would receive” from a tax cut, and contend that it’s irrelevant that the plan cuts taxes for the middle class as well. According to Politifact, hedge-fund managers’ receiving benefits is a bad thing. In the first case, the truth is a lie; in the second, values are facts.
The Washington Post has its own dispenser of truth, with similar results. Ted Cruz earned himself “three Pinocchios” in the Post’s Fact Checker blog for claiming that Arizona’s immigration law resulted in the state’s “spending hundreds of millions less on prisons, on education, on hospitals, for those here illegally.” And sure, the “state saved money on education and health care after the law passed.” But the economy is complicated, and Cruz failed to rule out other explanations for the drop in spending. Meanwhile, we are told, Barack Obama deserves one fewer Pinocchio for his invocation of the gender wage gap: Maybe the figure “does not begin to capture what is actually happening in the work force and society” — but his comment is less egregious than Cruz’s, to the measure of one Pinocchio. What is most pathetic about fact-checkers is how little their judgments actually bear on the relevant arguments. Consider the two arguments in which Cruz’s and Obama’s statements were situated. Cruz’s is the idea that we should curb illegal immigration because citizens ought not to fund social services of noncitizens; Obama’s is that women are systematically discriminated against in the work force. Irrespective of their plausibility, neither is discredited by a few Pinocchio graphics. Fact-checkers, in their hubris, think they can foreclose entire political positions.
Data journalists are not immune. Nate Silver was emphatically skeptical of Trump’s rise in the 2016 primaries, and publicly prostrated himself after the unthinkable came to pass. Among other things, he argued that a supposed ceiling of support among Republicans, the forbidding power of the party machinery, and a lack of all-important endorsements were ample evidence to ignore . . . the mounting evidence that Trump was an overwhelming favorite. Carl Diggler, a fictional pundit created by two Twitter personalities, outpaced Silver’s predictions. Virgil Texas, one of Diggler’s creators, noted in a scathing op-ed: “Despite the pretense of scientific detachment, Silver’s models are hardly unbiased.” And indeed FiveThirtyEight’s polls-plus model consistently undervalued Trump’s chances. Texas continued: “The moment you decide to weight some data sets over others, you’ve introduced bias.” Silver’s talk about objective standards belied his belief that some information was more valuable than other information.
The supposed injection of ‘context’ is often little more than camouflage for political hackery.
But the explainers are the worst of the bunch. Their supposed injection of “context” is often little more than specious camouflage for thin, well-trod political hackery. Vox writers cherish the idea that they are disentangling bias from the narrative. The “particular historical circumstances of the 1990s . . . created the image of the scandal-ridden Clintons” only if you deny the Clintons’ agency. Brexit was “fueled by irrational xenophobia” only if you deny the classical understanding of sovereignty. It is consistent for young, progressive people “filled with wonder and ambition” to disparage their elders as “blind” and “hypocri[tical]” only in the pages of Vox. And Barack Obama is “officially one of the most consequential presidents in American history” only if your conception of “consequential” depends on your political biases. But I’m sure one can explain these apparent confusions of fact and value with context. Someone ought to buy the Vox editorial staff a copy of A Treatise of Human Nature: Maybe they can write an explainer about it.
Return to Hume’s argument about values and facts. Like much in philosophy, it is not settled doctrine. But one does not even have to commit to the thrust of his thesis in order to recognize the problem he points to. Hume denied that the truth of moral values — judgments about what ought to be — can be discerned. Some, including Hume himself, take the fact–value distinction and fit it into a position of radical empiricism, according to which the only things that can be known with certainty are empirical facts: What is can be known; what ought to be cannot. Still others, convinced of the veracity of certain moral propositions, take a position known as moral realism: We can indeed know what ought to be. One might claim that the well-being of society ought to be valued over the property rights of individuals, and therefore wealth should be redistributed; another might counter that people have a duty to respect the voluntary decisions of society, and therefore it should not. Both parties to this debate are making moral claims, and moral realists would counsel that such claims can indeed be true or false. Regardless of whether or not values can have determinate truth, though, the point remains: What is cannot settle arguments about what ought to be.
Yet that is precisely what the wonks are attempting. They flatter themselves for having found the true facts about the world, or perhaps for being young, numerically aware, and digitally adept. Either way, the reader is invited to read their work to know what values she should adopt, with no regard to meddling questions of context. They’ve answered those already! These new-style journalists build ignorance of a basic intellectual pillar into their enterprise, yet their self-regard is second to none. There’s a word for a political writer who passes off thinly supported, poorly argued rhetoric for genuine thought: pundit.
These fact-checkers and explainer journalists sate the public’s thirst for trustworthy news outlets. But they, the new generation of trendy thinkers, commit the same sins as the pundits against whom they define themselves. Don’t be fooled by their rounded glasses, their legions of Twitter followers, the authority with which they present their dry-ice takes, or their gestures toward objectivity. They are nothing more than pundits steeped in self-denial.