Voce clamantium ex vacuo

7 min read

A personal case study in post-truthism:

Two strangers are about to leave our weekend mountain cabin to go backcountry skiing on the Colorado continental divide.  They’re from out of state, have never lived in Colorado (where our distinctive snowpack is more lethal than elsewhere), and lack the avalanche certification that we Colorado backcountry skiiers usually demand of one another to head off piste.  One of them has never been backcountry skiing before.  Neither of them owns safety gear (beacon, shovel, probe).  It’s noon, and they’re only now planning to head outside.

My friend, who invited everyone (including me and those two prospective skiers) to this group weekend retreat asks me what I’m doing on my phone.  I’m reading the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s forecast.  We’ve had a major storm over the past few days.  Risk is moderate today in this region – the risk level at which most deaths occur historically.  Her guests don’t seem to have checked the forecast, and I am checking the forecast out of concern.

As my friend knows, I have been backcountry skiing for many years, have a full set of safety gear with me, and am familiar with Colorado snow from having lived here for 4 years, 2 of them up in the mountains.  I’m not planning to ski, due to last night’s storm as well as the lack of people in the group to partner up with. 

So far, this scenario sounds like the ominous preamble to an obvious point:  Those with information/experience are ethically bound to advise the uninformed/inexperienced.  Those without facts ought to want facts, and be receptive to facts when proffered by knowledgeable people.

But here’s the twist: my friend gets angry at me.  She admonishes me to not “interfere” with her friends’ ski plans, since “they know exactly what they’re doing”.  Confused by her reaction, I lay out the above facts – to which she retorts that those two are “experts” and don’t need any help or information.  What about the high frequency of avalanche tragedies in Colorado, often in exactly this situation of under-prepared, out-of-state newbies venturing into risky post-storm conditions?  “A few dozen deaths a year?  That’s not that many.” 

I’m ashamed to say that the already-uncomfortable politics of the group situation in the cabin convinced me to rationalize refraining from interjecting a friendly warning to the unknown skiers.  I didn’t have the energy to withstand such ire.  (An important added layer is that I’m female and the two skiers were male.  Self-censoring when gender power dynamics are in play is often the practical path.)  So, the two skiers departed, and, thankfully, returned in the evening.  But this scenario remains just as troubling as if it had gone horribly awry.  

This is a classic “bad decision that turned out well” — not a “good decision”.  (Confusion between decision quality and decision outcome is another pervasive problem…for another essay.)  Of course, the friend in question may have been having a bad day or perhaps aware of other information unknown to me.  None of us should be judged on our worst days or single conversations.  But the interaction is nonetheless too instructive to resist using as an example here.

The above scenario has become commonplace in our culture:  irrational skepticism of experts, indignation regarding inconvenient facts, bravado overriding knowledge, preference for superficial harmony over constructive dialogue.  Everybody is an expert.  And, expertise no longer requires experience, credentials, or factual information.   


Democratization of post-truthism

The anti-empirical, anti-intellectual, anti-rational posture of our country’s loudest political voices has been extensively discussed in the media.  Skepticism of authority — already at high levels in America’s founding culture of individualism — has lately been taken to an absurdist extreme by Trump’s repudiation of experts on national cybersecurity, foreign policy, nuclear armament, education metrics, trade economics and climate science.  It’s not new… but it’s newly, exceptionally dangerous.

Moreover, nowadays the problem is so diffused through society that the same individuals who ridicule post-truthism in politics also participate in it.  In that same circle of left-leaning, college-educated hipsters, I recently fielded a counter-factual rant about how dumb poor people caused the 2007 real estate crisis, and a vague diatribe against international trade shouted with absolute conviction by someone who had never heard of non-tariff barriers or comparative advantage.

Sometimes people knowingly revel in their own provocative ignorance.  Sometimes they confuse their own ignorance with that of their opponent.  In response, I often find myself skipping the slow build of empirical arguments in favor of a shortcut appeal to my own authority (e.g., advanced degree in economics), and nonetheless still failing to persuade – even when I’m trying to convince someone not to acknowledge a particular point of view, but to engage in a fact-based dialogue.  Many educated people struggle to distinguish meta-level from object-level, opinion from fact, and listening from agreeing.

Trump is fond of saying that “nobody knows what’s going on”.  And, so, too, are progressive hipsters on a weekend ski trip.  My purportedly liberal friends un-ironically quote their political nemesis, as a retort to anyone who challenges an opinion in which they are emotionally invested.  People who used to end conversations with a dismissive “whatever” (i.e., I don’t care to discuss this issue) now say “nobody knows” (i.e., I don’t believe this issue can be discussed).  They abrogate discussion before asking questions or ingesting facts.


Blame the Protestants

The 2nd-century gnostics famously valued private revelation over formal study.  This idea of theirs also crops up in the New Testament – though gnosticism was soon deemed heretical and disappeared for 14 centuries until the Protestants re-upped some of its philosophy using different vocabulary.  The 16th-century Protestant Reformation disintermediated Christianity, valuing the capacity of individuals to interpret scripture.  But it did so with ponderous intellectualism that didn’t abandon empiricism.

The Reformation set the stage for the 18th-century Enlightenment, and in turn for late 20th-century postmodernism and its pop-culture simplification into absolute relativism.  If everything is relative, then nothing is knowable, and all perception is embedded in a questionable paradigm that obscures true reality.  Hence the ubiquitous conversation-ender common today among millennials: “Well, we can’t really know”.  Shrug.

Another personal anecdote:

A friend jumps down my throat when I mention that the Colorado Front Range region has the biggest aerospace business cluster in the country.  “I’m sure lots of cities could say that in some way.”   But, no, they can’t say that.  Facts about number of employees, investment dollars, and company valuations show that the Denver-Boulder-Colorado Springs metropolitan area has the most aerospace activity.  The state of California also has a lot, which is split between the Bay Area and LA-San Diego. 

The truth is that sometimes there just isn’t room for subjectivity.  But, postmodernism’s legacy of logical nihilism provokes uncritical thinkers to arbitrarily assert subjectivity to discredit inconvenient facts.  People do this even (as in the above case about industry clusters) when the stakes are trivial and the facts innocuous.  The contrived, pseudo-intellectual affect that asserts subjectivity to quash dialogue is what increasingly passes for critical reasoning.

The 20th-century American-made invention of Christian fundamentalism (which we exported globally similarly to how we spread Coca-Cola and American pop culture), took the Protestant spirit of interpretive disintermediation to an absurdist extreme.  The loud voices of the fundamentalist-influenced political right and alt-right have successfully promulgated and normalized apologetics, harmonization, decontextualization, cherry-picking, circular reasoning, and general sophistry throughout our culture.  Now the most powerful head of state on our planet is overtly proffering “alt-facts”.  His representatives insist that the proverbial emperor is wearing clothes — and much of the public is willing to agree, even as they behold a plainly naked emperor. 

So today, we rational intellectual empiricists living within the American Protestant Christian paradigm ironically find ourselves longing for the magisterium – to bound the sea of sub-rational tribespeople clamoring with self-serving and inconsistent demands.  Our 2500-year-long Judeo-Christian framing vision of one voice in the figurative wilderness, pointing out the path of peace and righteousness to humanity, has been supplanted by a cacophony of voices screaming out from a vacuum.

Those gnostics also said ignorance is a nightmare and knowledge brings salvation.  That worldview heavily influenced Paul, whose writings account for 17% of the New Testament word count (the most content from any one author).  Willful ignorance is not a Biblical value.  Yet, it is clearly a value of the heavily-Christian, American political right.  Distressingly, it has also become a value shared by anti-empirical, anti-expert, anti-rational voices of the political center and left.   



The ubiquity of smug, self-congratulatory reveling in ignorance means that (at the risk of smug, self-congratulatory reveling in obscure knowledge on my part…but I’ll sacrifice intellectual fairness to make this point) I know few in my own acquaintance circle who would recognize (or, most importantly, show interest in) any of the layers of meaning in the title of this essay.  How many would recognize the original Latin phrase (vox clamantis in deserto), or know what that means in English (a voice crying out in the wilderness), or what it’s a quotation of (Isaiah 40:3), and what it meant in that first context (God shows us the way), or where it was cited a few centuries later (Gospel of Mark 1:2-3) and a half century later again (Gospel of John 1:22-23) and reinterpreted to mean at that point (John-the-Baptist setting the stage for Jesus).  Who would be intrigued by how Bible text excerpts like this have been re-purposed over time to disparate ends (in this case, to endorse feudalism, religious devotion, environmental activism)?  How much recognition value is there regarding where the phrase is used today in America (headlines by pun-happy journalists; Dartmouth College motto), or know what it has been intended to mean in that latter context, either at first (hegemonic schooling of Native Americans in the colonial New England wilderness), or at present (education as triumph of reason over ignorance).  

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