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Alternative Facts and the Misapplication of Reason

What is the difference between critical and conspiratorial thought?

My hobbies increasingly resemble my work. One way to take “time off” from research is more research, on a different topic. There is no better way to harness that feeling of surfing a deep archival flow, than to take on small, investigative tasks for others. Writing in public offers an opportunity to use university resources on behalf of someone who does not have access, to correct the record, and to show, in some small way, the continual importance of the humanities.

To these ends I participate in a number of online forums like Reddit’s excellent AskHistorians and Skeptics on Stack Exchange. Predictably, my most popular answers relate to controversial topics related to Holocaust denial or Islamophobia. Short answers to questions such as “Have Islamic prayers been introduced into Ontario public schools while Christian ones have been removed?” and “Did the Nazis kill Jews with gas chambers?” gather the most votes, views, and discussion.1 More light-hearted topics like “Did the Ancient Egyptians use twenty-sided dice?” and “Do wild dogs use trains to commute to and from Moscow?”—yes and yes—are also popular.

Since this is my hobby, I tend not to editorialize or engage with incendiary remarks. My goal is to provide a well-sourced synthesis of the scholarly consensus. Original work is better saved for peer review. It has also been interesting to observe the kind of arguments that erupt in public, particularly at a time when Americans are struggling to distinguish between facts and alternative facts, news and fake news.

Both sides of these often ideological divides claim the legacy of critical thought. Both appeal to our natural distrust of authority. They both express reasoned doubt.

In a recent conversation, a particularly aggressive reader took issue with my quoting the Oxford English Dictionary and figures from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum when fact checking a quote in The Times of Israel. You are using the “current narrative,” he wrote, to answer skepticism about the current narrative. In his mind, the question about the veracity of a specific source was really about the institution of the Holocaust more generally. It could not be answered with other information, offered by the same archivists and historians responsible for the original claim (which turned out to be misleading in itself). The reader’s comments implied a radical skepticism, directed against the discipline of history.

But what is the alternative? Who can give us “better” facts about what happened? The answer cannot be other, less informed sources. The historical record is never perfect or impartial. It does, however, present a preponderance of evidence. In the case of Nazi use of gas chambers to exterminate Jews, this means multiple independent accounts, court testimony, archival documents, official and unofficial corroboration. In my answer, I wrote that the available evidence represents “the testimony of hundreds, the research and verification effort of thousands, and the experience of millions.” Any alternative theory would, at the very least, have to assemble a similarly weighty case.

The enormity of the record underscores its collective nature. History, like science, is a shared mass. It is the work of careful revision, by many people, over a long period of time. It does not topple easily. A mere inconsistency rearranges a grain of sand on top of a giant pyramid. The effort of debunking it should be proportionate to the effort of its construction.

Healthy skepticism therefore directs doubt towards the specifics. Critical thought relies on the patient amassment of authoritative sources, which the community then evaluates from different perspectives. With time, multiple acts of interpretation assemble such facts to produce an explanatory chain of causes and effects, the edifice of history.

By contrast, conspiratorial thought dispenses with the notion of authority and expertise itself. The doubt is directed not towards the specifics, but to generalities. The whole enterprise of knowledge making is brought into question at once, usually based on oblique hints, speculative conjecture, insinuation, innuendo, or personal invective. Conspiracy theorists discard widely accepted ideas on a whim. And ultimately, they take the Enlightenment admonition to “think for yourself” only as an excuse to avoid thinking.2

  1. Page views total in the hundreds of thousands, according to site statistics. 

  2. Immanuel Kant wrote: “‘Have the courage to use your own understanding,’ is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.” Recall also Martin Luther who called his ordinary fellow worshippers his “fellow priests,” “free forever,” able to “teach one another divine things.” 

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