Facts have careers. They're born, they ascend, they decline, and they die. This isn't to say that facts don't exist. It's just that facts about the world don't merely sit about waiting to be 'discovered'. Facts are constructed to fill a need, and the dimensions of the world that these facts reveal to us will reflect less the world, and more the need.
For example, the factual career of asbestos has spanned almost 5 millenia. Once, an almost mythical cloth known for its magical resistance to fire, its career in fact peaked as an incredibly versatile building material from the mid 1900's to about 1970. Over the next thirty years, the factual career of the magic of this substance waned, and today that career is over. A new factual career, the fact of the damage asbestos does to the human lung, has usurped the old, and here we are. Once we needed a fabulous material, and the fact reflected that. Now we respect more the lives of those using the materials and the fact now reflects this.
This little insight about facts is not particularly new.1 I talk about it alot myself. It's a fundamentally pragmatist understanding of truth. In the now famous words of one of the seminal scholars:
Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.
The objection to this more pragmatic approach to truth---the idea that facts are constructed---is the realist objection: would you jump off a bridge because facts are simply constructions? But I actually think that this objection misses the mark a bit. Pragmatists don't really have a problem with facts, they're simply interested in keeping in mind the career of the facts in question. They are asking one simple question:
What needs are the facts representing?
And this question is a more illuminating one, when it comes to how we deal with knowledge.
Malcolm Gladwell shit is the most successful kind of knowledge
Once, I wrote:
Knowledge is a peculiar concept. It's a form of belief, really. We believe in things and some things that we believe in, we feel so sure about that we call it knowledge.
This is uncontroversial, I think, for the average person on the average topic. Sensible even. No one is going around figuring out everything from first principles all the time, what a waste of energy.
There is an issue though, in that most people don't spend much time distinguishing between the things we believe strongly in, and the things we hold more weakly. The reason we decide to believe anything at all is for the practical purpose of the belief. In this case, both strongly and weakly held belief become 'knowledge' for practical purposes, in that they influence how we decide to act.
This probably doesn't play out problematically very often. But there is one domain that has some troubling characteristics.
In the 70's, Murray Davis wanted to start a new field of sociology. The sociology of the interesting. In the first lines of his article, he writes:
It has long been thought that a theorist is considered great because his theories are true, but this is false. A theorist is considered great, not because his theories are true, but because they are interesting.
Davis goes on to notice that the most successful theories are those that subvert our weakly held beliefs. The hot-takes on things we don't care very much about. If our strong beliefs are attacked, then we're likely to resist the attack. If our existing beliefs are confirmed, we're likely to do little more than nod and forget. But if the knowledge we don't care about very much is revised, then it becomes interesting.
Half a century later, and this characteristic dominates the popular science field. Consider Malcolm Gladwell. It doesn't matter if you don't know who he is, he's had some influence on your weakly held beliefs. He popularised the '10,000 hour rule' of expertise2. He popularised the broken windows theory of urban crime. And he popularised the 'talent myth', among other things. Gladwell's books are standard small talk contributions at the parties of New York Times readers.
His books, and his articles before them, are the exemplification of Davis' theory. Each will take some weakly held belief common to his audience, and subvert them. It doesn't matter than he is routinely criticised for oversimplifying, or outright fabrication. They are interesting, and so they survive on over the champagne flutes of people looking for stuff to say to people they'll never see again.3
This wouldn't really be a problem, except that we love this kind of Malcolm Gladwell shit. Outside of Netflix, the vast majority of people's entertainment time is wrapped up in educational youtube videos, airport style non-fiction books, or some array of non-fiction podcasts. For some point of reference, since around 2013, non-fiction book sales have outstripped fiction books, more recently by as much as ~150%.
This little statistic kind of implies that we're undergoing some kind of neo-Enlightenment. But that's obviously at odds with the kind of anti-intellectual, anti-institutional nihlism people keep noticing writ large across the younger generations of the western world. So, it's probably not that. Probably, it's that:
Education is now just entertainment
You see, the need that this huge appetite for educational facts about the world is attending to is not education. No, these facts are in the business of entertainment---a fresh hit of that Malcolm Gladwell shit. It fills our downtime with something interesting, something so interesting, in fact, that it doubles as social capital---we can use these 'facts' at our New York Times reader parties.4
I'll give you two examples to convince you. Both that I'm right, but also that we should find this troubling.
The rise of the digital guru
Consider the so-called 'Intellectual Dark Web' a loose collection of 'subversive' and 'iconoclastic' intellectuals who were particularly prominant around 2018 or 2019. In a 2018 article, the New York Times pointed out Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray, Sam Harris, and others of the ilk as exemplars of the group. They actually didn't last very long under the IDW flag before falling out, to be honest. But their reluctance to come together under a common brand has little to do with their on-going popularity.
The issue with these new digital gurus, as is starting to be identified, is that it's often very difficult to distinguish the grifters from the revolutionaries.
The figurehead of the 'IDW' before its collapse was Eric Weinstein, a financier employed by Peter Thiel. Capitalising on his brother's5 and his employers fame, Eric built a substantial online following. This was largely because of his narrative: a self-proclaimed brilliant physicist exiled from academia for his revolutionary and off-piste challenge to the status quo in the form of his theory of 'Geometric Unity'. Despite never having published his, to quote him, 'nobel-prize winning', contribution, he used this expertise as a foundation to comment on everything from migration policy to evolutionary theory. His podcast hosted a bunch of famous people, he was hosted on the Joe Rogan podcast, and he was eventually cast as the leading light of the IDW 'movement' in that New York Times article I linked earlier. Within two years, Eric returned to the Joe Rogan podcast to reveal his brilliant theory, and was more-or-less shamed for his unconvincing performance. Turns out the theory isn't much of anything at all. The subsequent pile on has been almost difficult to watch.
The fact that the pole position in this community of revolutionary thinkers was held by just some particularly eloquent shell of a man should lead one to wonder just how 'intellectual' the rest are. I will leave that analysis for others, but not many survive contact with the lightest deconstruction.
There are two problems with this. First, despite the collapse of the 'IDW' and even the collapse of individual guru figures, these gurus, on average are hugely popular. Second, these gurus are largely related to one another.
The gurus are popular because we occupy a time of enormous uncertainty coupled with the luxury of weath and time. In times like this we are driven to use those luxuries to seek out successful, prophets to guide us toward meaning, purpose, and the sense of stability those things provide.
The gurus are related related by their 'heterodoxy', and their claims to a lack of recognition by the mainstream.6 And so, when some seeker after meaning encounters one, they inevitably encounter the others, usually through a Joe Rogan appearance.7 Soon enough, our seekers are enmeshed in a web of revolutionary thinkers. Thinkers whose entire value proposition is that they make hot-takes on weakly held beliefs, and this is a process often careless about the truth of the claims. They are interesting, and their education is the best kind of entertainment.
And so, we're left with entire swathes of the population, usually young and impressionable men, who parrot these things at parties. Who make no distinction between these newfound weakly held beliefs and the ones they hold more strongly. Who share a sense that these interesting 'facts' are the same thing as 'true' facts, even though the business these 'facts' are making their career in is the entertainment business and not the education one.
And the world is almost certainly a worse place for it, because there's absolutely no chance that a person whose free time is spent consuming questionable hot-takes is going to have a sensible picture of the world.
Management consulting as modern theatre
I'll start this topically, with another guru: Elon Musk. At the time of writing, you can't escape the man in the news. Though today the emphasis on Musk-flavoured content is a little different, what with the shenanigans at Twitter, Musk is regularly lauded as some kind of super-genius. He was a founder of Paypal. He founded private space-company SpaceX, he heads up Tesla, he co-founded Neuralink, and on and on and on. He's a sci-fi fan's wet dream.
You can find Musk around the place talking, apparently intelligently, about each of these companies. He talks about how he wanders onto the floor of the Tesla manufacturies, spotting arcane issues and fixing them personally for his team. He talks about the challenges inherent in travelling to Mars. He talks about all kinds of shit in a manner that implies that he's au fait with all these domains of engineering. That last video I linked, for example, has him telling a crowd "I think I know more about manufacturing than anyone currently alive on Earth". The problem is that, regardless of whether he is or isn't conversant with a questionably large range of disciplines, he's also prone to the kind of embellishment that many would call lies. Besides those two 'debunking' videos, you also have these two, so I won't spend too long detailing them. But, the most convenient example is the fact that he's promised fully-autonomous self-driving cars every year since 2014. This is not an out of context embellishment. It's characteristic, only this time related to his core business interest rather than his other embellishments about brain implants, humanoid robots, solar tiles, hyperloops, and Twitter. When Musk makes these kinds of claims, he only ever appears to me painting a picture of what he'd like to be true, and never what is true.
Maybe you're surprised then, to learn that he is CEO of Tesla. The CEO is essentially the front-person for the organisation. Surely you can't have that person telling porkies at every opportunity?
Not only can you, you apparently should. Tesla's marketing spend is essentially $0. Musk is their advertisement. When we decide what car to buy, and Tesla pops into our mind, it's not because the cars are delivering on promises. They categorically are not. They pop into our minds because Musk has theories about how these things work that are interesting. Musk sounds like he's educating us about a science fiction future that sits just outside the door. But the 'facts' he's sharing about his companies aren't filling the need of education. They're filling our need for entertainment. And it's very lucrative for Tesla.
This is, in fact, more or less par for the course in the business world. An entire industry exists around the space that Musk occupies. It's called management consulting. Ostensibly, management consulting is a service that businesses use to improve themselves. You have operations consulting---a service that teaches you to improve your cash flow and the efficiency of your business processes in producing and servicing customer demand. You have strategy consulting---a service that teaches you how to position your company to better achieve your organisation's objectives, or perhaps to help you discover those objectives in the first place. And, you have leadership development---a service to make your leaders more... you know... leader-y.
One would think that such services would be heavily focused on education. But in fact, it's saturated in entertainment. This is not to say that management consulting doesn't have any value. Some of it is legitimately useful---repositioning in new market circumstances, restructuring for cash flow purposes, eliminating inefficiencies across supply chains. All these things and more become increasingly complex with the size of a company, and management consultants view it as their bread and butter. Management consulting also acts as a kind of insurance. If the company makes troubling decisions, then it can blame the consultants and move on.
But, almost anyone who has had contact with the consulting world will tell you that the powerpoints they produce are more often useless than they are useful. There's even an Economist piece about it. When the pro-business queen of media is shitting on your business, you know you've really failed to keep your snake oil secret.
And yet, business is booming. Because, interlaced with the useless powerpoints and the occasionally useful project, there is heavy entertainment value. In the consulting world, the best facts are the most interesting, not so much the most useful. This is particularly so in an environment where the money you're spending isn't yours and the value you get is suspect just by virtue of the industry you're looking to. The incentives here mean that the packages with the interesting theories aren't just the packages that sell in the first place, but are the packages that succeed in convincing the leadership that something the consultants did was worthwhile. That make everyone involved feel good.
Now, I've given plenty of examples of this in my own time as a consultant. Those articles come directly out of attempts to improve the quality of content in a leadership development firm. Here, anywhere between 20-50 year old research is presented as current and relevant. Not because it is, but because it's interesting. It violates the clients' weakly held beliefs and so cashes the checks. And despite the fact that all these outdated pet theories about how to improve performance; reduce work stress; shape behaviour and so on can be easily updated in a way that both maintains their entertainment value and improves their education value, they won't be. Because the need these facts fill isn't education, but entertainment. Management consulting is just the company theatre pass.
Now, perhaps you're wondering why this should all bother you. So what if people are wasting their time on gurus and their money on Teslas and consultants?
And perhaps you're right. But just take in for a moment the sheer quantity of human time and wealth that's poured into this one manifestation of the careers of facts. That Malcolm Gladwell shit is both one of our largest cultural products, and our largest business expenses. That entire industries have spawned around what looks, on the surface, like improvement but is in fact merely about entertainment.
If that doesn't trouble you, then... I guess at least spend some of that entertainment time reading more of my articles.
Indeed, this exact approach is that of Bruce Latour and Steve Woolgar in their book: Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts ↩
Which, true to Davis' prediction, is interesting but not necessarily true. ↩
You will notice that I chose Malcolm Gladwell for this, because I wanted to subvert your weakly held beliefs about him. ↩
Thanks to Elena Zevgolatakou for letting me know that these were a thing. ↩
I won't go much into this, but his brother, Bret had a little cancel culture moment, and did quite well out of it. Bret has also been featured on Rogan, co-written the exact kind of education-as-entertainment book we're talking about here with his wife, and gone on to be a leading light himself, this time of COVID misinformation in his podcast. ↩
This, despite the fact that they often have millions of followers. ↩
The regular re-appearance of Joe Rogan in this article and its footnotes is possibly the best signal of my point here. Joe is famously conspiracy-minded. Most think his popularity is in his occupation of the masculine ideal---old mate at the pub, telling jokes and sharing stories. But I wonder just how much of it is because he's actually Davis' ideal---old mate at the pub violating your weakly held beliefs for three hours at a time. ↩