"Where is the data?", my colleague asked at the faculty meeting where we were discussing a way to measure how well we taught our students. He was a member of a psychology department where they were all behaviorists; they had their own building where they conducted experiments on monkeys, that sort of thing. Naturally, for behaviorists the only way to discuss anything could only be based on hard data.
Not everyone was like them at our liberal arts college. Certainly those of us in languages and literature weren't. Nor the historians, and least of all the teachers of art, some of whom were artists. It was one such artist who, during a presentation of her own paintings, invoked Carl Jung, which provoked one of the psychology profs in the audience to jump up and practically scream in objection. It took a level-headed historian in the room to explain that Jung, whose theories were so much mumbo-jumbo to a behaviorist, had a different place in art studies than in the discipline of psychology. The collective unconscious was not about the data,
We were a fairly old-fashioned school, yet to be hit by the winds of critical theory blowing from France that were taking sectors of academia in places like Yale by storm. Theory, as it was simply called, was a groove (I use the word deliberately because much fed on the turmoil of the sixties) that took its building blocks from anthropology, linguistics (and its correlative, semiotics), psychoanalysis (but not Jung), literary criticism, and certain aspects of Marxism and the thought of Frederic Nietzsche. It flourished in France, where the café society philosophes like Sartre were losing their esteem. And though it wasn't data-crazy like American behaviorism, there was something hard-edged about its attitude. Intellectual punk rock with a French accent.
It found fertile ground in American academia, where a generation of scholars (mine) was hungry for something that challenged the established order. I resisted its siren call, mostly because I truly wasn't fit for academia, even in punk-rock guise, but I succumbed to it briefly when I imagined myself a film studies guy -- this stuff was big in film studies. But that's another story. What's relevant about this wave (Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Umberto Eco, to name a few) is that they suggested, or even said, that there was no such thing as facts, at least nothing intellectually verifiable. Or as I myself put it in something I wrote when I was under their influence, reality is not available.
In our days of alt-facts, some analysts have fingered the postmodern theorists -- another name for this movement -- as undermining the faith in facts that liberals see crumbling under siege by the alt-right. Frankly, I'm not sure academic mind-games had that much weight on public thought, though I confess that, possibly still under the spell of those dastardly French thinkers, I too question the fact-ness of facts. For one, where is the data? If there's something I learned in academia is that for every peer-reviewed way of looking at things there's a completely opposite peer-reviewed perspective. Academia is full of such warring camps, which make the pastoral Ivy-covered campuses bloody battlegrounds.
Still, there's a difference between passionate attachments to schools of thought and the chicanery of falsification for political gain. Not everyone is capable of discernment. I am not trained to analyze primary sources in important areas, like climate change. But I am educated enough to understand that it makes sense and that those trained minds who tell me about it are on the right track. I am willing to accept that there could be errors in the prognostications of such change, but the scientific method has checks and balances that reassure me a huge error is unlikely. Reality may not be available, but what's available is good enough for me.
In a way I'm trusting my instincts, as all sentient creatures do. And I temper that trust with skepticism, fortunately an inborn trait. I do my best. We all do. Except those who do their worst. We all believe in something (in the way she moves), and I believe in George Harrison.
Beware of greedy leaders/They take you where you should not go.