Sometime last year, I had the pleasure of reviewing Ekaterina Lukianova and Igor Tolochin’s “Citizens in Search of Facts: A Case Study from the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review on Measure 82” (2022). This response offers an opportunity to return to the article in its completed form and revisit some of the comments I made in my (favorable) review. To be clear, much of what follows is not exactly a “response” per se, but rather an attempt to elaborate what I see as being some of the larger implications of the authors’ argument. Toward the end of the piece, however, I do consider some points of disagreement I have with the authors’ methodology and conclusions … [please read below the rest of the article].
Pauli, Benjamin J. 2022. “Doing Things with Facts: A Response to Lukianova and Tolochin.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (2): 13-18. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-6vJ.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
❧ Lukianova, Ekaterina and Igor Tolochin. 2022. “Citizens in Search of Facts: A Case Study from the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review on Measure 82.” Social Epistemology 36 (2): 180-193.
On Collective Deliberation
Here are the main questions at hand, as I understand them:
• Is it reasonable to expect people engaged in collective deliberation to agree upon basic “facts”?
• Do they need to do so in order to have a productive conversation?
Lukianova and Tolochin’s provocative answer is “no,” at least not if we mean by “facts” the “atomistic” or “brute” facts of Wittgenstein and Searle. Indeed, the authors go as far as to argue that “there may not be an easy and efficient way in which an ideologically diverse group can indentify [sic] generally acceptable, stand-alone facts in the form of syntactically simple propositions when deliberating on a social issue” (191). When we place such an expectation on deliberators we are, in effect, setting them up for failure. And in so doing, we not only waste “valuable time” but “drastically reduce the depth and scope of deliberation” (192).
The authors suggest that rather than channeling deliberative energies into a fruitless (and arguably unnecessary) search for consensual factual foundations, it is better to focus on outcomes: the problem statements, recommendations, and decisions at which deliberation aims. Of course, in some cases—as in the case of the titular Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review—the outcome of a deliberative process will itself be a set of purportedly factual statements, characterized as “findings” of fact that are offered to the public for consideration. But even in these cases, we find that deliberative bodies rarely if ever stick to “just” the facts—rather, their “findings” are often evaluative, tentative, speculative, and artificially “balanced,” geared not toward making authoritative pronouncements but rather toward helping other citizens think through the different aspects and implications of an issue. According to Lukianova and Tolochin, this is not only how deliberative fact-finding does work, but how it should work. What makes something worthy of being called a fact—for deliberative purposes, anyway—is not whether it captures a discrete piece of the “real” world and meets strict definitional criteria but rather whether it helps us to define and evaluate a problem for the sake of action. Fact statements are pragmatic social constructs, shaped by the intentions of a particular community of people working toward a particular objective. They may be accepted and used by people who—in traditional terms, anyway—actually have deep factual disagreements.
The argument is provocative in part because in downplaying the importance of shared facts it may seem like a capitulation to certain social trends said to be responsible for everything from political polarization, to climate change-denial, to the flaunting of public health recommendations during the COVID-19 pandemic. It used to be the case (or so it is said) that our disagreements were over what to do about the facts; now, besieged by misinformation and embedded in our own personal echo chambers, we disagree over the facts themselves, clinging to the assumptions of our particular “tribe” and treating with suspicion if not outright hostility anyone or anything we see as threatening our preconceptions or contradicting our personal experience. One does not have to look far for characterizations of this kind of factual dissensus as the epidemic of the modern world—the plague beneath the plague, the thing that most profoundly divides us, that prevents us from confronting effectively the most significant issues of the day. The attitudes of those who, e.g., refuse to “follow the science” (read: scientific “facts”) are typically characterized not only as infantile, stubborn, and willfully blind, but as actively dangerous, indicative of a social pathology that must be overcome if the human race is to have much of hope of solving its present or future problems.
Fact and Deliberation
Within this so-called “post-truth” landscape, carefully crafted and controlled deliberative environments may have the appearance of being islands of sanity, wherein open-mindedness, good information, evidence-based reasoning, and civility prevail. In the classic deliberative scenario, parties to deliberation sit around the same table (physical or metaphorical) and consider (or, as the case may be, collect) the same set of “facts.” Usually, it is imagined that perspectives on how to represent, interpret, and act upon these facts will substantially converge as deliberators reason their way collectively toward shared conclusions. Of course, disagreements may arise even under ideal deliberative conditions. Deliberators looking at the same information may, for example, come to different conclusions about, say, the dangers of nuclear power or genetic modification. Certainly, facts do not seem to generate “beliefs” in a purely deterministic and consistent manner. Still, it is perhaps comforting to think that deliberation will tend toward consensus as long as it takes place upon a common factual bedrock. Indeed, as Lukianova and Tolochin write, “commitment to a common set of factual premises is often seen as vital to any progress that can be made in public deliberation” (181).
This widespread assumption may explain the almost existential shudder some seem to experience at the thought that factual consensus may be beyond our grasp. Opening up basic facts to contestation risks sending us spiraling off into an infinite regress of disagreement, undermining whatever cognitive foothold we think we have collectively attained in the world and leading us down a rabbit hole of futility and despair. Perhaps this is why modern philosophy is replete with efforts to define facts in a way that places them beyond controversy. The perennial difficulty, however, is that facts are difficult to communicate straightforwardly in human language, even for those “experts” most directly involved in analyzing and describing the material world. Never has this been clearer than during the COVID-19 pandemic, where the messy process of fact-making and communication at the highest levels of government, academia, and the private sector has been on unusually public display. It has proven difficult for the scientific and medical establishments to produce and convey uncontroversial facts about everything from the nature of the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself, to the manner in which it is transmitted, to which public health strategies are effective (or not) in combatting it. To lay observers and experts alike, it has often seemed like the factual ground is continuously shifting under one’s feet: first masks aren’t needed, then they are, the vaccines will prevent transmission, then they won’t, the virus originated in a wildlife market, or maybe it didn’t. These shifting messages, as well as the steady undercurrent of disagreement among experts, has understandably created the impression that much about the “facts” of COVID-19 as they stand at any particular moment is incomplete, unstable, artificial. The response by public health authorities is generally to try and make their messages sound as simple and straightforward as possible, while politicians try to make their actions look as decisive and confident as possible. This, we are told, is what the people want. But even when we members of the general public opt to go along—to believe what we are told, to follow the rules—the performativity of it all is difficult to overlook.
And many, of course, do not go along. One wonders if the communication of facts (scientific and otherwise), as well as decisions made in their name might not find a more receptive audience if there was altogether less simplicity and confidence projected: if the difficulty of arriving at consensus and firm conclusions was acknowledged, if differences of opinion and approach were treated as legitimate, if more emphasis was placed on enlisting people in a common best-effort to solve the problem rather than on bringing everyone into factual alignment. That common purpose does not depend upon common facts is, it seems to me, what Lukianova and Tolochin are trying to suggest, as counterintuitive as it may seem.
Stand Alone Facts?
To be sure, the terrain we have to navigate together gets rockier the more we introduce factual disagreement into the picture. And while we may (as the authors argue) need to be more tolerant of different models of social reality if we are to have a constructive conversation, we may want to be careful about giving off the impression that all models are equally defensible. But we also need to be careful about rushing to judgment when someone expresses a different view of a matter of “fact,” careful to resist the conclusion that they simply have a deficit that needs to be corrected, or an ulterior motive that is out of place in a deliberative setting. We may wince at the complications introduced by tolerance of this kind of diversity. But the alternative—the alternative wherein we treat facts as given and forge ahead, dragging those who haven’t seen the light along with us—is too self-evidently artificial, too associated in people’s minds with arrogance and elitism and arbitrary coercion, to be especially viable in this day and age.
Looked at from this perspective, what might initially seem like a failure on the part of the deliberators profiled in Lukianova and Tolochin’s article—the failure to “find” straightforward facts—takes on a different appearance: it is, in reality, a story of success. The deliberators in this case, whatever their underlying disagreements, were able to arrive at statements that everyone recognized as facilitating a collective response to the issue at hand. I believe the authors are correct to suggest that this pragmatic function is all that we should—and probably all that we can—expect out of such a deliberative body. What we are looking for from citizen deliberators is not for them to assemble a definitive model of social reality on our behalf. Rather, the public service they perform is to help fellow citizens think their way through a particular issue and arrive at their own conclusions. Even when the official aim of deliberation is “fact-finding,” the process, as the authors suggest, should be “regarded as a decision-making exercise, rather than an education effort” (191).
I wonder, however, whether Lukianova and Tolochin take their assertions about the lack of factual concord among their chosen deliberators—as well as their pessimism about the general potential for such concord—too far. They write, for example, that their “analysis of the key findings [of the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative] clearly demonstrates that the way the panelists have been able to define them is not based on any shared simple factual beliefs” (191). But can the presence or absence of “shared simple factual beliefs” among deliberators really be adequately assessed by looking at the end products of deliberation—at group statements tailor-made for a public audience? One thing the authors’ analysis shows, for example, is the tendency of deliberative bodies to strike an artificial “balance” between competing perspectives on an issue, effectively throwing some meat to the “pro” side and some to the “con” side, sometimes within the same factual finding.
As I see it, hybrid pro/con statements like these don’t really tell us much of anything about whether a fundamental disagreement over facts exists within the deliberative body itself. As the authors themselves write, what these statements actually reflect is the “recognition that various groups [i.e., in society at large] have legitimate concerns, rather than an assertion that a particular proposition has an uncontestable truth value” (191). If a deliberative body is not really trying to speak a simple truth in the first place, what it says can’t really be taken as decisive evidence of what deliberators believe about where the truth “really” lies. Methodologically speaking, Lukianova and Tolochin’s focus on findings of fact seems problematic on this score.
To the authors’ credit, however, they do not focus solely on findings—rather, they also engage in some analysis of the process leading up to the findings, relying on transcripts and, to some extent, first-person observation. It is in this process, it seems to me, that the more meaningful data lies, since we would expect the discussion of the issues among deliberators to deal with barer bones, before the artifice of public presentation enters in as a consideration. I obviously haven’t seen nearly as much of these transcripts as the authors have, but based on the samples provided in the article I do not see much evidence of deep factual disagreements in this case. For example, Lukianova and Tolochin describe the debate over one particular “found” fact (sentence 2) as “a particularly revealing example of the near impossibility for the group to generate a ‘piece of factual information’ that can be understood as a stand-alone claim” (190). The finding in question reads as follows:
For every dollar of revenue from Video Lottery Terminals, about 65 cents goes to the State lottery. In addition, under Measure 82, for every dollar of revenue produced by private casinos, 25 cents would go to the State lottery (189).
The authors’ analysis of this finding centers on the debate that apparently developed among deliberators over how to introduce the second sentence, with “In addition” eventually winning out over “However.” This debate is revealing, no doubt, but it doesn’t seem to reveal what the authors imply it does. While it shows that it was difficult for the deliberators to generate a straightforward factual finding, it does not, as far as I can tell, show that it was difficult for them to agree on some basic facts. One can imagine a scenario in which some of the deliberators had called into question, say, whether 65 cents out of every dollar really does go the State lottery—e.g., the way some Americans currently dispute the government’s official numbers on COVID-19. Instead, it appears that the deliberators agreed on two fairly clear and simple pieces of information (the 65 and 25-cent figures), but simply decided to combine them for the sake of the finding of fact (in a tellingly awkward way, no doubt). In other words, it was not in perceptions of the facts themselves, but in the attempt to do things with the facts that the complication and complexity arose. Should we be as uncertain as Lukianova and Tolochin are, then, “whether participants in an ideologically diverse group could agree on simple factual propositions in the indicative mood” (191)?
The Possibilities of Fact-Making
This brings me to one final point. Throughout their article, Lukianova and Tolochin suggest that the way facts are currently defined in deliberative contexts, as well as the instructions to deliberators that flow from such definitions, are counterproductive. If only we could introduce a more pragmatic understanding of fact-making, they imply, we could prevent deliberation from getting bogged down in needless debate and controversy. However, as I’ve suggested above, it is not clear how much deliberative energy is, in actuality, being siphoned off in this way. Based on the findings of fact that the authors themselves consider, it does not seem that an unreasonable expectation of facticity is preventing deliberators from more or less intuitively following the path counseled by the pragmatist. Deliberators, at least in this case, seem to have had a fairly clear sense of what the real significance of their undertaking was, of what would be most meaningful and useful to their fellow citizens—regardless of the letter of the instructions they received. And no one, apparently, stopped them from phrasing their findings in a manner which, technically, broke the rules. To what extent would a different kind of deliberative environment have arisen if a different understanding of facts had been conveyed to deliberators? Would it really have had much of an effect on the process or the outcomes of deliberation? One wonders if this is a case where the authors are confusing a philosophical problem with a practical one.
Nevertheless, the authors are to be commended, as I said in my original review, for opening one of the black boxes of deliberative theory; namely, the manner in which definitions of fact are constructed within deliberative settings. I tend to agree with them that deliberation will, ultimately, be better off for this kind of questioning of its background assumptions, even if I am skeptical that, in this instance, doing so will result in significant practical improvements to the actual process of deliberation. I also share the authors’ hope that a pragmatic approach to matters of fact will be more effective than insistence upon factual consensus where deep factual differences do exist, especially in instances where factual controversies are creating division, alienation, and hostility among people who have good reasons to work together. Moving forward, it will be illuminating, I think, to examine how well this approach holds up within harder cases than the one considered in this article.
Lukianova, Ekaterina and Igor Tolochin. 2022. “Citizens in Search of Facts: A Case Study from the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review on Measure 82.” Social Epistemology 36 (2): 180-193.
Categories: Critical Replies