What makes a primary source authentic?

by Philip Boxer

I’ve just been listening to a press briefing being given by President Trump and his team yesterday…  two things struck me as very interesting. 

He was asked by a reporter what he had to say to those who are very afraid just now.  His response was that it was a nasty question and the reporter was a bad reporter.  He then explained that he was an optimist, that it was a matter of patriotic duty to be an optimist, and to promulgate narratives that were not optimistic was to promulgate fake news.

He also spoke in favor of using the anti-malarial drug, asking what people had to lose in trying it.  Better to travel in hope than to criticise. When asked to comment, Dr Fauci did not disagree with the President, but pointed out that they were using different criteria.  While the President’s words were optimistic, based on anecdotal evidence, Dr Fauci’s view, that we don’t yet know if it will work, was based on the current state of clinical evidence.

I wondered what was going on here. It appeared to me to be a collision between two quite different approaches to ‘truth’. The first of these emerged following the Reformation. People were no longer prepared to rely on priests to read the ‘truth’ on their behalf and there was an emancipation of reading, made possible by the Gutenberg and Caxton technologies. The Enlightenment emerged subsequently as a way in which individuals could learn how to read the right way. ‘Science’ as we have come to understand it was born, an ‘expert’ becoming someone who can say what is ‘true’ because they are recognised as knowing the right ways of reading. Except that there are many who would now say that so-called ‘experts’ are just the latest version of the pre-Reformation priests.

This is leading to the second approach to ‘truth’, made possible by social media and internet technology, for example by Google and Facebook. This is an emancipation of authorship in which individuals want to author their own ways of reading, i.e. their own ways of giving meaning to what is going on (wigo).  It gives rise to people choosing to live in their own ‘bubble’, i.e. interacting with people who share the same authorial relationship to wigo, whether from a ‘left‘ or a ‘right‘ perspective. Historians refer to this ‘bubble’ effect as source bias in the way wigo is described (as distinct from the point-of-view of the observer doing the describing).

My hypothesis about what is going on, then, is that when President Trump refers to fake news, he is challenging the source bias of its authors. Those of us identified with the Enlightenment, on the other hand, are hearing what he is saying as challenging the factual basis of the news. Corroborating evidence here for my hypothesis is Zuckerberg’s defense of “primary source speech” last October, in which he equated it with giving voice to people. In practice, this meant Facebook not censoring politicians’ campaign material. In effect, President Trump is claiming the right to give voice to his views. We are questioning the factual basis of his views.

After the Reformation, society developed ‘science’ as a way of choosing between different ways of reading, institutionalised by universities. Are we now going to be seeing the institutionalisation of right ways of authoring? Is a dictatorship of a majority the way of determining which bubble we should be living in? What is to constitute ‘truth’ in an age of emancipated authorship?  In an age of ‘critical studies’, in which it is as if each of us has at least one book in us, what, for example, makes a book worth writing? What would we say makes a primary source authentic?

The authenticity of feelings we have about something rests upon our personal valency for that way of feeling, ‘valency’ here meaning that which fits with our personal history. A bubble emerges through sharing aspects of our personal valency reflected in what we take to be ‘true’. To question our personal valency, therefore, is to question the authenticity of our speaking. What is in question here is not what we are saying so much as our ability to entertain doubt about the ‘truth’ of what we are saying.[1] I guess what distinguishes President Trump, then, is his wish that we not entertain doubt about what he is saying. How weird is that?


[1]. This invokes Peirce’s ‘irritation of doubt’, from his 1877 paper on “The Fixation of Belief” in Popular Science Monthly 12 (November), pages 1-15. This is the fourth in a series of ways of establishing ‘truth’ – (i) by common sense, (ii) by the method of authority, (iii) by a priori assumptions and (iv) by working through an ‘irritation of doubt’ raised by an existing ‘truth’. I consider the challenge presented by the fourth of these in Boxer, P. J. (2018). “Working with ‘the irritation of doubt’: the place of metaphor.” Socioanalysis 20: 27-50.

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