Jill Lepore speaks of the rise and fall of the fact during Elon visit

A staff writer at The New Yorker, Lepore talked about the importance of facts and its modern challenges as she delivered the James P. Elder Lecture on April 11 in Whitley Auditorium.

By Oliver Fischer ’19 

The meaning and value behind facts has changed over time, and the importance of facts is once again being challenged by postmodernism, numbers and data.

That was the message Jill Lepore shared with a nearly full Whitley Auditorium as she delivered the 2018 James P. Elder Lecture Wednesday night on the rise and fall of the fact, an event that was also sponsored by Elon’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Lepore is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where she writes about American history, law and politics. She is also the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and an affiliated faculty member at Harvard Law School.

Jill Lepore delivers the James P. Elder Lecture on April 11
There are several methods to check facts, according to Lepore. Transcribing a speech and underlining facts for later verification is one. “If you wanted to, you could check my facts, even while I’m talking here tonight,” she said. But there are also less time-intensive ways to do this. 

End-to-end automated fact-checking uses a computer program. The Washington Post Truth Teller and ClaimBuster are two examples of such programs. “We can’t hope to achieve the artificial holy grail of a machine that can achieve everything that human fact-checkers do,” Lepore said. “But there is a lot that they can do.” Despite the effort put into these programs, the notion of a post-fact world has become more prominent.

“A great many people have lately lamented the death of the fact,” Lepore said. The situation was not always this bleak. The importance and value of facts slowly rose with history. 

In the past, a fact meant someone observed something happening. Only in recent years has the word gained a more abstract meaning. Facts first became meaningful in the Middle Ages, where trial by ordeal —in which a person’s innocence or guilt was determined by a life-or-death experiencewas still popular because it outsourced the truth to God.

When the pope outlawed the practice in 1250, it was replaced by a secular method of determining truth. “With the rise of trial by jury, facts had to be established,” Lepore said. Mysteries like what happens after death were still seen as something that could only be understood by God, but were starting to be challenged by facts. “Facts threatened mysteries because ordinary people established facts,” Lepore said.

Over time, the idea of facts spread from law to politics and science. However, early newspapers did not adopt the business of establishing facts. This only began to change in the 1830s as printing started to accelerate, leading to the penny press. “This really democratizes journalism,” Lepore said. Partisanship in newspapers declined because, unlike in a subscription model, the penny press meant that anyone could cheaply and easily pick up a newspaper. Editors could no longer predict who their readers were and tailor stories to their preferences. “This was the great emancipation of American news,” Lepore said.

During World War I, propaganda emerged as a way for the government to sell the war to the American people. Unlike facts, Lepore said, propaganda is a form of mass advertising. “Propaganda is a truth designed to be sold.”

While the fact used to be the elemental unit of knowledge, Lepore said today it has been replaced by numbers and data. One of the challenges facts are facing linger in American universities in the form of postmodernism. “It questions the very idea of the fact,” Lepore said. “Academic humanists begin to argue that there is no such thing as a fact.”

“Much of contemporary discourse, and pretty much all of contemporary politics, is really a dispute over evidence,” Lepore said.