Knowledge-based gibberish

Those in politics, medicine, and business who rely on annoying verbal tics often don’t have their facts straight

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / July 8, 2011

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I always remember the first time I hear anything silly. It’s hard to forget Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, running in the Senate primary to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat, jabbering on about America’s “fact-based presidency.’’ I suppose I know what he meant. For casually idiotic ideologues, George W. Bush & Co. were fantasists of the first water, and the coolly analytical Barack Obama represents the opposite.

The Bush presidency always seemed quite fact-freighted to me. The 9/11 attacks were plenty factual, as were the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the tens of thousands of deaths that ensued. The Great Recession of 2007 was quite “fact-based,’’ as a successful businessman such as Mr. Pags must appreciate. They are the facts from which we are trying to awake.

“Fact-based’’ figures in a new suite of verbal tics I find especially annoying: reality-based; evidence-based; knowledge-based. As opposed to what?, I am always tempted to ask.

What in heaven’s name, for instance, is “evidence-based medicine’’? Here is a quote from the august British Medical Journal that should set us straight: “Evidence-based medicine is the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients.’’ And the opposite of this would be . . . divination? Are men and women trooping out of the nation’s medical schools trained to flip coins or toss the I Ching on the floor of the intensive care unit if a diagnosis isn’t quickly forthcoming?

The notion that “evidence-based medicine,’’ which purports to be only 15 years old, is a new development is especially hilarious. Roughly 2,000 years ago, the Greco-Roman surgeon and philosopher Galen cut people open and found evidence of some remarkable phenomena: that muscles work in contracting pairs, that blood flows from the right to the left side of the heart, and so on. Everything old is becoming new again.

Lazy neologisms tend to metastasize. So now there is evidence-based nursing, evidence-based mental health care, evidence-based design, and of course evidence-based management, yet another faddish business term canonized in the pages of the Harvard Business Review. “To start an evidence-based management movement in your firm: Demand evidence,’’ write Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton. “Whenever someone makes a seemingly compelling claim, ask for supporting data.’’ These ideas are so profound it took two people to dream them up.

The nonsense phrase “reality-based’’ has become a hoary cliche, thanks in part to journalist Ron Suskind, who introduced the term “reality-based community’’ to describe critics of George W. Bush’s policies. I see that frenetic anti-Bush crusader Mark Kleiman has a blog called Reality Based Community, whose motto is yet another phrase, much beloved by the left, that I can’t abide: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.’’

As an expert on the legal system, Kleiman should appreciate that the essence of argument is spirited disagreement over facts, which as we all know can be slippery things.

I see that the Democratic-leaning Blue Mass Group blog claims to be trafficking in “reality-based commentary.’’ So Republican ideas are pure fiction? They have plenty of readers, you have to give them that.

“Knowledge-based’’? But of course. There are “knowledge-based systems,’’ a clunky word for computer programs that use artificial intelligence. One encounters endless allusions to the “knowledge-based economy,’’ which refers to economies where no one makes anything, except maybe video games and iPhone apps. There is also a field called “knowledge-based marketing,’’ which seems to mean doing old-fashioned market research before spending money to sell stuff to people.

Harvard’s Kennedy School has a website devoted to “knowledge-based journalism,’’ which “provides access to scholarly reports and papers on a wide range of topics, syllabi for educators and skills-based reference material.’’ Knowledge-based journalism? Good grief. If that catches on, people like me will be out of a job.

Facts; reality; evidence. Everyone cherishes the illusion of certitude. Maybe some common sense-based language reform is in order.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is