The Trouble with Facts

Posted by on October 26, 2012 in Featured | 10 comments

Image: The Assassination Of President Lincoln via Wikipedia

Have you ever been in an argument with someone where the other person holds their head high, points a finger stabbingly at the palm of their other hand and proclaims defiantly “FACT!” then proceeds to tell you their fact, as if by labeling it a fact before it’s spoken makes it indisputable? How many times have you read an article, or heard a debate where “FACT!” was used as the basis for an argument that a side with few actual facts used as a “checkmate moment”? And how often, when researched, are these facts mere assertions of hearsay, exaggerations or just plain untruths?

The slippery slope of claiming of facts is something many have trouble grappling with: What one sees as indisputable fact, another can see as fallacious. When a person is convinced of for instance, the efficacy of the bible, their facts come from that realm first, then grasp at straws from history or popular literature to back their points. If one is to look at the facts surrounding the true corporeal existence of Jesus’ life, depending upon the bible and the writings of “pro-Jesus” authors, of course the “fact” you end with is that, “Yes Jesus did live and perform miracles”. From the outside, from a viewpoint that requires information from more than one source (for in this case, all literature written supporting the actual life of Jesus starts with the bible, then looks for clues to his existence as a way to back that “fact” up), there is little to support Jesus’ life as a man on earth, and none to support his divinity.

Many things in life are accepted as facts. Often times someone will say to you something like “Did you know that water spirals the opposite way down the sink in the southern hemisphere?” Most people will just nod their heads and say “Wow, I was unaware of that,” and take it on as a reasonably interesting but trivial piece of information. This kind of “fact” is actually a falsehood, and we often see this on twitter from accounts like “OMGWTFACTS” (or whatever), purportedly giving tidbits of information, but which are actually urban legends, misunderstandings or even plain bald-faced lies.

(For those interested in the “water spiraling the opposite way” question, let it be known that the “Coriolis effect” is not observable on the scale of a plughole or toilet. the more likely reason for the spin is the shape of the plughole, the direction of the initial flow, and the aperture of the plughole itself. Coriolis is not observable at the human scale. To debunk this popular theory, all one needs to do is empty a sink on the equator. If Coriolis works on this scale, a plug should empty straight down, which it doesn’t. To see Coriolis in action, one only need look at the spiraling of cyclones in the northern and southern hemispheres.)

The problem with facts is that they are tenacious in nature. A fact remains a fact whether or not the general populace believe it to be true. Conversely, a falsehood is still a falsehood whether no matter how many people purport it to be a truth. When people believe something to be true, simply because the rest of the population deems it to be so, this is called “argumentum ad populum“, Latin for “appeal to the people”. When the majority of the people believe A to be true over B, over time this may come to be accepted as a fact, even though the opposite may be true. Again, looking to Charles P Pierce’s writing, this time to his book “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free“, he writes on the “argumentum ad populum” phenomenon as it relates to contemporary American culture:

The three Great Premises of Idiot America:

* Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.

* Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.

* Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.

This is true of course in Australia also. If enough people believe something to be true, it gains a special place in culture among actual “facts” and “truths”.

As an active skeptic, part of my job in identifying fact from fiction is to look at things objectively, weigh the information available, and come to a conclusion of fact or falsehood based on this; If an assertion is seen to have no information or studies backing it, then it is placed into the category of “dubious” or “unreliable”; If an assertion is seen to have a wealth of information and studies backing it, it is deemed to be “true”; If there is enough information to the contrary, it is deemed to be “false”. It really is as simple as that. Some see “skepticism” as cynical, but given that there are a lot of people out there either trying to make a buck from you for their products, or trying to convince you that their viewpoint is the right one, it pays to be cautious.

As opposed to “hyper-skepticism”, which I have recently written about on two occasions, it is not the questioning of information until we reach a point of “nothing being trustworthy”, just a healthy and objective outlook on assertions made by people. If something smells a bit off, chances are it is, at least in part.

So what constitutes a fact? “Opinion” is not fact; Opinion is one person’s viewpoint, which is not to say it will always be wrong. “Truth” is not fact; Truth depends too heavily upon what a person believes or has experienced, not enough on information. “Reality” and “fact” walk hand in hand, but again, reality is subjective to the person experiencing their “reality”.

For a “fact” to be a true representation of the world around us, it must be subjected to rigorous testing, rigorous scrutiny, and a lot of research. Gravity is a fact, not because we all believe it to be, but because no matter what we do we are affected by its influence. Evolution is a fact, in so much that there are no theories or explanations that come even close to its level of explanation of the way biological systems have come to be what they are. Sciences deal with facts, as they are working with the highest levels of information available to people, and are continually expanding upon the understandings we have as a species.

Cryptozoology, homeopathy, spirit-healing, religion, and most conspiracy theories, among others (I say “most”, as some conspiracies are “factual”, such as the Lincoln assassination) are not “facts” in that they depend upon fancy, belief, paranoia and pseudo-science to gain public acceptance.

Be wary of any claims that sound too good to be true; Most times they aren’t true. Be wary of any claims that are without evidence; Most times these claims will fall apart under scrutiny. Be wary of any claims that come from a purely subjective standpoint; While this may be the experience of the claimant, this may not always be truth, besides which, the human mind has a nasty habit of embellishing the truth over time.

Most importantly, be as informed and impartial to the truths of the universe as possible; If you weigh the evidence for any claim, chances are you will arrive at the right answer.

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  1. Excellent Marty. As you correctly point out, a fact is a fact whether or not anyone believes or disbelieves it is so. This is because a fact itself is neither true nor false – Facts either exist or they do not. They are simply not the sort of thing that has a verdict of true or false attached – it is their existence that makes beliefs and claims about them true or false, in that the belief or claim conforms or does not to what is actually the case. 
    A false claim may either cite nonexistent facts, or it may deny those that do exist. In any case, as you suggest, it’s a good idea to be careful not to uncritically accept claims, nor to unfairly reject them in knee-jerk fashion, because of the limits of our senses, brains, and knowledge that prevent us from being omniscient and thus giving at least a bit of uncertainty to most real-world claims.

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  2. I shall try to include this in any discussions on critical thinking. An excellent post. Well said, Marty.

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  3. You would be interested to see a video social experiment with over 5000 people all over the world who were randomly asked to define what truth is.
    This project is called The Truth Is…

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    • innomind Yes that certainly is an interesting project. It shows to me that “truth” is more subjective than I showed in my blog.

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  4. Lots of people think they really are entitled to their own facts. I’ve met one or two. One of them bored me for half an hour on his having seen Oliver North say, during the Iran-Contra hearings, that we should watch out for al-Qaeda. I kept saying but a-Q didn’t exist then, that’s impossible. He kept saying no no no no, he saw it. He’s very rich, so he doesn’t listen to other people. I later looked it up and of course it’s an urban legend, but this bozo was convinced he remembered watching it. Oy.

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  5. Nice piece.
    Just one issue – I’m a little shaky on the Platonic division of ‘fact’ and ‘falsehood’, or ‘non-fact’. In straight-forward situations, ‘false’ can be easy enough to identify, but ‘fact’, in the purest sense of the word, is more problematic. It is incredibly rare, if not impossible, for something to be established as a fact, or proven, without any qualification.
    You cover this off by talking about ‘hyper-skepticism’, but I think this is dismissing as trivial something quite significant. Science is largely in the business of establishing things that can be relied upon, things that best fit current knowledge, and things that are most likely to be true (and the associated theoretical framework). The concept of ‘proof’ or ‘fact’, if used at all in science, has an assumed caveat of something like ‘to the best of current knowledge, based on the declared assumptions and until a better way of looking at it comes along’.
    There are two risks I can see in putting everything into one of the two categories  ‘proven facts’ and ‘everything else’ (or perhaps a third of ‘known falsehoods’). 
    First, and most obvious, is that things that are held as fact are sometimes later found to be wrong, which creates a logical contradiction and makes assertions of fact almost indistinguishable from calls to authority.
    Second, it can open the door to all sorts of dodgy thinking. For example, climate change predictions are based on modelling and probabilities. Huge amounts of work and resources have gone into developing predictions that have a very high likelihood of being correct, and into quantifying those levels of probability. Great work that should be taken seriously, but, at least partly, because it cannot be presented as an unqualified ‘proven fact’, all sorts of chancers weigh in with competing ‘theories’ on the (entirely false) premise that any two uncertain (ie. not 100% fact) propositions hold equal weight.
    I think it would be a huge benefit to humanity to get away from the black and white, right and wrong, true and false, thinking that dominates most discourse, and see the world (or universe) and knowledge more accurately as being probabilistic. I can understand fears that this could become a relativist nightmare, but there is still real authority in what is most likely (why would you believe something that isn’t the most likely explanation?), and decisions could be made on that basis, while allowing that which is absolutely certain (very rare) sit in the same philosophical neighbourhood as that which is most likely.

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    • JimRHoughton My problem with your last statement is where scientific laws are concerned. Suppose you step off a 300 ft cliff without relying on something like a parachute to hold you up. It is not most likely that you will hit the ground; gravity ensures that you *will* hit the ground. Hard. It may only be most likely that parts of you will resemble strawberry jam but the fact that it will hurt – if you survive the fall, that is – is indisputable. There are instances where ‘most likely’ just will not do.

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      • Roger Ivan Hart JimRHoughton In addition to the effects of gravity, there’s also the fact that people are heavier than air that’s playing a key role in what happens when one steps off a cliff.

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      • I understand your point. These are the margins, where overwhelming probability can effectively be taken as fact. but there is a small possibility that I could be swooped up by a Tolkeinesque eagle or meet an updraft of hitherto unknown force and be saved, but, of course, the chance is vanishingly improbable. There is also a tiny, but not totally dismissable, chance that we might live in a simulation, or there is a god, or something else we’ve not thought of, and gravity is not quite what it seems. 
        While in the case of gravity it might be foolish and fruitles to dabble with such notions, if we don’t see ‘fact’ or ‘certainty’ to be the abstract extreme of a continuum of probability, then we have to get involved in the fudgy and imprecise argument of exactly where the boundary is between what we’d call a fact, and what we’d call  merely almost certain. Roger Ivan Hart JimRHoughton

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  6. Thank-you for that great plughole example, Marti.
    Made me think that many would be tempted to consult their plumber mate to settle that Plughole question. That to me is making the same mistake as looking to their holyman to help them answer the Monotheism question. We’re lucky the 21st century has better options.
    One further point make on “information from more than one source” is that that’s the dictum we primarily associate with journalism, and yet those folks are among modernity’s most distrusted of professions. Since the mass media wells have been so poisoned, most of the info we’re consuming is vulnerable to (radical yet believable and compelling) orators who rely on their argument winning “fact” of systematic / isolated “corruption”. Their evidence usually hair thin.
    Monotheistic teachings therefore seem to fall short in several ways (1) not making a big song and dance about that lesson in credible sources/testimony from modern journalism, and (2) those named books making up their bible anyway giving the distinct impression of multiple independent sources, and (3) winning arguments by default on any debate they weigh into since they teach that all outside institutions are –to a greater or lesser extent– corrupt. Inferior. Wrong.

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