The Trouble with Facts
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:
* 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.