Facts And Other Fallacies

A former student of mine, who does read this blog and offers wonderful feedback at times, recently declared in my class that he is basically always right -as he bases all his ideas on the facts.

Ugh.

In my lifetime I have had countless arguments (a term I use with endearment and not with hostility, btw) with countless people when myself or the other will pull out the “fact” card, as in, “that’s a fact, man, look it up,” as if King Fact has just entered the room and has pronounced all further argumentative proceedings to be halted at once: The facts have arrived. I, admittedly, have been guilty of worshiping at the throne of King Fact…no more.facts-not-fiction

Truth be told, as I age, I most definitely am not a fact man. I believe the word is both misleading and dangerous while tending to derail arguments as if the final proclamation has been declared -deeming all further inquiry and conversation unnecessary.

Today I write about the idea of facts. What are they? Are they really true? And, perhaps most importantly, why are they potentially dangerous when used without nuance and discretion?

Regardless of how one may define a fact, it is nearly always inextricably tied with the notion of “true,” and therein rests the fundamental problematic root of the fact façade. The dictionary has over 25 different definitions for the word true that I will not bore you with…suffice it to say that nearly all these definitions are generally interwoven with the notion of “certainty” and, yet again, another fundamental problem with the idea of a “fact.”

If indeed facts existed as we commonly use the term, as in the truthfulness of a statement, why would, or better yet, how could, we ever have any disagreement or conflict in society? If life were as simple as adhering to a series of facts that no one could dispute, why do we have a divided nation? Factions? Ingroups and outgroups? Do we have two sets of people in society: Dumb people, or those who disagree with our facts and, smart people, those who agree with our facts?

Such thinking is not only intellectually dishonest, it is childish; if only the world were that easy.

I am fully cognizant that philosophers have grappled with the idea of facts and its accompanying sister subjects of truth and certainty for centuries while exhaustive works have been written on the subject, so today I discuss the idea of facts in terms of its use in contemporary communication practices, sans the deeper philosophical implications (Occam’s razor, ontological concerns, etc…), and how the term is used in erroneous ways that defeat effective communication practices.

What are the two biggest problems when we use the “Fact” card to discuss issues?

Facts change and can often not be trusted. When the idea of a fact is translated as true and certain, we have problems. How much in life is absolutely true and certain? Most definitely nothing in the social sciences yet what about the hard sciences? Is it certain the sun will rise tomorrow? Just because it always has does not mean with absolute certainty it will tomorrow. That E=MC2? A quick internet search will reveal many science geeks (of which I am not one) believe this to be false, or at least not altogether true. If something were absolutely true, would not there be universal acceptance of its truthfulness? Or is it just those dumb people again?

Consider how many “facts” are no longer true.  Was the existence of the planet Pluto once a fact? Yes, though no longer. Hell, it was a fact the world was once flat or that sun revolved around the earth.

“That’s not fair Jimmy, we now have progressed through scientific discoveries and those are basically beliefs from the Bronze age through the Middle ages.”

Agreed. And imagine in another century or so what science will be laughing at when discussing the ignorance of science in the year 2016? My hunch is we will have a whole new set of facts and we may very well be referred to as the Amusement Age, an era in which beliefs were guided first and foremost by influences that best met the prurient needs of the masses. But I digress…

I even learned this morning that the NCAA is taking away all the wins from the Notre Dame football team in the years 2012-13 due to an academic scandal.  Goodness, just yesterday it was a fact that this football team had recorded many victories in those seasons.

Facts change, therefore I would not hang too much of my intellectual hat on them. “Facts” may offer us probablity though most definitely not certainty.

Facts are often used to make a larger point that, in reality, it does not accurately substantiate. In other words, we use many “facts” to make a claim, or even an opinion, that something is true. For example, I can make the truth claim that people in the United States are becoming less violent and more law abiding. To back this up I may point to the “fact” that violent crime rates have been continually decreasing since the year 1990.  According to FBI statistics this could be verified and factually accurate. However, this does not address concerns such as, perhaps, a change in the definition by the FBI of what constitutes a violent crime, the accuracy of reporting violent crimes, a growing ineffective judicial system failing to convict violent criminals, and so on. The “fact” may or may not be influenced by some or all of these things, yet, due to their possibility, the “fact” must be used with great discretion and caution. Therefore your “fact” to support a truth claim may very well not be at all true, insofar as it goes in proving your opinion.

It is also a fact that drunk driving arrests among women have increased since around MADD’s (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) inception in 1980, from about 9% then to about 25% today. I guess then we could imply that more women are are drinking and driving today than in 1980 -not necessarily. The government, with such influences of groups such as MADD, have successfully redefined what “drunk” actually means…for many years it was undefined, then .15 blood alcohol content, lowered to .10 and now .08, and soon, perhaps to be .04 or lower. Yes, there may be more drunk driving arrests today yet the reason is we are constantly changing the definition of what it means to be drunk. This “fact” does not mean women have necessarily changed their drinking and driving habits, it means was have changed the definition, making the “fact” essentially meaning something entirely different, and in the sense it is comparing apples to oranges. Still want more “drunk” drivers? Move the legal BAC to .00 and voila! Drunk we shall be after the communion wine.

The idea of using the notion of “probability” is far more conducive to healthy dialogue over “fact.” The act of using facts in argument is an efficient heuristic that does not really deal with details of any given issue. Often times our facts are informed by a fundamental value system that directly filters our understanding of data.

When you think about it, this multitude of differing perceptions, understandings, and interpretations of facts, data and information in general, is what makes the world a much more interesting place. When one believes they are right because the “facts” are on their side, this is a red flag warning of dogmatic and closed-minded thinking that critical thinkers should not practice.

Whether it be political, social, or personal, most are driven by an internal need to massage their deeper emotional and intellectual needs then to arrive at an objective conclusion.

Perhaps taking an example from the micro in life may help put this “fact kerfuffle” into perspective. If we were to live our lives by the facts, none of us would be overweight, smoke, drink, or engage in any behaviors that may potentially act as a detriment to our health. The “probability” of such behaviors resulting in negative consequences is certainly substantial, yet most of us would confess to engaging in such behaviors at various times in our lives.

If we cannot allow these “facts” to inform and direct our personal lives, how could they possibly inform our public and social life? Would not the same pattern follow?

If I were to argue the fact that eating a jelly donut may be physically bad for you, you should never eat jelly donuts, right? The problem with this “fact” is that it does not take into account the complexity of the human psyche or context. Perhaps eating that donut will quell emotional angst (read: comfort food) and MAY play an overall health benefit for you in general, provided you do not eat the entire dozen…which is typically my problem. Or what about the person who is in starvation mode and their only choice of nutrition would be a jelly donut…or die.  A jelly donut would be the recommended dietary choice in such a situation.

Facts can get really fuzzy really fast.

If only life were as easy as adhering to a set of factual propositions that we can all uniformly adhere to and live happily ever after. We then could kneel at the throne of King Fact and bask in our delusions.

How boring.