On Facts

“Facts,” we know, have been the focus of public debate and discussion in recent months. It seems strange that such a simple word would be the cause of so much disagreement, but perhaps we should not be surprised.

Typically, we apply the word “fact” to that which is true. Implicit is that truth is objectivity, which means everyone agrees on the truth of a fact. If that definition of “fact” was accurate, then each individual having his or her own “facts” would not be possible. Because the disagreement is real (and politically quite powerful individuals are claiming the right to their own facts), I can only conclude the concept of “fact” as an objectively true statement is not accurate.

A more sophisticated concept of “fact” has been emerging for some time, and it is time for it to gain more widespread usage. Let’s take a closer look at “fact” and see if we can understand the disagreement over “facts.”

First, let’s begin by recognizing all “facts” are either supported by objective evidence or they are not. This leads to the counterintuitive, but correct, conclusion that there are “true facts” (those supported by objective observation) and “false facts” (those that are not). In the ideal world, and when science operates as it should, false facts are discarded and true facts are kept. True facts can become false facts when more accurate observations are made or are discovered.

Second, the observations used to support our facts are based on assumptions, and those assumptions can be correct or incorrect. Consider the question, “How much rain did I get at my house in the last 24 hours?” and my answer “one inch.” I can provide evidence from the rain gauge I keep attached to my garage to support my conclusion that my fact is true. Evidence that my gauge also collected rain that splashed off the roof or that my gauge is incorrectly calibrated can demonstrate that my fact is actually false.

So, the defining characteristics of “fact” is not truthfulness, but testability. “Facts” are those statements that can be demonstrated to be true (thus they can also be demonstrated as false). This more sophisticated definition of fact has unavoidable (and troubling for some) implications.

The quality of your facts depends on the quality of your evidence; they are inseparable. Even the facts we want desperately to be true may true out to be false; this is true even for those facts for which the falsifying evidence takes a long time to become obvious. Once evidence proves a fact to be false, it must be discarded and replaced with a new fact.

Once an individual comes to accept the truthfulness of a fact, he or she is likely to hold that truthfulness even in the face of growing evidence the fact is false. We can see this in those who hold any variety of supernatural beliefs, those who are deeply committed to a cause or a person, and those who hold other delusional or confabulatory beliefs. In these individuals, we see a tendency to valuable particular facts, but not facts in general. These individual hold their facts to be true in the face of indisputable evidence. Imagine the child with a frosting-cover face sitting in front of the pile of cupcake crumbs, some falling from his face as he denies eating the cake; he is an adorable and harmless example of these individuals.

It is an unfortunate reality that in many social groups, changing one’s mind, even in light of new and overwhelming evidence is perceived a s a weakness. The norm in these groups is to defend one’s first true fact, and abandoning it is a sign of weakness. In many cases, those whose first true fact will deny new evidence or will reinterpret both the old evidence and the new evidence to reaffirm the first true fact.

This of course leads to one final aspect of fact; all facts can be interpreted. Humans place facts in greater or lesser context and they assign different meanings to the same situations. And these are often presented as facts. Because these interpretations are based on values and meaning assigned by subjective humans, they cannot be facts which must be testable (and found true or false).