On Facts

Research depends on “facts.” In the vernacular, fact typically means information that is true and accurate; implicit also is the assumption that the fact is objectively defined so that every observer will agree on the both reality of the fact and the meaning of the fact. A more sophisticated view of facts recognizes the role that one’s perspective exerts on how one senses and interprets facts. In science, a fact is any idea that can be tested; and some are refuted by tests while others are supported by tests. Those facts refuted by observation are probably inaccurate, and those supported by observation are more likely to be true and accurate.

Richard Feynmann served on the commission that investigated the Challenger disaster in 1986, and he observed that much empirical evidence had been ignored and that decisions that led to the disaster had been made for political reasons. Feynman concluded his observations, which appeared in an appendix rather than in the full report, with the statement “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled” (Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, 1986). Progressive discourse requires the group regard reality as Nature intends, and observation is necessary to expand the factual basis of progressive discourse.

Whereas political and personal whim and individual or social preferences may be acceptable reasons for political decision making, the knowledge building that occurs through progressive discourse requires fact. The proposals to improve the conceptual artifact are all subject to test and the group must accept those facts supported by (and reject those facts refuted by) empirical evidence. In the progressive discourse, planners do have the responsibility to differentiate disparate interpretations that result from different perspectives and those that arise from personal or political whim—a difficult task.