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What do we really mean by “facts”?

by Greg Krehbiel on 22 December 2017

Thomas Sowell tweeted this.

“It is usually futile to try to talk facts and analysis to people who are enjoying a sense of moral superiority in their ignorance.”

I agree with the sentiment, but it’s interesting to note that you hear this kind of complaint from opposite sides. Sowell is a conservative, but I’ve heard liberals say the same sort of thing.

We’re all … well, those of us who are paying attention are … becoming more and more aware of the influence of prejudices on how we see things. Two people on different sides of an issue can see the same “facts” and come to different conclusions, and each side will complain that the other is stuck in their ignorance or “moral superiority” or whatever and that they refuse to pay attention to “facts” and logic.

We all want to think that facts and logic are on our side, and the other side is just too blind to see it. This is largely nonsense.

Sometimes it can be quite amusing. For example, I studied geology, and while I’m no genius on the subject, I know more than your average fellow on the street. But I meet people with very ignorant ideas (e.g., that oil comes primarily from dead dinosaurs, or that there was only one Ice Age) who think I’m not listening to “facts” when it comes to global warming.

When it comes right down to it, what do either of us know of “facts”?

I’ve done a little bit of field and lab work in geology, so I suppose I have a few “facts,” but they’re trivial and entirely irrelevant to questions of ice ages and global warming and any other topic people chat about. What I know that’s relevant to those issues comes from books and articles and such.

But the “facts” in those books and articles admit of multiple interpretations. And often they’re not really facts anyway. They’re compilations of data, filtered through some process that has lots of assumptions in it.

For example, when you look at a chart of global mean temperature over the years, that’s not a “fact.” It’s a chart somebody compiled — making a lot of assumptions along the way — from a whole bunch of different sets of data. Sometimes they combine things that shouldn’t be combined. Sometimes they adjust the data for various reasons. It may be generally reliable or it may not be, but it’s not a “fact.”

Most of the things we like to argue about are like this. Crime statistics or economic growth or whether atheism has killed more people than Christianity, or anything else. The information we think we have isn’t some incontestable divine truth about the universe. It has layers and layers of assumptions and theories on top of it.

Often those layers are entirely appropriate and have been checked and considered by smart people who know what they’re talking about. But that’s not always the case.

So I think the quote above overstates the case a bit. When someone disagrees with so-called facts or analysis, he may not trust the theories and assumptions that have been layered on top of the underlying data. He may be disagreeing with your interpretation, not with “the facts.”

Also, people’s opinions often aren’t one simple thing, based on one idea. They’re often part of a much more complicated mental structure that includes lots of confirming details. It’s an edifice that has been build over time, and it has a lot of parts to it. It’s not reasonable to expect someone to abandon that simply because some other person has a thing they want to call a “fact.”

2017-12-22  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 11

  1. smitemouth
    22 December 2017 @ 5:52 pm

    Recently I read some books promoting low carb/high fat diets.

    It’s amazing about what happens to medical studies when they contradict the established “facts”.

  2. Robin R.
    23 December 2017 @ 7:47 am

    On Facebook I asked what Thomas Sowell achieved in his field (sociology, I believe) and a bunch of hard-nosed right-wingers started piling up on me, asking completely unrelated things like “What did Obama achieve?”. I would never want to be in that pathetic box.

  3. Greg Krehbiel GregK
    23 December 2017 @ 10:31 am

    Sowell is an economist.

  4. Robin R.
    23 December 2017 @ 11:03 am

    And if you want to know what he achieved in economics, you need to know what Obama achieved in politics. The two are definitely related, right? Pursuing such lines of inquiry is how you go about finding facts.

  5. William
    28 December 2017 @ 6:13 pm

    I too am beginning to wonder about the meaning of “facts”. I always thought facts were the truth about events, as opposed to interpretation and somewhat immutable. Yet, increasingly, it seems, facts are becoming fungible.

    Case in point, President Trump stated yesterday, ““We have more legislation passed, including the record – was Harry Truman. That’s a long time ago. And we broke that record. So we have a lot done.” Yet, fact-checkers found that on his 336th day in office, Trump had signed 94 bill into law, the fewest of any president since Dwight Eisenhower. Some Trump supporters seem to accept his statement as credible and find ways to justify it. Some Trump critics seem to see this as further evidence that he is not very factual in his references. So, who’s right?

    Roy Moore and his legal team indicated they found experts to attest to voter fraud in the recent Alabama special election. Yet, the State and a circuit judge indicated there was no voter fraud. So, presumably they were looking at the same information, yet drew different conclusions. I suspect Moore and his supporters will chalk the State’s certification of the election as further evidence of a rigged system and his critics will likely see it as justice being served.

    So, it seems it’s increasingly becoming less reasonable to expect someone to abandon their view simply because some other person has a thing they want to call a “fact.”

  6. William
    3 January 2018 @ 12:30 pm

    Interviews use to reveal facts/data and allowed the audience to draw their own conclusions (with a periodic spin depending on the orientation of the interviewer). Now, there’s such obfuscation and pivoting, it’s hard to determine anything. On all sides, it seems interviews reveal little of anything and are increasingly painful to watch…like this one.

  7. Don
    3 January 2018 @ 3:09 pm

    William :: Is it not a fact that Rep. Jim Jordan dodged questions posed to him?

  8. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    3 January 2018 @ 3:12 pm

    I don’t have time to watch the video now, but will try to later.

    I do have one question though. Why is someone obligated to answer a question? I have never understood this. If the person being interviewed thinks the question is stupid, or misleading, or … even if he simply doesn’t want to answer it, it seems perfectly fine to me not to answer it. The viewer can make up their own mind about what that means.

  9. William
    3 January 2018 @ 5:26 pm

    @Don, indeed he did dodge the questions, multiple times.

    @Greg, it’s perfectly fine to not respond. Yet, it would have been better to do it in a different way than Jordan chose in this interview. He could have easily said, “no comment” or “I don’t know”. Yet, he choose to obfuscate and engage in whataboutism. I don’t know his intent but it left me, as a viewer, with the impression that he was acting unprofessional and immature. It seems silly to accept an interview and not be willing to directly inform the interviewer that you don’t want to respond to a specific question. If his objective was to gain support for his point of view, his actions during this interview was an epic fail.

  10. Don Stallone
    4 January 2018 @ 10:52 am

    Why is someone obligated to answer a question? I have never understood this.If the person being interviewed thinks the question is stupid, or misleading, or… Even if he simply doesn’t want to answer it, it seems perfectly fine to me not to answer it. The viewer can make up their own mind about what that means.

    I don’t want to answer this.

    Is this story factual?

    Is this report factual?

    How do I insert an avatar for my name?

  11. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    4 January 2018 @ 10:59 am

    Don, I’m pretty sure you assign an avatar to your email address at this site.

    Or, if you don’t want to do that universally, you can email me one and I can attach it to your account only on this site.

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