Rod C. Taylor, Ph.D.
The Facts About Facts
I have long been intrigued by the use of the word “fact” in conversations, especially when someone making an argument employs the term in a defensive posture. For example, how often have you heard someone say, “The fact is,” when what follows isn’t, in fact, a fact? Or, someone will claim that something is “an irrefutable fact,” when the very need to include such a distinction indicates that it’s likely not. My interest on this topic has only increased in the last three years, given the injection of the phrase “alternative fact” into our vocabulary. I still remember where I was sitting when Kellyanne Conway made that statement. I turned toward my wife and said, “Rhetorical scholars are going to have a heyday with that one!” My interest here is not merely intellectual, though. Like everyone else, I have watched many a political discourse devolve into a shouting match that pits “fact” against “fact” as much as it pits friend against friend. And I often hear people talk about “your facts vs. my facts,” while still others argue that facts don’t exist at all—only opinions.
What I find most interesting in matters regarding “facts” (and our use of them in arguments) is what they reveal about each of us as it concerns our individual standards of evidence. In general, most people see facts as unquestionable conclusions that we can depend on in our lives, about which any reasonable person would agree. This notion aligns with the long-established definition of the word. The Cambridge dictionary defines a fact as “something that is true or proven to be correct.” Opinions, on the other hand, are “the ideas that a person or a group of people have about something or someone, which are based mainly on their feelings and beliefs.” Note the difference: facts are proven truths (via a logical, rational process), where opinions are based mainly on emotions and existing—often environmentally influenced— belief systems.
As you can see, facts differ from opinions in fairly important ways, though people tend often to confuse the two. Properly understood, facts are the direct results of rational thought and/or scientific processes and are capable of withstanding intense, intelligent scrutiny. They are therefore only as good (i.e., reliable) as the adherence to the standards of these processes by those who sanction them “facts.”
That process usually starts with a question. An inquiry is made, a thoughtful investigation follows, the resulting answer is put through a series of verifications, then a ruling is pronounced by someone properly equipped to make such a judgment. “Facts” that don’t make the cut aren’t automatically untrue, of course; they just haven’t reached the threshold of being rationally irrefutable. Some facts are easy to come by (the fact that this was published on a digital device is fairly easy to prove), while some facts are more difficult to verify (Did I really write it, or is it being “ghost written” by someone else?). Still, even the second one could be proven true or false with the proper set of investigative tools.
The standards employed to produce a “fact” don’t vary much in respected fields of inquiry, whether in science, engineering, or philosophy; however, such standards vary greatly when it comes to individual people—and that’s where the problem often lies. At the core of most disagreements are not the facts being argued but rather the standards of proof underpinning those “facts.” One person’s standard of proof may be higher than another’s. And that gets even more complicated when we realize that people often have different levels of respect for standards of proof in various areas of their lives. For example, a person might easily allow any well-respected dentist to work on their teeth, trusting in the DDS behind their name and the scientific training and experience it implies (For the record, I researched my dentist’s publication and work history before deciding on him). At the same time, in matters of military governance the same person might privilege the view of a local politician in their party, who has no expertise or experience in the military, over a five-star general’s advice. In this example, they fully trust in the rational/scientific standards associated with the medical profession but give little credence to the rational or scientific processes associated with military matters and leadership. There’s a reason for that. In the first case, they likely profess no level of expertise, but almost everyone has an “opinion” on politics and thinks they are quite capable in that field.
I recently heard a senator in a hearing say that any fact can be disputed. That might sound true, but it’s a bit off. The “gentleman from wherever” is confusing the word “disputed” with the word “rejected” here. By definition, a fact is something that is “true” and has been proven to be correct, so while it can’t be easily disputed, it can be flatly rejected. For example, it’s a fact that the earth is round. To 99.99% of people, the earth’s shape is an irrefutable fact, an indisputable reality—and not without reason. A preponderance of scientific evidence exists to support that conclusion, it’s been verified over and over again, lots of people have gone up high enough to see that it’s round, etc. You can’t reasonably dispute that. Yet, there is a tiny percentage of people in the world who openly reject that fact. And make no mistake, a flat-earther has a ton of “facts” to back up their beliefs, but you’ll easily notice these facts do not adhere to the same respected and vetted standards of scientific evidence associated with the field. And attempting to have a rational debate with a flat-earther is likely to leave most people frustrated because the standards of proof at the core of that argument would be at odds with each other.
Put another way, it’s like a football player and a basketball player arguing over “the rules of the game.” There’s no way the conversation can go anywhere productive because each player is operating under a different set of guidelines. Yet, in this example both players are using accepted standards in their respective fields. Arguing with someone who doesn’t hold to rationally accepted standards of evidence provides even a greater challenge. Imagine an NFL football player had tried to play “backyard football” with me and my brothers when we were kids in east Texas. You see, we had our own way of playing it. We made up new rules each day, which followed no recognizable pattern, and we often changed them midgame depending on who was winning (Incidentally, we played volleyball, badminton, and yard darts in a similar fashion. I still bear scars from the yard dart games). Trying to step into our yard and hold us accountable for official rules would have driven our theoretical NFL player crazy (I remember neighbor kids refusing to join us for just that reason). We didn’t care about doing it right, though; we were just having fun, playing it how we liked. The moment my oldest brother joined the high school football team, however, that silliness stopped. Suddenly we needed to “follow the rules.”
And we did, not just because our older brother was faster and stronger than us, but also because he said that unless we followed the “real” rules, he wouldn’t play with us anymore. Most importantly, however, we did it because we realized that to play the game outside our yard meant playing with other people who operated under a set of widely agreed upon guidelines (For the record, I still think not being able to throw the ball to anyone you want whenever you are about to get tackled is lame).
But even if we agree on the rules of engagement with those whom we wish to debate, there’s another challenge to our use of facts in argument. Canadian philosopher and literary critic Northrop Frye argued that truth, for many of us, is determined by what we already know, meaning that information that might upset our current conclusions on any given topic are seen as false and therefore not factual. That’s just another way of describing what is commonly referred to in cognitive science as confirmation bias. In general, people tend to interpret information that confirms their existing beliefs as true and filter out those that don’t. A bit scary, right? Yet, it’s a common occurrence, and most people do it on some level in some area of their lives.
At the core of this problem lies the motivation for exploration of any given topic. Are we after truth or confirmation? In my younger years, especially as I began my studies in philosophy, psychology, and literature, I used to engage in lengthy arguments with friends and relatives on any number of “off limit” topics in an effort to, as C.S. Lewis used to say, “follow the argument where it leads.” The idea here is that, despite your initial position on given topic, you would allow the argument to influence you as it progressed, “following it” where it led. I saw (and still see) argument and debate as an intellectual mechanism for discovering the truth of things, whether it concerns politics, my worldview, or any number of things I grew up believing. I had this crazy idea that if someone was willing to argue intensely about something in a lengthy fashion, then they must be committed to discovering all they could about it, too. Yeah, I know. It just took me a while to figure out that was not the case.
I still remember when it sunk in that being willing to argue —even at length—was not an indication of someone’s desire to learn more about the topic, or even that they cared about the truth at all. But, at the same time, I also learned a way to figure that out faster by digging into the process, rather than the product of, the conclusions being argued. Many years ago, an old friend called me out of the blue, and we ended up having a political argument centered on who I was voting for in the presidential election that November. To support a wild claim that he made against my choice of candidate, he offered as evidence an inflammatory statement made by a public figure famous for making wildly inaccurate, unsubstantiated claims. When I pointed that out to him and asked if he had any other proof to support that claim, he said no. I then offered a counterargument, unseating the claim he made and providing my own evidence that had been vetted through a well-documented and respected scientific process, the details of which I provided. He retorted, “Well, you have your facts and I have mine.” To which I replied, “That seems clear, but our “facts” are not equal in their value.” When he asked what I meant, I replied, “Your standards for what constitutes a fact are significantly lower than mine.”
Yea, I know. He didn’t appreciate that statement. But it was true, and it allowed me to shift the conversation from the surface to what was really the problem: our differing standards of proof. That didn’t go much better, but I made the statement to draw attention to the idea that our opposing standards of what we considered reliable information stood at the core of our disagreement. I pointed out that it would do us no good to continue with the argument until we addressed the deeper issues beneath the surface. If this topic was important enough to each of us, and the truth of things was the goal here, then digging down a bit would be fine. What became apparent is that what he wanted most was for me to affirm his position. He wasn’t interested in testing its veracity. Once I realized that, I cut the argument off in a respectful fashion and directed us to other, less contentious topics. The lesson I learned that day has stuck with me, though, and productively shortened many conversations that would otherwise have dragged on with no productive end in sight (and no real point).
Determining the goal of the argument, then, proves helpful in determining whether an argument about the facts is even worth having. Aside from the standards of proof that lie beneath the facts that we reference, what is the goal of the discussion? Are we both open to discovery though the process of argument? We hold the positions we hold because we think they are correct, but thinking something is correct and being open to correction are not the same thing. You probably see where I am going with this. Most of our disagreements (political, philosophical, religious, etc.) seem to come down to disagreeing about the facts, but, as I point out above, the real differences are often deeper and rooted in differing standards of proof. And unless we’re willing to dig down and figure out if we’re on the same page in our goals and understanding of the “rules of engagement,” we’re often just wasting our breath and possibly damaging relationships. Better to just keep the conversation about the weather (and Tom Brady. No one ever argues about Tom Brady). So, if you will allow me, I’d like to offer a couple of suggestions, both of which I still need to work on myself.
First, if there is a matter on which you disagree with someone, and it means a lot to you, I suggest having a discussion as to what constitutes good evidence on the topic for each of you, before digging into the issue itself. For me, rational thought and the scientific method are central to determining what constitutes reliable evidence in most matters, and I go by a “if you make a claim, you need to back it up with reasonable and responsible evidence” rule. I find out quickly if the person I’m conversing with cares about accuracy. For example, I had a someone tell me one time in response to the above demand on evidence, “That’s not fair. I shouldn’t have to back up my claims.” I thought they were joking at first. They weren’t. We could dig deeper into what constitutes a “reasonable and responsible” standard of proof (it’s not as relative as most people think), but that’s a topic for another time. The first step, though, is to find out if someone is even interesting in the concept of accuracy in the facts they use.
And make no mistake. In fields of thought like politics and religion—which are commonly thought to be fairly lean when it comes to facts and have personal values and existential choices at their foundation—rational thought can still be front and center in productive discussions. In fact, some of the most constructive discussions I’ve had on these topics have been with people who held an entirely different worldview than mine. But once the parameters of the discussion were known and agreed upon, we could engage in dialogue that benefited us both in our understanding on these topics. Such a benefit, however, relies on the response to a question that’s central to the second suggestion I would offer.
The central question is: What are the goals of the argument? Are we just wanting to pontificate on our views, or are we interested in exploring the topic together through the process of productive dialogue? Argument, as a rhetorical form, is hardly ever the reason for much of the anger expressed in our disagreements; the root of that usually lies in our motivations, our egos, and our own identity (perceived or real). Before going too far down the road in an argument, see if you can’t figure out the reason why each of you wants to have it in the first place. If those reasons are in line with each other, you stand a much better chance of having a productive discussion.
Of course, the ideas expressed above don't absolutely guarantee a healthy, productive conversation, nor is this discussion exhaustive in exploring all the nuances at work within any given examination of the facts surrounding us, but they do give us a place to start. That much is a fact.