“Just the facts ma’am,” Sgt. Joe Friday.
Updated July 6, 1996, March 7, 1997, December 2, 1997
I was prompted to start this project by an exchange I had with a fellow on USENET. He had posted some remarks in support of the authenticity of a verse from the New Testament. I, of course, had the facts and I lit into him pretty strongly with them. He replied with some facts of his own. This dispute was not over interpretation, but over whether evidence exists in ancient manuscripts. That is, it is a dispute over facts. Yet we each had different facts from sources we consider authoritative. This exchange has led me to consider how many disputes are really about facts.
It is said that 3% of the population cannot think rationally; that is, they are crazy. Perhaps more have recognized thinking disorders. But by in large, most people can think rationally. I suppose that many disputes are over values and preferences and at least, in theory, facts are facts. Nevertheless, I find, more and more, that people are disagreeing because they work from different (and sometimes conflicting) “facts”.
I guess I first became aware of the questionable nature of facts in jr. high school. I read a book on ESP and in that book was a sentence which said “It is a well-known fact that if a dozen people concentrate on a playing card at the same time, they will be able to transmit the card’s value to another person. This is easily verified.” At that young age, reading a book from the library, which looked like a serious book–a book which mentioned scholarly research at Duke University, I accepted the statement as fact.
That “fact” had (for me at that time) all the hallmarks of credibility.
- It came from a trusted source: the library.
- It was written by a person with a Ph.D. after his name.
- It was associated with a University.
- It was easily verified. (How could someone lie about something that anybody could check?)
Later, in college, I went to see a movie called The Bermuda Triangle which was a documentary-styled film giving evidence that something truly strange was going on in the Bermuda Triangle. One of the “facts” from this film was a story about an experienced boatman who took his boat out in perfect weather into the Bermuda Triangle–and was never seen again.
A skeptical person might come up with any number possible explanations for a boat being lost in good weather and conclude that nothing strange is necessarily going on; however, most people will not question the underlying facts.
Years later, there was another documentary about the Bermuda triangle. This time from a skeptical viewpoint. In particular it examined the same missing boat story that I had seen in the earlier film. According to this film, a check in the Miami Herald showed that the weather was not “perfect” but rather that the disappearance happened in the middle of a hurricane!
So here is another “fact” which has all the hallmarks of credibility:
- It came from a trusted source: Public Television
- It was written by a person with a Ph.D. after his name.
- It was associated with the National Science Foundation
- It was easily verified. (Just look up the Miami Herald.)
- It made sense (boats sink in storms).
The debunking film had all the hallmarks of credibility. How many viewers of that show checked the information in the Miami Herald? Not many, I’ll wager, and not me.
[Are you with me so far? I hope not! The problem with the story of the two Bermuda Triangle films above is that both stories are from memory–and not recent ones at that. The title of the first movie is almost certainly wrong. I’ll see if I can replace the fuzzy recollections above with some real facts. A little research reveals that the boat in question was named “Witchcraft“.]
So where do “bad facts” come from and why do we believe them anyway?
I’ve come up with a few sources for bad facts:
- Lies. I think that it’s likely that one of the two “facts” about the boating accident weather was a lie–either intentional or fabricated in the absence of information.
- Mistakes. If the Miami Herald had shuffled weather reports, it might have printed the wrong information.
- Interpretations. Take for example a statement like: “Joe Smith, Ph.D., examined the so-called Nazi gas chambers and stated that they could not have been gas chambers because the doors did not seal.” One might think that the interpretation (that they could not have been gas chambers) comes from the fact (the doors did not seal). However, the statement that the doors did not seal may be an judgment about the primary evidence, the doors. That is, some things which sound like primary facts are actually conclusions.
- Outdated information. One might read a book published a few years ago which states this fact: “There is no archaeological evidence to substantiate that King David in the Bible was a historical person.” However, some evidence was found, and what was once a fact is no longer a fact.
- Different viewpoints. If a book says something like: “the majority of competent scholars conclude…” the “fact” that it is a majority opinion may well depend on who the author considers a “competent scholar”. For some, this means scholars that agree with him!
- Incomplete information. The facts are there, but not all of the facts. We may read a factual source that omits important evidence which does not agree with the facts presented. This is the factual mistake in the story of “The Blind Men and The Elephant”. A group of blind men came upon an elephant and proclaimed it “at tree” (leg), “a leaf” (ear), “a wall” (side), “a rope” (tail), “a spear” (tusk) and “a snake” (trunk).
- Biased Reporting One of my favorite examples here is over the effectiveness of “Natural Family Planning”. If you check out the pro Natural Family Planning pages on the World Wide Web, you will find effectiveness rates up to 99.8% cited with the US Dept. of HEW the source (there hasn’t been an HEW for some years now). However, if you check out the Web page of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, you will file a typical failure rate of 18-20% for the method. Part of this is manipulation of definitions, and part is selective presentation of evidence.
It is impossible to verify everything for oneself. We take the information in our mathematics textbooks as fact; we take the information in our physics textbook as fact (even though both may be out of date). We believed what Walter Cronkite said. We end up selecting some sources which we trust, and we look for certain marks of credible information:
- Authority. Authority is something we have to rely on in many cases. We cannot do the cyclotron experiment; we cannot go to Egypt and measure the pyramid ourselves. But we must be careful even of expert sources. Is the Ph.D. giving his opinion on an ancient inscription an authority, or is his Ph.D. in marine biology?
- Verifiability. Just because someone says that a corporate CEO admitted on the Phil Donahue show, that part of his profits went to the Church of Satan, doesn’t mean that it actually happened. Just because this is easy to check out doesn’t mean that it’s true. And on the other hand, just because someone says on the net “I wrote the Donahue show and they said that the CEO was never on the program” doesn’t mean that this is true either–even though anyone could write Donahue and check up on it. [This is a real example, and similar exchange has appeared dealing with the question of whether the Smithsonian uses the Book of Mormon as a guide to archaeology.]
- Plausibility. One of my least favorite sayings is “where there is smoke, there’s fire.” This phrase could be restated this way: “all accusations are well-founded” –which few would agree with. It could well be that someone is just blowing smoke! Contenders for facts can play on our suspicions and our expectations. Nevertheless, plausible “facts” are reasonably accepted with less confirmation than highly implausible ones.
- Friendliness. This item, friendliness, is an interesting one. One tends to trust sources that have similar views to oneself. For example, I suspect that most skeptics trust what appears in Skeptical Inquirer magazine pretty much at face value. Liberals tend to trust what liberal commentators say and conservatives believe Rush Limbaugh.
- Peer review. We may trust a scientific journal because the articles undergo a critical process called peer review. This is a powerful tool, but be sure that what you think is a peer reviewed journal really is, and that the peers are qualified.
- The Government. Government agencies, or world agencies such as the World Health Organization have a lot of intrinsic credibility. But even these sources can put out interpretations in the guise of facts.
- Our own senses! [See also: Magician.]
There are just a lot of these contradicting fact issues around today. Things that come to mind are: Vince Foster suicide, Kennedy assassination, weeping icons/bleeding statues, UFO sightings and alien abductions, psychic reports, Historical Jesus reconstructions, holocaust denial, genetic homosexuality, recovered of suppressed memories under hypnosis, Satanic ritual abuse, facilitated communication (of autistic children), health foods (megavitamins, hormones, bee pollen, DHEA, etc.), anti-aging drugs, freemasonry, Mormonism and religions foundations of all sorts, Bermuda Triangle, cold fusion, Waldensian day of worship, IRS abuses, conspiracy theories of all kinds, archaeological reconstructions, school prayer abuse, political voting records, pyramid and crystal power, pyramidology (prophecy based on the measurements of the Great pyramid at Giza), Afro-centrism/melanism, homeopathy, nicotine addiction, chiropractic, 200 MPG carburetor, racial theories, the effectiveness of Natural Family Planning, ancient Sumerian knowledge of Cosmology (pro and con), Darwin deathbed conversion, the King James only movement, and related issues and on and on.
Well, what’s a body to do?
- Be humble and keep an open mind. Not every contender for “fact” status is equally qualified; on the other hand, remember that each of us is a human being and subject to failures in judgment. We need not go about being tentative all the time, but we should also listen to hostile views.
- Check primary sources from time to time. If you are familiar with a particular body of information, seek out an opposing viewpoint and test it. Go to the newspaper archive, look at the pottery shard in the museum and dig out the ancient author.
- Don’t presume that everyone with a college degree is competent or trustworthy.
- Be particularly careful listening to people you totally agree with.
- Check peer reviewed publications.
- DON’T BELIEVE ANYTHING YOU READ ON THE INTERNET.
I think most people will draw the right conclusion given the facts, but in an era when most of our facts come from published sources, we have to be aware of the difference between facts and statements which only appear to be facts.
Now here’s a test question for you. Is the following a fact? How will you decide?
Marshall McLuhan’s book is commonly thought to be The Medium is the Message, but the actual word is “Massage”, not “Message”. The full title of McLuhan’s 1967 work is The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects.
If you don’t believe me, look it up in the Britannica or look up the book at your local library; Telnet to the Library of Congress Card Catalog. Oh, but don’t look in Grolier’s Online Encyclopedia–it’s wrong; trust me!
March, 1997 notes
When considering “alternative facts” I have found that one of the differences lies in the process by which ideas are screened. And I would like to coin a phrase “net.facts” to refer to facts which have been published without going through scholarly debate or peer review. Certainly the scholarship route does not insure truth, but I believe that it is the best approach we have, short of going to primary sources which is almost always impractical.
While the Internet may be an “open marketplace of ideas”, it is rather difficult to judge the value of the ideas being sold.