Two friends debated recently… Do facts matter?
One argued that facts are meaningless. She argued that facts only support one’s biases and that facts can be manipulated to support any argument. The other argued that there exists an absolute truth and facts are a path to that truth.
Upon reflection, I wasn’t convinced of either side. If facts are truth and we have the facts, shouldn’t we have consensus on contentious topics? Alternatively, doesn’t the very definition of a ‘fact’ mean there’s evidence to support its truth?
Yet it’s not so clear. Let’s see what the common search is what trying “are facts”. Below are the most commons searches:
So we aren’t the only ones confused… Aren't facts truth?
Let's take an obvious example: Flat-earthers. We have incontrovertible evidence that the Earth is round. It's proven. It's a fact. But what is interesting is that when I asked my friends to prove it, they couldn't. They couldn't through direct observation prove it to me. In this moment, we had to trust the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community to confirm what is truth.
But what about not such obvious examples, such as politics?
Where I believe the aforementioned argument stemmed from was not a belief in facts, but it was a trust in our institutions. 30 years ago there were a handful of newspapers and media outlets providing news. There were limited sources of knowledge. There were gatekeepers. Today, anyone can publish their thoughts and share their beliefs. Today is more difficult to trust the sources on which we receive our news and idea. Our institutions - government, media, celebrity - has fallen. As a result, we must cling dearly onto what feels right and familiar.
Yet even if we did trust completely in the gatekeepers of knowledge, it still doesn’t answer the question. Are the facts they are presenting absolute truth? It gets very tough as the topics become more complex.
Adam Gopnik, discussing the relationship the French had with facts:
I wrote a lecture and I said that the three biggest differences between France and America were: attitudes towards youth and age, attitudes as your role as producer and consumer, and finally the weight you give empirical evidence in everyday argument and conversation….It’s very hard to produce counter-evidence for an argument in France. You just make up another argument. I give the example in the book of fact-checking. No one I ever spoke to in Paris could understand what the point was of having a fact checker call to check the facts. The lovely thing about it is the tendency to always look for a way around it all.
So while Americans weigh more heavily the importance of facts in our arguments, the French believe it plays a small role.
Facts supporting simple arguments are more easily accepted. But facts supporting more complex arguments, such as climate change, the economy, or foreign policy, become less important and require more faith. And even for facts that are backed by empirical evidence, such as a round Earth, or a warming climate, are even difficult for some to grasp given their existing biases.
Overall, I must say that while there is an absolute truth out there, facts alone either don’t support it fully or are unable to completely convince others. It takes a leap of faith, a convincing argument, or an appeal to another’s sentiment to fully convince. While I don’t believe facts don’t matter, I do believe facts matter less than we care to think.