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The Triumph of Form Over Content When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

You Are Here: Home -> Glossary -> Facts

Facts

From the Latin factum, something done or made. This meaning can be found in the word artifact, which is what we call something created by humans. An artifact can be an object that was made for some practical purpose, or the product of human activities. For example, IQ may be an authentic, measurable property of the human brain, or it may just be an artifact created by the ways in which we analyze IQ tests. That is, IQ may be nothing more than the measure of how one does on IQ tests. Stephen Jay Gould defines reification as "our tendency to convert abstract concepts into entities (from the Latin res, or thing)."

We recognize the importance of mentality in our lives and wish to characterize it... [So] we therefore give the word "intelligence" to this wondrously complex and multifaceted set of human capabilities. This shorthand symbol is then reified and intelligence achieves its dubious status as a unitary thing (Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1981, 24).

We forget that our words for things are not the things themselves, and foolishly convince ourselves that if there is a word for something, then that thing must exist out in the world somewhere. But it doesn't; it's just an artifact of our thinking and our language.

But I digress. Like artifacts, facts do not have a life of their own out in the world; people make facts. Facts are contingent on the context in which they appear, and only take on their proper meaning when that context is made explicit. We ask questions, and then we develop methods to pursue answers. Out of those questions and methods flow facts. Take away the questions and methods, and the facts disappear. They are not real, external events, but the products of our ways of looking at events.

Some facts are more reliable than others. For example, scientists impose stringent standards on their ways of looking at the world. Scientific theories must be demonstrably useful, and scientists must be careful to demonstrate that they have not inadvertently introduced observable effects through their own interference. Further, scientific theories that do not stand up to the scrutiny of experiments must be discarded. Therefore, scientific facts, at least in clearly established theories, are more or less incontrovertible. However, even these are susceptible to the falsifiability of all scientific theories. Scientists who cling to certainty, particularly in the face of conflicting evidence, fall into the trap of dogmatism. The equivalent in political philosophy is ideology.

However, even science is replete with disputes surrounding theories that cannot be clearly established. The political firestorm of global warming comes to mind, in which no one can agree on what is happening in our atmosphere, because no one has enough observational data to successfully defend one theory over another. One faction claims that climate change is not occurring. Another faction claims that it is occurring, but that human activities are not responsible. Yet another faction claims that human activity is behind climate change. All three groups have pet theories that are consistent with the spotty and and incomplete body of data that pertains to our climate, and all three groups are armed to the teeth with facts.

Of course, the swirl of politics and externalist arguments (arguments that address the parties involved rather than empirical data) further muddy the water, but the facts themselves, which are bandied about shamelessly, are at issue here. Many of the great debates that divide us are driven by disagreement over how to look at events. The different sides of a debate yell at each other, waving armloads of facts in each others' faces. The facts all appear to flatly contradict each other, so we say that all cannot be true. As spectators, the public eventually grows weary of having to pick through the minefield of facts and becomes cynical. However, if you place each fact in context, you see that the debaters are usually arguing about different things.

Don't get me wrong; people lie, and people obfuscate by omission, exaggeration and shaky reasoning. But even when the lies and obfuscation have been swept away, the root of many arguments is a disagreement over what questions to ask, and over what methods to employ in answering those questions. And people ask different kinds of questions because they are starting from different sets of primary assumptions. Sometimes, as in the case of climate change, they are starting from different theories, not one of which has the weight of sufficient evidence on its side. Other times, they are starting from different value systems, as in the debate over health care. It is a fact, for example, that private health care is more efficient than public health care, if you define efficiency in the economic sense of allocative efficiency. It is also a fact that public health care is more efficient than private care, if you define efficiency by the common sense notion of efficiency as being able to do more with less.

It is often this clash of values that deeply underlies the more superficial debates over whether this or that fact is correct.

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