The Problem With Facts

problem with facts

“Let me hit you with some facts.” – Is this a metaphor about relating facts or about our growing misuse of them as tools of aggression?

Since the dawn of the ‘Age of Reason’ western culture has been heavily concerned with transcending the subjective nature of the individual by seeking out methods that aspire to some degree of objectivity. This was all set in order with the understanding that absolute objectivity was not possible. Even if an objective truth existed, we could not experience it without running it through our subjective perceptions and interpretations. Yet while objective methods are a noble achievement that has done immeasurable good for human progress, over time we have increasingly come to believe too literally in the validity of objective truths, often observed as an over-reliance and unshakable faith in facts.

“As a matter of fact.” -Although this term now carries a connotation of facts as sole mediators of logical validation, it was originally used to separate statements of facts from those of laws, facts being irrelevant in the eyes of the latter.

What exactly is a fact? A fact is a single piece of information that we are able to verify through observations, predictive models, repetition and consensus. A fact is a single factor we can use to draw logical conclusions from. But facts are not themselves conclusions, nor is any conclusion based upon a single fact worthy of rational consideration.The most useful and durable conclusions are often those consistent with the greatest number of facts. Yet even with millions of supporting facts a conclusion may be useless or irrational. Facts are always subject to our subjective perceptions and interpretations, so facts alone are not reliable enough to be the sole basis from which conclusions are drawn.

Example of Misuse of Facts:

Police and their supporters often attempt to use a limited set of facts to make very broad conclusions. One of the most commonly misinterpreted and misapplied facts is this- “Violent criminals are unpredictable and can commit violence against LEO’s at any time.”

The conclusion they draw from this is- “An officer is justified in using deadly force whenever the feel they are in danger.”

The first and most obvious reason this is a bad conclusion is that not everybody who makes cops ‘feared for my life’ is a violent criminal. Often they are sick, scared and confused individuals who are in need of patient and compassionate assistance. It also ignores a number of other facts, especially the facts of law, morals and decency. The singling in on a single fact to support a conclusion which codifies violence into an acceptable part of police routine fits with far fewer facts than it negates. And so the use of facts here is often too limited to support the conclusion that police are justified in so much wanton killing.

A better way to interpret the real fact of danger might be this- “Protecting and serving the community is a dangerous job, so those who are more concerned with their own safety than with that of every member of the community should not become police officers.”

A strong conclusion often owes far more to logic and consistency than to facts. Logic is a basic set of rules we can use to measure the validity of any statement. Thus logic can dictate what facts are relevant to our questions, statements and conclusions, and which are not. It can tell us the relationship between individual facts or sets of them, and suggest a pattern of analysis appropriate to our basic premise. Yet even after you have made conclusions from logical interpretation of facts, those conclusions are unreliable until they have been tested against entire networks of interdependent and complexly related conclusions. The more consistent they are with the bigger picture of human knowledge at large, the more useful and durable they become. Conclusions that negate more outside knowledge than they confirm are considered weak, regardless of how strong they may appear a single entity. Rational thinkers are therefore more concerned with overall ideological consistency than with individual facts.

This highlights another prominent problem in our modern intellectual climate, which is that most of us are far less concerned with being consistently rational than we are with being Right. Our competitive and dichotomous nature often eschews the evolution and ¬†improvement of our individual intellectual landscapes, so instead we seek out symbolic gestures of truths that can be weaponized to obliterate our ‘opponents’. This describes the average persons relationship with facts. They are mental bullets fired from the barrel of our egos.

“Time to face the facts.” -Does it say anything that we think of facts as potentially harmful, or as some kind of punishment?

The misguided obsession with facts as the only meaningful part of human knowledge is not only irrational, it is another factor contributing to our dumbing down. When we treat facts as commodities to be consumed and excreted for our self-gratification, we move ever further away from the holistic models of human knowledge that provide us a view at the bigger picture. Factnaticism becomes a method by which we zoom in to a single facet of knowledge out of ignorance or intolerance of wider views. They become mental crutches by which we validate our emotional states and confirm our biases while at the same time shutting ourselves off from new ideas, information and perspectives.

In and of themselves there is nothing wrong with facts. But an over-reliance on them based on a misunderstanding of their purpose and function for the sake of self-gratification, identity and external validation is a massive problem. Firstly because it is wholly irrational, in-compassionate and destructive to our critical thinking faculties. While at the same time it is also a problem because it undermines the value of facts; as well as their analysis and interpretations. When facts become weapons of mass instruction, the reasonable epistemological faith in their meaningfulness and usefulness will erode under the intellectual attrition created by this small mindedness.

And on a personal level, if you don’t use facts wisely you will be used by them, or used by those for whom facts are only convenient tidbits for controlling the contents of your mind.

Facticuffs- The use of facts to draw wide conclusions from limited intellectual vigor for the purpose of ‘winning’ a discussion.

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