Facts

I have to say that I’m getting more than a little concerned about the idea that there are “different facts” or “alternative facts.” There are accurate facts and inaccurate facts [which I don’t regard as fact, but error], and there can be considerable dispute over what facts signify or how to interpret them and how accurate those interpretations may be.

The only thing “factual” about opinions not supported by verifiable facts is that such opinions exist. When pictures show the comparative size of crowds, such as inauguration crowds, an opinion that the small crowd is larger is factually untrue, unless, of course, such photographs were altered. When there is a multiplicity of photos from different sources, then the chance of alteration is essentially non-existent.

When photographic studies of glaciers show that, over time, virtually all of them have shrunk in size, and many have disappeared, that is factual evidence that those areas are in fact warmer, and when those studies encompass virtually all the glaciers, that’s a fact, or series of facts, that’s not factually contestable. What those facts signify for the future is up for debate, but that those sections of the planet are now warmer is not.

When NOAA says that the last ten years are the warmest on record, compared to existing data, that data represents a series of measurements. Those measurements come from the same sources. Therefore, temperatures at those sources are warmer. One can contest whether temperatures from those sources are an accurate representation of planetary warming, and whether temperatures from earlier sources are as accurate, but not the fact that the NOAA numbers represent higher temperatures at those places.

The fact that there’s been a first-year turnover of more than thirty percent of political appointees serving on the President’s White House staff is not disputable, nor is the fact that it’s by far the highest first year turnover of any President. What this means can be debated, but it cannot accurately be dismissed as false news.

The growth of fake or false news not only represents the growing polarization of American society, but also bodes ill for the future, because, if Americans cannot even agree on the facts surrounding issues, the “public validity” and “truth” of such “facts” will be determined by popular opinion or power, not upon the facts themselves. When policies are made upon the basis of facts that are not accurate, they’re far more likely to be flawed.

For example, while one study by scientists at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Tulane University School of Medicine showed that eighty-percent of health news stories posted on Facebook concerning the Zika virus were largely accurate, the study also showed that the most popular story [ “10 reasons why Zika virus fear is a fraudulent medical hoax”] was totally inaccurate, but was viewed 530,000 times and shared almost 20,000 times, while the most popular totally medically accurate story, posted by the World Health Organization, was viewed 43,000 times and shared by less than a thousand users.

But too many people don’t want to hear that the number and percentage of crimes committed in the U.S. is higher for native born Americans than for either legal or illegal immigrants, and that the lowest crime rates occur among legal immigrants. They don’t want to hear that increasing coal usage will increase the rate of global warming, or that the tax laws just passed will make economic conditions in the future much worse.

We’re already in the dangerous position where popularity is more and more becoming the determinant of the perceived accuracy of facts, rather than measurements, observations, or science.

Or, put another way, with Trump’s “alternative facts,” Orwell’s Newspeak is already here.

11 thoughts on “Facts”

  1. M. Kilian says:

    Popularity determining what is fact and what is not is dangerous, and policies based upon such inaccuracies are also a problem.

    When however facts are used in discussion, whether to inform people through news, or to determine the creation of policy, or even to conduct research- that the omission of facts that do not serve the intended narrative is just as harmful.

    While it is disingenuous to say that the inauguration crowd was larger than it actually was, it is interesting how mainstream media responded. Even today most western media outlets seem to show a bias against Trump, as they did even during the election.

    And whether or not there is some reason for bias now that he’s been in office and opposed to the mainstream media, the comparative lack of attention to the immoral activities of the DNC during and after the election has de-legitimised any sort of impartiality that the media may have once espoused.

    The News has gone on about Trump threatening North Korea, yet not once have I seen a major article about Hillary threatening “serious political, economic and military responses” on Russia and China for cyber attacks, which she did during the election.

    Global warming is still an issue yes, and one that to this day most countries have failed to adequately address. From what I’ve witnessed denial aims at the idea that global warming is only being caused by humans, at least for the larger part (not the more vocal).

    What is completely avoided on the topic (at least when spoken to the general public) however is that any effort that a country undergoes to reduce their carbon imprint probably has to further regulate the industries that are at fault, something such industries resist.

    And, even if governments could in fact take the reins and regulate enough to make a difference, they would most likely see an economic decline for the industries related, as more time and money is spent on regulating and potentially output levels are lowered due to alternative methods. Any country whose government does not follow suit could then abuse their lack of penalty.

    Even the statement that native born Americans have a higher percentage of crime is a fact that serves an agenda, because it stops at the difference between legal immigrants and natives, with no attempts to further break it down by demographic, which is relevant to the discussion of immigrant crime and even crime at large. Like the fact that every illegal immigrant has committed crime, simply by the virtue of being an illegal immigrant.

    I don’t want to nitpick everything, instead I would like to say that there are simply too many people who do not present all the relevant information when they weigh in on a discussion, either because they do not know or don’t consider presenting facts that contradict or undermine the narrative they want.

    I would suggest that there are politicians, celebrities, news companies and even scientists who are guilty of telling people what their patrons want them to hear.

    I don’t know actually know what my point is, but I think facts are only as useful as the context they are provided in.

    I also hope you don’t take my comments as an attack, I merely value your opinion and seek it on further talking points.

    1. Rehcra says:

      And what about that famous line from Theodore Roosevelt “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Sneak attacks on people and hitting them with BIG sticks that’s mean and diabolical. Him and Hillary should be thrown in jail and locked up!

      Dig Him Up!… Dig Him Up!… Dig Him Up!

    2. Tony says:

      To M. Kilian:
      1. If by ‘bias’ you mean ‘preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience,’ then I’m not certain that your characterization of the media’s coverage of Trump as having a ‘bias against Trump’ is accurate. It would be more accurate to say that you perceive the media’s coverage of Trump as negative because the media persists in bringing to light unfavorable facts about Trump and you wish the media would bring to light more of the favorable facts about Trump (assuming there are any) or, perhaps, you perceive the favorable facts about Trump as being more significant or more relevant than the unfavorable facts about Trump (even if the unfavorable facts outnumber the favorable) and you wish the media would emphasize those kinds of favorable facts.
      One conception of the media’s role is to serve as a watch dog on government. Currently, the Republican Party (RNP) controls two-thirds of state governorships, two-thirds of state legislatures, the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, Presidency and Supreme Court. Given the overwhelming dominance of state and federal governing institutions by the RNP, the media would naturally tend to focus on the actions of the RNP. And if the media is serving its watch dog function, then that coverage of the party in power, the RNP, would be both highly analytical and highly critical. As a watch dog (assuming you agree that the media has such a role), the media would prioritize publicizing “bad facts” or unfavorable facts about the government than “good facts” in order to inform citizens as to what areas of society require their greater attention and focus.
      Thus, at this stage of the game, the Clintons (and perhaps even the DNC) are largely irrelevant and powerless, and extensive media coverage of the Clintons would serve to distract the citizenry from the actions of party in power.
      2. If by ‘agenda’ you mean an ‘ideological plan or program, such as a political agenda,’ then I think it’s unhelpful to a reasoned debate to say to someone, “I know what you’re saying is factually true, but I don’t have to address your fact, because you’re only saying it to support your agenda and/or you haven’t provided any context so that I can comprehend your fact.” Ultimately, every human being has an agenda, and is acting in a way to support that agenda; and, ultimately, we each will have to find our own context for those facts. At school, your math teacher wants you to learn math, but it would be absurd for the student to say, “Even the statement that 1+1 = 2 is a fact that serves your agenda of forcing me to learn something I don’t care about and persuade me that numbers are somehow more important than other things I care about; you’ve got to put your claim that 1 + 1 = 2 into the context of my entire life experience and break it down in terms of how it relates to both mathematics as a whole and society at large before I’ll even begin to listen to you or credit your claim about addition.”

      1. M. Kilian says:

        To Tony:

        Perhaps I should say that the media’s coverage of Trump is appears to be a bias because during the election, the media did favorably cover Clinton when she was still relevant by their reckoning, just as they unfavorably covered Trump. I think that anyone should be able to recognise a predilection in the mainstream media irrespective of an investment in American politics or not.

        The watchdog attribution is interesting, because it is exactly that kind of role in serving the best interests of the public that the media appears to believe they provide, and which people no longer believe they do to some extent.

        I don’t believe that surmising people have a reason for the information they choose to share and not share is wrong to assume. I would suggest that even when teaching simple math, the students are best served by being given working examples of why and how it works.

        And the reason I’d suggest that, is because when one is dealing with much more complex facts, such as things that encompass the ecology of the entire planet or absolutely anything to do with people- providing working examples that a person can reproduce and comprehend is on a completely different level.

        There would also be students that don’t see the value of knowledge they are being presented with because they don’t perceive any benefit to it. I would hope a teacher that hopefully idealises imparting information onto future generations would attempt to provide context for why it’s relevant to the student.

  2. Wine Guy says:

    Why would people worry about facts when letting the talking heads tell them ‘what the facts really mean’ is so much easier.

    It has always been hard to be a thinking person in the world. These days it is just a bit more obvious.

  3. Phineas says:

    This post is really just a straw man argument. The arguments are not over observable or measurable data. The issue is that if you have a narrative that you want to communicate, which is often the case with journalists as well as politicians, you are naturally going to include data that supports your narrative and ignore data that contradicts it. So an alternative fact is not something I claim as an observable fact that contradicts something else you claim as an observable fact (glaciers are shrinking vs glaciers are not shrinking). Rather, an alternative fact is another observable fact which nobody can honestly argue is not true but which doesn’t support the other side’s narrative and was therefore ignored.

    Right after Trumps election, the NPR show ‘On the Media’ had a series of interviews with various experts asking how the media did it’s job so poorly that such a significant segment of the population could have been so ignorant as to vote for Trump, and how they could do better in the future. The conclusion was that media needs to do a better job of presenting the ‘truth’ by limiting the facts reported, and carefully adjusting the order in which the facts are presented, so that the ‘truth’ is made that much clearer. And yet they still had trouble understanding why people who don’t buy their narrative find the main stream media so untrustworthy.

  4. Rehcra says:

    L.E. Mod: I am getting concerned about inaccurate facts being treated as alternative facts. A Fact is a fact. The sky is and always has been blue.

    Rehcra: That’s just a straw-Man Argument against me and my beliefs.

    L.E. Mod: I am not arguing with you or your beliefs.

    Rehcra: Maybe it has always been Falling! The Blue Shift is Real!! It’s Getting closer!

    L.E. Mod:….

    1. Derek says:

      Nothing says straw-man better than actually putting words into the other party’s mouth.

      Rehcra: What do you mean..?

      1. Rehcra says:

        In the skit I meant the “The Sky is Falling!”. The Blue Shift is astronomy term that describes how stars light wavelength shortens making them appear bluer if they are headed towards us. Opposite of the Red Shift

        If you’re referring instead to the meaning behind the skit, it is a cartoon-ish reference to Phineas’s post.

  5. John Prigent says:

    I’m always a bit worried when facts about climate warming are discussed. Historians claim the the fabled North-West Passage was indeed open to navigation about 900 or a thousand years ago, and recent ice retreat in Greenland has uncovered Viking-period farmhouses that have been covered in ice for hundeds of years. Yet we are sill expected to believe those whotell usthat this is the warmest period for (insert your own number) years, or ‘since records began’. But they never admit how short a period those records cover. Colour me sceptical,

  6. Tony says:

    Kelly Ann Conway coined the phrase “alternative fact” during an interview in 2017 to defend a false statement made by Sean Spicer about the size of Trump’s inauguration. It’s a euphemism for a falsehood.

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