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Ignorant and/or Stupid About the Facts

The health care debate has spawned an unusually large number of articles saying that they are “fact checking” or clearing up “myths.”  Reasonable people will come to similar reasonable conclusions if they have similar facts.   And you can take so much smug pleasure in trumping (thumping?) an opponent with THE facts. It leaves him speechless. Not anymore.  Facts just aren’t what they used to be.

The concept of “fact” is closely tied to having a recognized arbitrating authority. James Burke made an interesting BBC program about this concept and way back in 1985 and anticipated the problem we would have as the concept of fact dissipated.   Extrapolating from what he said, shareable facts were possible only with the widespread introduction of printing.   Before that you had to rely on personal knowledge, faith and a lot of interpretation, since hand copied books were full of mistakes and oral history changes with the needs of the circumstances.  Most people didn’t know very much and much of what they knew beyond their personal experience was superstition, hear-say or legend.  They weren’t stupid.  It is just that w/o the kinds of recording tools we use today it was simply impossible for them to master a lot of information beyond what they could see, hear, feel AND remember personally.

I grew up in an age of fact.  The early 1960s in the U.S. might well have been humanities apex at the rational/science/fact culture.  We had faith in science and the certainty it could and would provide, if not today or tomorrow, soon.  We had reference books that could prove the facts and scientists who continually stuffed more facts into them.    I have written about this subject before, so I am going over some of the same ground.  Look at the previous post if you want, but indulge me in this one.  

The bottom line is that facts are not the same as truth and the truthfulness of a fact depends almost entirely on context of reference.   This is provided by the social and cultural environment.  Back when I was a kid, almost every reasonably educated person shared a reasonably common context.    We used the same reference books, read the same newspapers and watched the same things on television.   This context is weakened.   On the other hand, the power of opinion is vastly strengthened by the proliferation of cable TV, Internet sites and just by the vast numbers of experts talking and writing about everything.   We are back in the world of interpretations.   We still long for the certainty that we can no longer achieve and we still try to trump (or thump) each other with our facts, w/o comprehending that they no longer are THE facts.  

I started with the health care debate because it is current, emotionally charged and an excellent case study of the matters of fact and interpretation.  The health care debate is mostly about interpretation because there currently is no bill to debate.  The tentative proposals are subject to interpretation and they are fluid, which is even more problematic. There is a lot of space to read between the lines and to add or subtract whole paragraphs.  But it seems like it should be a matter of fact, since there is so much written and discussed. 

But the would-be fact checkers are deluding themselves if they think they can trump debate with their interpretation, which they call fact. The details of the health care bill are not only unknown, they are also currently unknowable because they have yet to be hammered out.   Even in the world of certainty, something needs to have happened before it can have a fact associated with it.     It cannot be a fact that John Smith landed on Mars on April 1, 2020 and it cannot be a fact what is included or not in the health care bill. Neither has yet happened. That is WHY we have a debate.

We need an honest debate to lay out the parameters of what we want and what we find unacceptable. Let's not try to shut it down too soon. This is a big deal and everything should be on the table. I wish everybody would stop saying that the other side is ignorant, depraved, greedy or stupid.   In fact, we are ALL currently ignorant on the subject, since the details are not yet manifest. Put in health care terms, ignorance is a treatable condition.  Presumably we are not all stupid, which you really cannot cure.   


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Comments

On the nature of "facts", I very strongly recommend Ben Goldacre's book "Bad Science". It is about rational medical research versus guesswork and snake oil.

I have found, on web forums, that when somebody starts out with "The facts are...", you can expect some obvious rubbish to follow. It is a feint, to make you suspend disbelief for at least a moment.

(Likewise, the phrase "of course" always marks the weak link in an argument, where the writer hopes to skate quickly over the thin ice.)

You are right that future events cannot be facts. Have you noticed how many "news" stories are about the future? - they generally have "poised" or "looms" in the headline.

which is why evolution will always be a 'theory'. and in a way, everything is irreproducible; the observer must make assumptions about critical factors.
Nothing in life is *pure* "logic".

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