Facts, Schmacts

“Facts are meaningless. You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true. Facts, schmacts.” -Homer Simpson

Oh Homer, even though you said that almost 13 years ago your words are so prescient. (Prescient, Homer. It means foreshadowing.)

This morning Newsweek magazine, in response to polls indicating that as many as one in five people think President Obama is a Muslim—he’s not—published a slide show of other “Dumb Things Americans Believe.” Their examples:  witchcraft (21%), death panels (40%) and that the sun revolves around the earth (amazingly, 20%). Just 39% of people believe in evolution, despite widespread scientific consensus. Newsweek’s title is perhaps unhelpful, but the point is sound. And I found the piece refreshing in a journalistic culture in which the press, in the name of objectivity, reports both “sides” of an issue, even in cases where one of the sides is wrong on the facts and/or fringe in its belief.

I have to say, this is something that I think about a lot. I suppose that misinformation is nothing new, but the Internet is like a Wild West free-for-all when it comes to rumors and misinformation. If you want to believe something, you can and will find support for it. But it makes it very difficult to communicate. It makes it difficult to preach when literally everything we know is up for grabs.

I can’t find it now, but did you catch the study a few months ago about attitudes among scientists about global warming? Many layfolks who are climate-change skeptics say that the scientific community is not united in its beliefs about the human causes of global warming—that there are a lot of scientists who doubt it.  That’s true, but among scientists who study it most closely and have published peer-reviewed research, the sense that humans are to blame is much clearer. Not everyone who calls him or herself an expert actually is an expert, in other words… but that’s not welcome news in a culture that disdains elitism, a culture in which people want to “decide for themselves.”

Earlier this month I attended portions of the Faithful Politics conference at Montreat. I was technically on vacation so I didn’t attend it all, but in one of the sessions I did attend, the speaker talked about the need for empathy as we seek to understand people with whom we disagree. I think that’s very true and as Christians, how we engage the questions of the day is as important as (more important than?) the answers themselves, which is really the message of my sermon on Sunday. Bickering and in-fighting is a pretty poor witness. As Tony Jones has said, “Two generations from now we will no longer be arguing about gay marriage, but we will be arguing about whether cloned humans are entitled to receive communion. So we’d better develop some norms for working through our differences rather than continuing the tired win-lose way we go about it now.” (I’m paraphrasing.)

But empathy and norms only get us so far, when we can’t even agree on what the facts are.

Lately we’ve been talking to Caroline about the difference between fact and opinion. She will ask a question like, “What’s the most beautiful thing in the world?” and after giving our thoughts we’ll usually say, “That’s an opinion question though, which means there isn’t one right answer. Different people will answer it differently.” Then she will ask “What’s the largest thing in the world?” which, once we clarify what “largest” and “thing” mean, is obviously a question of fact. (What is the largest thing in the world?)

This lesson we’re trying to teach Caroline seems very quaint, in a way. One of our cultural challenges is that, because we can find anything out there to support our own views and biases, we have forgotten that there are in fact differences between fact and opinion.

It doesn’t matter how many websites argue the contrary: whether the President is an American citizen is not up for debate. It’s not a matter of opinion; it’s a matter of fact. He’s a citizen or he isn’t, and even if 80% of the public thought he was born in Kenya, it wouldn’t make him born in Kenya. (Incidentally, why are we polling on matters of fact anyway?)

I’m very willing to listen to people who disagree with me on matters of opinion—I’ve heard from some church members after Sunday’s sermon who explained their thoughts, and some differed from mine, but we heard each other. But it’s much harder—impossible, even?—to engage with someone who doesn’t even subscribe to the same facts you do. I’m not sure how useful it is to try, actually.

We’ve always had disagreements in our nation. When people say we are more polarized now than ever before, I want to say, hello, Civil War? But it does feel very intense and unsettling to me, and I think this Internet free-for-all doesn’t help.

Finally, I have to turn all of this back to myself, too: are there things that I take as bedrock that are not actually factual? Are there things that I hold so rigidly that others cannot engage me?

Image is from the Newsweek feature mentioned above.

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7 thoughts on “Facts, Schmacts

  1. lukeluke says:

    Facts are funny things.

    I think Ronald Regan said that, and I am inclined to agree. Altho the “fact” that he actually said that is unknown to me. And I have a feeling he might have meant it differently than I do.

    Another thing to add to this discussion would be context. People often look for that smoking gun “fact” that they can wave in someone’s face, instead of taking the fact within context (or how many facts intersect).

    Facts are like the point on the grid, but what picture do the facts paint?

    Personal reflection, cultivating an intuitive understanding of the way things work, listening to other ideas and not clinging desperately to your own. Seeing facts as road signs, but not the road itself.

    These are the steps to take, I think. Caroline is a wise thinker in asking those questions. I wish more people would ask questions like that every day.

    • mamdblueroom says:

      David Wilcox has a great story that introduces one of his songs, where he talks about an argument he was having with his wife, and how they both had the same facts—and he compared them to dots on a scatterplot graph (though more poetic). He said each of them connected those dots differently, to create two different pictures. But when you can see the image, from the other person’s point of view… amazing.

  2. Rev Dr Mom says:

    This is a great post…and a matter of real concern. It seems to me like that in education there is far less emphasis on content these days and far more on process. While process (i.e., critical thinking) is absolutely essential and probably was neglected in education in the past, how can one think critically if one knows no content (i.e., facts0? My students (in developmental psych and history of psych) were far more interested in talking about how they felt about something than in assessing its validity or the way a certain set of facts might affect the world. Certainly facts can change as we gain more knowledge, and we can acknowledge that but it is still important to recognize and deal with them.

    Is this the inevitable fallout of postmodernism?

  3. Rev Dr Mom says:

    Please excuse the gratuitous “like” in the 2nd sentence…I hate when I edit myself so poorly.

    Also, it occurs to me that just as it is useful to discuss the difference between fact and opinion, it might be useful to discuss the difference between *believe* and *know*.

    • mamdblueroom says:

      Excellent points in these two comments.

      My daughter is learning to write and is in the process phase of “just get it down on paper.” Now I’m REALLY hoping she will learn how to spell things properly in second grade (and that she won’t be unlearning too much).

    • anne says:

      i read the ‘like’ as a little inside joke to see if we were really reading what you were writing.

  4. marciglass says:

    Thanks for this. Just had a couple leave the church because they are functioning with a completely different set of facts than the rest of the church. Very sad. I feel very powerless to help.

    I also like your question about why are we polling about things that are factual?

    Lots to think on.

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