A FAQ about Facts

"Just the facts ma'am," Sgt. Joe Friday.

Updated July 6, 1996, March 7, 1997, December 2, 1997

I was prompted to start this project by an exchange I had with a fellow on USENET. He had posted some remarks in support of the authenticity of a verse from the New Testament. I, of course, had the facts and I lit into him pretty strongly with them. He replied with some facts of his own. This dispute was not over interpretation, but over whether evidence exists in ancient manuscripts. That is, it is a dispute over facts. Yet we each had different facts from sources we consider authoritative. This exchange has led me to consider how many disputes are really about facts.

It is said that 3% of the population cannot think rationally; that is, they are crazy. Perhaps more have recognized thinking disorders. But by in large, most people can think rationally. I suppose that many disputes are over values and preferences and at least, in theory, facts are facts. Nevertheless, I find, more and more, that people are disagreeing because they work from different (and sometimes conflicting) "facts".

I guess I first became aware of the questionable nature of facts in jr. high school. I read a book on ESP and in that book was a sentence which said "It is a well-known fact that if a dozen people concentrate on a playing card at the same time, they will be able to transmit the card's value to another person. This is easily verified." At that young age, reading a book from the library, which looked like a serious book--a book which mentioned scholarly research at Duke University, I accepted the statement as fact. When I actually tried the experiment, however, it didn't work.

That "fact" had (for me at that time) all the hallmarks of credibility.

Later, in college, I went to see a movie called The Bermuda Triangle which was a documentary-styled film giving evidence that something truly strange was going on in the Bermuda Triangle. One of the "facts" from this film was a story about an experienced boatman who took his boat out in perfect weather into the Bermuda Triangle--and was never seen again.

A skeptical person might come up with any number possible explanations for a boat being lost in good weather and conclude that nothing strange is necessarily going on; however, most people will not question the underlying facts.

Years later, there was another documentary about the Bermuda triangle. This time from a skeptical viewpoint. In particular it examined the same missing boat story that I had seen in the earlier film. According to this film, a check in the Miami Herald showed that the weather was not "perfect" but rather that the disappearance happened in the middle of a hurricane!

So here is another "fact" which has all the hallmarks of credibility:

The debunking film had all the hallmarks of credibility. How many viewers of that show checked the information in the Miami Herald? Not many, I'll wager, and not me.

[Are you with me so far? I hope not! The problem with the story of the two Bermuda Triangle films above is that both stories are from memory--and not recent ones at that. The title of the first movie is almost certainly wrong.I'll see if I can replace the fuzzy recollections above with some real facts. A little research reveals that the boat in question was named "Witchcraft".]

So where do "bad facts" come from and why do we believe them anyway?

I've come up with a few sources for bad facts:

It is impossible to verify everything for oneself. We take the information in our mathematics textbooks as fact; we take the information in our physics textbook as fact (even though both may be out of date). We believed what Walter Cronkite said. We end up selecting some sources which we trust, and we look for certain marks of credible information:

There are just a lot of these contradicting fact issues around today. Things that come to mind are: Vince Foster suicide, Kennedy assassination, weeping icons/bleeding statues, UFO sightings and alien abductions, psychic reports, Historical Jesus reconstructions, holocaust denial, genetic homosexuality, recovered of suppressed memories under hypnosis, Satanic ritual abuse, facilitated communication (of autistic children), health foods (megavitamins, hormones, bee pollen, DHEA, etc.), anti-aging drugs, freemasonry, Mormonism and religions foundations of all sorts, Bermuda Triangle, cold fusion, Waldensian day of worship, IRS abuses, conspiracy theories of all kinds, archaeological reconstructions, school prayer abuse, political voting records, pyramid and crystal power, pyramidology (prophecy based on the measurements of the Great pyramid at Giza), Afro-centrism/melanism, homeopathy, nicotine addiction, chiropractic, 200 MPG carburetor, racial theories, the effectiveness of Natural Family Planning, ancient Sumerian knowledge of Cosmology (pro and con), Darwin deathbed conversion, the King James only movement, and related issues and on and on.

Well, what's a body to do?

I think most people will draw the right conclusion given the facts, but in an era when most of our facts come from published sources, we have to be aware of the difference between facts and statements which only appear to be facts.

Now here's a test question for you. Is the following a fact? How will you decide?

Marshall McLuhan's book is commonly thought to be The Medium is the Message, but the actual word is "Massage", not "Message". The full title of McLuhan's 1967 work is The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects.

If you don't believe me, look it up in the Britannica or look up the book at your local library; Telnet to the Library of Congress Card Catalog. Oh, but don't look in Grolier's Online Encyclopedia--it's wrong; trust me!

March, 1997 notes

When considering "alternative facts" I have found that one of the differences lies in the process by which ideas are screened. And I would like to coin a phrase "net.facts" to refer to facts which have been published without going through scholarly debate or peer review. Certainly the scholarship route does not insure truth, but I believe that it is the best approach we have, short of going to primary sources which is almost always impractical.

While the Internet may be an "open marketplace of ideas", it is rather difficult to judge the value of the ideas being sold.

Kevin (kevin@davnet.org)

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