Are we entitled to our own facts?

On balance, yes. It isn’t as easy a question as Sen. Moynihan seemed to think when he admonished his colleagues that they were entitled to their own views, but they were not entitled to their own facts.

There is a sense in which Moynihan’s Aphorism is obvious. It is easy to give examples, but the examples that first come to mind are examples from the physical sciences. What star is nearest Earth? Alpha Centauri at 4.3 light years. How far away is the moon? I hear 240,000 as an answer and, of course, that is not wrong. It just isn’t always right.

Even the facts we are certain of are facts of convenience. They are averages or ranges of values. They are simplifications of more complex realities. For instance, Alpha Centauri is not a “star.” It is the name used for the collection of stars comprising the star system made up of several bodies. Are these “facts of convenience” really “facts” in the Moynihan sense of the term. I don’t think so.

When you move from the natural to the social sciences, the boundaries of “facts” get a lot fuzzier. If you imagine that there is a “true range” of a fact—outside the boundaries, the assertion can be shown to be false—then you can see that there is room for a lot of variation within the “true range.”, How wide the range is depends on why you need the fact. If you need more exactness for some reason, you narrow the range of “correct.” An answer is a fact for the original purpose, but inaccurate (not factual) for the second purpose. Unsettling, isn’t it?

I am taking an eighth grade arithmetic test. What is the value of pi? You see the problem.

Are we entitled to our own inferences?

Facts aren’t all that important by comparison with valid inferences. Debaters are taught to support the position they are assigned by collecting facts that make the case compelling. Given that all the “facts” they cite are demonstrably true, does that mean the conclusion is inescapable? No, of course not. The opposing team is making the opposite argument—and giving the audience reason to doubt yours—using facts that are as true as yours. Could it be that Team A is entitled to their facts and Team B to their facts? Of course. You don’t have to invalidate the other “facts.” You can get the same job done by ignoring them—if the other team will let you.

What does this collection of fancy dancing do to the Moynihan Aphorism? Nothing really. His statement—attributed to a lot of other people too—is perfectly adequate for the purpose he has in mind. I think it does lead us astray, though, in imagining that we would come to the same conclusions if we relied on “the facts,” and as I remember Moynihan, that is what he meant.

Every story you want to tell has a set of verifiable facts that make it seem plausible. What we find really offensive is the use of facts which, together, seem to point to a conclusion that is utter nonsense. The art of implying an inescapable conclusion by selecting which facts to present is highly valued these days. And it cannot be attacked by showing that this or that fact is “wrong.” It can be attacked only by showing that apparently contradictory facts are also true.

If I am free to choose what argument to make, then I am entitled to choose the facts that support that argument, presuming, of course that all the “facts” I cite are demonstrably “not false.”

Some years ago I read an article that said that the public schools in Georgia were issuing gummed tabs to put in biology texts. The tabs said “Evolution is a theory, not a fact.” My immediate response was that given the educational setting in the schools they described, that probably had very little effect on what the students thought about evolution. What concerned me—I was alarmed, actually—was what it taught the students about the relationship between facts and theories. Here’s the truth. Theories that are fully supported by factual studies are worth relying on. Theories without such support are not worth relying on. “Facts” don’t add up to theories. That’s not how it works. And every student in Georgia who believed the premise—not the argument—of those little sticky tabs in the loser.

If the problem we face is that people are asserting the truth of propositions that can be shown to be false, then it is easily solved. If the problem is that the logic used to connect these facts is one of several that would do the job, then the problem is harder to identify and also harder to correct. What threshold should should an argument have to pass to be considered plausible? What other conclusions could be drawn using these same facts, but approaching them with new presuppositions. Those two questions show why it is harder.

But, as much as we would wish it otherwise, many arguments are based on values that are not widely shared. If I want to show that “they”—you get your pick on identifying “them”— do not have my interest in mind, I can make arguments as fast as you can destroy them and when you have destroyed the last one, I will be of the same opinion as before. It is a view I need to hold and I can generate facts faster than you can destroy them provided that I can say what generalizations are supported by the facts I cite. The generalization is that “they” do not have our interests in mind.

I am as discouraged as anyone by the way wholly specious arguments dominate our discourse in the U. S. today, but we have those differences because we have different values. The values rely upon different kinds of logic to connect one fact with another and to argue for the the generalizations they point to. And the facts are facts—good enough for the purposes for which they are being used.

Facts are just bullets. You don’t have to know how guns work to fire them.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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