What Is a Fact?

I’m still obsessing some over those discussions where both people are sure they are right and the other person is wrong, and there’s no room for different perspectives or meaningful discussion. Last time we got together, I said that I was declining to participate in those black and white discussions unless I had one fact supporting my position and knew of at least one fact that supported the opposing position. Sure, I would listen and possibly learn, but I didn’t think I had much to offer, since I was not familiar enough with both sides of the disagreement.


But here’s the problem. It seems that no matter what the topic or focus for disagreement, both people are sure that the facts support their side. For example, I was foolishly discussing global warming with a friend who thinks that even if the Earth is going through a period of global warming, there is no proof that people are causing or contributing to this natural process. The Earth has gotten cold and then warm again, more than once, and this current spell is just another cycle.


Shall we have another example? Sure we shall. It goes like this.


The disagreement: Getting vaccinated for Covid is a good idea versus getting vaccinated for Covid is not a good idea.


If you are on the good idea side, your responses to these five concerns reported by the BBC are quite different than if you are on the not a good idea side. (9/15/21 https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210720-the-complexities-of-vaccine-hesitancy)


  1. Confidence: the person’s trust in the vaccines efficacy and safety, the health services offering them, and the policy makers deciding on their rollout


  1. Complacency: whether or not the person considers the disease itself to be a serious risk to their health


  1. Calculation: the individual’s engagement in extensive information searching to weigh up the costs and benefits


  1. Constraints (or convenience): how easy it is for the person in question to access the vaccine


  1. Collective responsibility: the willingness to protect others from infection, through one’s own vaccination


According to the same article, “the major barriers continue to be patient’s concerns about the side effects and the fears that the vaccines haven’t been adequately tested.”


If the very small minority  who think all vaccines are a bad idea are excluded, the discussion likely boils down to whether or not the risk of getting the shots is a risk worth taking and whether or not the vaccines have been tested enough and long enough. If you and I are to have this discussion then, we need to start with what we think our personal risk is if we get the shot and how much testing we personally think is enough. (Keep in mind that “risk” may be medical or physical but may also be economic, emotional, social, or take some other form.)


Here is what surprised me. To have an intransigent impasse, we don’t have to disagree about the facts or the validity of the facts we each use to support our positions. We may, but it is not required, not necessary. It may just as well depend on the weight or importance we assign to our collective facts. I give higher priority to my facts than to yours.


This is my conclusion. Whatever our disagreement is about, debating the facts is not likely to bare much fruit. Unless something is demonstrably not a fact, there is not much to be gained from questioning the validity or importance of the particular fact. Rather, I would do better to get you to help me understand why you are placing a higher or lower importance on this fact than I am. For example, why is the risk of vaccination side-effects higher for you personally than the risk of getting really sick from the virus? Once I understand your priorities, you may be interested in why I prioritize the facts differently. Even if you aren’t, I will leave the discussion better informed.


One final point. Take, “That’s not true!” out of your conversational repertoire. Just take it out, delete it, ban it. Replace it with, “That’s interesting. I’m a little skeptical. That’s not how I’ve understood it. Please share with me how you know that, why my understanding is wrong.” Who knows? Just maybe you’ll find out that what you thought was a fact really isn’t. Sometimes, it’s true, at least until you find out that it’s not true.

Probably True is Only Table Stakes

From racism to global warming, I hear people who are sure that they are absolutely right and that others are totally wrong. In their minds, there is no doubt or margin of error. Some of them know that racism is real and insidiously harming our society and world order, while global warming is a real and present danger to our very existence. Others are equally sure that racism is little more than a liberal construct that is artificially thrust on society in order to support the liberal agenda directed toward reframing the American way, while global warming is similarly used as a fear tactic intended to undermine capitalism and free enterprise.


They mostly agree that there are two sides to every argument from abortion to marijuana, so long as everyone understands that means their side and the wrong side. There is no room for debate or civil discussion, no room for varying interpretations or reasoned differences.


Since a proportion of these types of non-agreements go far beyond anything that could be confused with chance seem to split along political or Party lines, There seems to be little likelihood that the absence of agreement is more than a continuation of politics as usual, although the stakes seem to be much higher than in the past. And that’s going some, given the race riots and Vietnam protests in the 60’s and 70’s. Of course, there was the Civil War, but we can hope it never gets that divisive again.


Here’s the thing. Whether the intellectual schism focuses on voting or pipelines, health care or local zoning, there is one constant. Both sides are sure that the facts support their position. And therein lies the impasse.


Here’s what I think. I am henceforth setting a precondition before I will get into a discussion with anyone about what may be a controversial issue. If I cannot think of at least one “fact” that supports my position and one that discredits my position, I will decline to discuss the issue. I will always listen, but I do not have anything to add to the discussion. Even when I do have a pro fact and a con fact, I will try to remember that it only makes my position probably true, probably valid.


Here’s the key, If my intellectual antagonist cannot offer one fact pro and one fact con for his or her position, I will suggest that he or she might research the issue more before we discuss it.


I cannot accept something as probably true unless I also understand why people who disagree hold their position. I learn that by actively listening, by digging out the facts that they use to support their position. Only then can I know that my position is probably true. That is for me but table stakes for joining the discussion.