Let’s all hold hands for a moment, may we? Let’s bow our heads. And now . . . let us pray.
Dear Lord, as we begin this discussion on a topic that should never require discussion, as we explain that which should never need explaining, we pray for divine patience. Give us thy grace as we address our neighbors’ disputations of that which is indisputable, their denials of that which is undeniable. Please let us not bash our heads against walls, neither let us tear out our hair, nor gnash our teeth. May we not go screaming into the streets, nor pass out in frustration. And may the scales fall from their eyes that they may see the light of what should be obvious logic, lest we lose all hope for the human race. In Jesus’s name. Amen
The Curmudgeon is going to try to explain today what makes something a fact. It’s a challenging topic, since it’s only recently that anyone has had to explain such a thing.
Let us therefore start with the basic definition of the word and hope that, at least there, we can find the universal common ground upon which—please God—we all ought to be standing: Facts are things that are true. Facts are different from opinions. Opinions may only be held with regard to things that don’t fall into the true/false category. One may have an opinion on the best kind of soup. One may not have an opinion on whether 12 and 5 equal 17. Thus, conflicting opinions may coexist, while conflicting facts do not, as nothing can be both true and not true at the same time.
This is not to say that all stated facts are true or accurate. No, no. Not in the least. Liars abound. At the moment, some of them lead nations; others claim to report the news; still others answer questions from the press*. And of course, many sell used cars or send enticing emails posing as wealthy Nigerians. There are also those who are misinformed. All of these people claim to be citing or stating facts.
But—stay with me now—when a fact is mis-cited or falsely stated, it cannot correctly be called a fact. Because, you see, facts are factual, which means true. Now that makes sense, doesn’t it? Are we all together so far? Is there anyone who disagrees with anything in this or the preceding paragraphs? Actually, don’t tell me. I don’t think my frayed nerves can manage having to debate the very definition of the word “fact.”
But how do we know whether or not something is a fact? Ahhhhh. Here’s where it begins to get tricky.
Geneviève knows her name is Geneviève. She knows that to be a fact. But how? Well, there is substantial evidence: Her birth certificate says “Geneviève,” she’s always been called Geneviève, and when someone speaks of Geneviève, all who know her know who is being referenced. Also, no one has ever challenged Geneviève’s assertion regarding her own name. Now, is it possible that some day, under circumstances too bizarre to imagine, Geneviève will discover that her name is really Petunia? Certainly. Is it likely? It is not. And so, given the evidence, and absent any conflicting evidence, we can consider this information—that Geneviève’s name is Geneviève—a fact.
Another method for establishing facts is a solid consensus among experts. For example, it is a scientifically researched, measured, and established fact that climate change exists. And that remains a fact whether anyone believes it to be so. Indeed, it was a fact before it was discovered. The vast majority of bona fide experts now agree on the subject—so many that it would be ridiculous to dispute their consensus. The same goes for the spherical shape of the earth. At this point, enough people who are specifically trained to identify things like the shapes of planets and such have agreed that the earth is round that we can safely call that a fact. Here's Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining how science works and why you don't get to have an opinion on things like this.
And then there is the witness of our own eyes and ears. If you see someone hit your car, and he claims he didn’t, it isn’t hard to know which of these statements is factual. You saw it happen. You trust your own eyes and ears. When Rudy Giuliani says he never said something, and then we see video of him saying that exact thing, we can trust what we see and hear over his denial, can we not? Well of course we can. You see how easy it all is? Aren’t facts wonderful?
But now, in order to determine the facts, one must have the desire to know what is true. One must crave that knowledge. The desire must be stronger than the desire to be right, or appear knowledgeable, or win a bet, or win an election, or defend one’s political party. Yes, the confirmation of facts must be more important even than that, if you can imagine such a thing. And these days, with the way things are, you have to desire facts as you’ve never desired them before. You have to want them more than chocolate. More than sex. More than wealth. More than Beyoncé tickets. Otherwise, you’re at risk of getting swept up in the insane, logic-offending tsunami in which known, provable truths are denied (sometimes labeled “fake”), and provable falsehoods are boldly claimed as facts (or sometimes, “alternative facts”), a house of mirrors in which you're shown photos of two presidential inaugurations and commanded to call the smaller crowd the largest in history.
And that brings me to another point about facts. Those who are sincerely pursuing factual information develop the habit of carefully considering their sources. A person who is a proven, consistent purveyor of falsehoods is never a reliable source of facts. Your cousin Bertram is one of those guys who constantly borrows money, promising to get it back to you tomorrow; he’s never paid you back a dime. Bertram is not a reliable source of factual information. Your know-it-all neighbor Judy who constantly spouts so-called “interesting statistics” that turn out not to be accurate is also not a reliable resource. When your boyfriend Melvin, a known philanderer, insists that “nothing happened” when he shared a motel room for an entire weekend with that slut Francine, you’re a fool if you take that statement as fact.
Thus, if one’s only support for alleged facts is that “the president said it,” and the president is someone who is known for making false statements, you have entered a frightening Escher painting in which facts are proven by virtue of someone who lies calling them facts. A serial liar is not a good source of factual information. And in this case, the president’s tendency to lie is an indisputable fact (The Washington Post maintains an ongoing tally) and not a matter of opinion. (Again, one must love facts more than winning, more than saving face, more than being right.)
The danger in losing our agreement on what it means for something to be true or false is that it threatens things like our entire sense of reality, our very ability to communicate, our understanding of the meanings of words . . . that’s all. Minor stuff.
Insist hard enough that known falsehoods are facts and you might prevail in the debate at hand. But trust the Curmudgeon (who is known to be passionately truthful): It’s not worth the larger cost. If we no longer agree on what makes something a fact—or even on what a fact is—then what’s the point of studying history? Or science? Or math? Is the square root of 649 a matter of opinion? God help us all. What’s the point of sports, if one team can deny the other’s win by saying it never happened? Why buy a house if someone else can move in and claim it’s theirs? You see the dangerous drain we’re circling?
The best contribution you can make to the holy cause of conquering lies and elevating truth is this: Don’t indulge in hyperbole to make a point, never forward or share unvetted articles, statements, or memes (no matter how well they zing the other side), never share doctored photos, admit when you’re wrong, dare to challenge people on your own side when they spread falsehoods. Love facts more than winning, truth more than reputation, accuracy more than a preferred narrative.
Look, I’m exhausted. I can’t make this case any more passionately than I have. Next week, I want to go back to complaining about more pedestrian issues, as I’ve got several that are stuck in my craw. So pull it together, people. I hope we won’t have to have this talk again.
*I have tried—fought like a tiger, really—to steer clear of politics in this column. There are more than plenty of people who cover that area, and the Curmudgeon isn’t an expert on such things. But in discussing topics like truth, decorum, protocol, and logic, it is inevitable that current political figures will arise as perfect examples of what not to do.