Critical Thinking about Facts

From: L. Michael Hall
2021 Neurons #70
October 25, 2021


After writing about Media Ethics (#69) last week and writing about “facts,” I decided that I would do some critical thinking about facts. As I got into the process, I discovered that it is a lot harder than I suspected. Like most people, I start from the false premise that a fact is empirical data. Even the dictionary makes this confusion: “Fact: Information presented as objectively real; something having real, demonstratable existence; a thing that has been done.” From Latin facere “to do.”

Now facts are funny things. Not funny as in “ha ha” or in laughing out-loud, but funny in a strange, weird, and amazing way. They are funny in that we think of them as so real and solid, yet that is just not the case. Thinking critically about facts, in fact, takes us into a realm where there is a lot of room for wonderment and curiosity.

Facts are funny in that we think of them as so solid, staid, and real but when it comes to a fact— you cannot see, hear, feel, smell, or taste a fact. Try it if you like. What does a fact look like, sound like, smell like? Strange enough, the word fact does not refer to anything empirical even though that’s precisely how we think we are using the word! Here’s the first funny fact about a fact, a fact is a category or classification. It is into that category that we put certain statements that we consider facts. This means a fact is a statement that makes some assertion.
It is a fact that there are three birds in the yard. Observational fact, sensory-based
It is a fact that there are 24 hours in a day. Definition fact, fact by social agreement
It is a fact that there are 12 inches in a foot. Definition fact
It is a fact that my name is Michael. Personal and social fact.

Now because facts are products of our semantic constructions (the categories that we invent), they are fallible human products and they can suffer from every sort of illusion (visual, auditory, etc.). The next funny thing about facts is that they are dependent on context.
It’s a fact that roses are red. This fact is dependent on light, eyes, and language.
That chair is made of wood. Depends on what person means by wood.
That car is going too fast. Depends on speed limit, conditions, etc.

Facts that occur in a first level category about empirical, public, and testable. “Red” as a socially shared concept can be tested by looking and seeing if the color matches what is generally considered red. The statement, “I worked out for one hour at the gym” can be tested by checking with the gym or workout partners. There are facts that are inherent in the definition of the concept. “There are 60 minutes in an hour.” Mathematical facts are inherent to the definition. So also, “A circle is round.”

Facts as statements assert things. Some facts assert that something exists, “There is a dog.” Some facts assert that there is a process, “They are running a race.” Some assert causation, “His angry thoughts is making his face red.” Some causation ‘facts’ are false facts, “She makes me angry.” [That’s mind-reading, a Meta-Model violation and cognitive distortion.]

Some facts assert a conclusion from a field of study. “The experience of phobia involves imagining being inside a fearful experience.” That psychological fact is not empirical or public and it cannot be directly tested. It is a fact that someone concluded from a lot of other facts, “each person who demonstrated a phobia reported thinking about the frightful experience as if being inside it and not outside observing.” Secondary ‘facts’ are conclusions drawn from first level ‘facts.’

When we generate conclusion facts, we are dealing with second level constructs (or third, fourth, etc.). This is the case with all facts in every field (psychology, economics, sociology, etc.). These constructed statements as conclusions from facts are the next level of facts, meta-facts and further removed from reality. Freud started with id, ego, and superego as facts about the person. Adler invented other facts— the individualist drive, the social drive, importance of first memories, Maslow started with the fact of deficiency needs and abundance needs. And so it goes.

This past week President Biden at a townhall meeting made some statements as if they were facts. 1) “I’ve been to the border; 2) I know all about it.” 3) “I haven’t had a hell of a lot of time to go there.” Doing some fact checking, it turns out that he has never been to the border, not as President, not as Vice-President, not as Senator. So that is factually incorrect. The second statement is an over-generalization (“I know all about it”) — that is a belief, not a fact. And the third one is an excuse, he left the townhall and went to Delaware for another holiday! He has the time, he just does not want to go there.

Ah, facts! Because they are not as simple as we assume, they require critical thinking to handle them properly. In past weeks Biden has claimed that the new 3.5 trillion dollar bill in congress will cost nothing, “zero.” Strange. Then why are the democrats of his own party fighting and negotiating about the cost? Ah yes, it’s probably not a fact at all, just a manipulative selling point.