Deepening Critical Thinking about Facts #2

From: L. Michael Hall

2021 Neurons #71

November 1, 2021

Fates #2




“Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”

Jack Webb’s Joe Friday of Dragnet


I noted in the last Neurons (#70) that we talk about facts as if they were things and objects, as if they were empirical and sensory-based.  We talk about facts as if a fact will bring a controversy to an end..  “Now here are the facts; case closed.”  But unfortunately, things are just not that simple or cut-and-dried.


On first glance, it seems that facts are … well, factual— real, sensory-based and therefore uncontroversial.  While facts seem like a solid things, they are not.  Can you see a fact?  What does a fact look like?  Things are just not that simple.  What we call “facts” are our concepts about things and not the things themselves.  The word “fact” itself is not empirical.  The word fact is a nominalization and a category.  It refers to a category of things that normally we would consider sensory-based of something actually done.  Yet sensory-based facts are, at best, facts at a macro-level.  At worse, sensory-based facts may be illusions altogether.  When you put a stick in water, you will see it as if it were bent and not straight.  But it is not bent.  It only appears that way to your eyes.


Kinds of facts: One fact about a fact (a meta-fact) is that there are many kinds of facts.

1) Empirical facts: A statement that refers to see, hear, feel, referents.  It can refer to macro-level referents, micro-level, or even sub-atomic level referents.

2) Phenomenological / Psychological facts: Statements about an internal experience that you have, your state— joy or depression, calmness or anxiety, resilience or failure, etc.

3) Definition facts: Statements that are facts by definition.

4) Cultural facts: Statements about how a group of people have given meaning or value to something which is now a ‘fact’ in their social life.

5) Conclusion facts: Statements that we make as conclusions from other facts.

6) Interpersonal facts: Statements about relationships, what characterizes them, how people are interacting.

7) Statistical facts: Statements concluded from analysis of data and formulated into statistical percentages.


When it comes to a fact, the data upon which we construct a fact does not speak for itself.  The data, and then the fact, become meaningful via interpretation and we create interpretations based on a number of things— context, criteria, theory, level, and kind.  Facts, are statements that assert something.


Levels of facts:  As we use the same word “fact,” we can use the word, reflexively, on itself.  We can have facts about facts.  At each level, the word refers to and means something different.  Ah yes, it is a multi-ordinal term.  That means the same term refers to different things at different levels.  So we have to ask, “at what level are you using the term?”  Consequently, we now have meta-facts.


Meta-level facts are facts that arise from particular kinds of information processing.  Under this category we have mathematical facts, statistical facts, heuristic facts, inferential facts, etc.  None of these facts occur at the primary level.  To reach these facts, you have to “go meta” and access a higher level meta-state.   In fact, within each and every field of study we have different kinds of facts— psychological facts, sociological facts, economic facts, etc.  We can even have pseudo-facts— a fact that is a false fact.


Finally, when we have a so-called “fact” as a statement that asserts something about reality, we can then distinguish it as — true or false; valid or invalid; confirmed, disconfirmed, or unconfirmable; real or pseudo; congruent or incongruent; conditional or unconditional; perceived or reasoned; limited or comprehensive, objective or subjective, etc.


“Facts” in the Media

We naturally look to the media (newspapers, magazines, TV, cable, social media) for data— information about what’s happening, who did what, who said what, etc.  Yet in searching out data and presenting it to us, the media has its own interests and agendas.  The media inevitably spins and frames the data, serving it up as facts, when that is seldom the case.


It is only weeks or months later that we read about corrections and retractions— usually in the back pages of the newspaper.  An appearance of a fact was taken, a conclusion was jumped to, a bias was exploited, and then an agenda was manipulated for the reading or viewing public.  It happens every single day.


And our only defense against it is an understanding of how to think and listen and reason when people purport to offer us facts.  So when someone offers you a so-called “fact,” that is time to be suspicious, to use the power of skepticism and to do some healthy critical thinking.  It’s time to get out the Meta-Model and challenge the so-called facts.