Uncommon Common Sense – February 2017

Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer

Fuzzy Facts?


Bill Frayer 2010“There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts.”

Really? This is what Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes declared recently on The Dine Rehm Show on NPR.  I think I know what she was getting at.  Facts are often spun and viewed differently depending on one’s point of view. But that’s not to say that facts are not real.  

This should not be surprising, coming from a supporter of Donald Trump who often loudly and confidently declares as true whatever pops into his head at the moment, regardless of its basis in fact.  He makes stuff up. He lies. 

Very unfortunately, many people do not seem to care about this. When this man, who many admire for his frank, arrogant, in-your-face belligerence, speaks a lie, many believe it because they want to believe it. Well, if it isn’t technically true, it could be true… and so it goes. People these days increasingly believe what they want to believe.  So where does that leave us? 

A little history might be helpful here. The original meaning, in the seventeenth century, of the word “fact” was a legal term synonymous with an assertion. When a lawyer claimed something in court, it was referred to as a fact. Today, that would never be called a fact.  A claim or an opinion is distinctive from a fact. 

With the emergence of science as a basis for knowledge and progress, the idea of a “fact” has become necessary for the advancement of mankind in terms of science and technology, law, international affairs, and education. 

Children learn the difference between a fact and an opinion in school.  Increasingly, educators at all levels are infusing critical thinking skills into curricula. Students are taught to discriminate between an unproven, unsupported idea and a fact which has been supported with incontrovertible evidence. The distinction is not difficult to understand. 

So what has happened? Why do voters not hold an abject liar accountable for false statements?  Why do people re-post patently false fake news stories on social media?  Why has the fact itself become such a fuzzy concept? 

Perhaps the media is at least somewhat complicit by trying hard to provide “balanced” coverage, giving both sides equal time in an argument, even when one side’s claims are just false.

Perhaps our information environment is just too crowded, with so much information available to consume, much of it contradictory.  Unless people are paying close attention and are willing to check out what’s reliable and what isn’t, it is difficult to sort through the blaze of information.

The reality is, we have become very tribal, and we can consume the news which conforms to our own tribal biases.  As a result, there is little overlap.  We’re not often exposed to good, well-reasoned arguments from those with whom we disagree.  In fact, many probably doubt that good well-reasoned arguments can even be made on behalf of our opponents. 

So, we have the perfect environment for people to be misinformed about the “truth,” yet not even be aware of the fact that they are misinformed. 

The most dangerous example, at the moment, may be climate change.  Preventing environmental catastrophe will obviously be difficult, and may not succeed despite our best efforts.  But if we do not even accept the fact that climate change is occurring, our hope to avoid a dystopian future is dashed. 

To not believe an established fact just because it is uncomfortable or inconvenient is dangerous.  We cannot wish truth away.  Hopefully, we will correct this trend, and soon.  I have been heartened to see the strong pushback Scottie Nell Hughes received for her provocative claim.  Let’s hope Trump and his ilk get equally strong reaction to their lies, misjudgments, and manipulations of the truth.

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