Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Do Facts Exist?

For most of my life I have believed in fact, or facts. For example I know it is a fact that I cannot walk on water as I have tried and failed. I believe when I have a flat tire the tire is, in fact, flat and no amount of thinking or wishing will make it unflat. My recent observations of human behavior, however, especially in the realm of political behavior, are leading me to question the reality of facts. Perhaps my belief in facts has been naïve, maybe even mistaken. I say this because I find such broad disagreement over facts these days, especially among politicians, newspersons, and even scientists. There are, of course different ways to look at this problem.

I have been led to think about this at this particular moment because I witnessed an argument between Rachel Maddow and Republican Consultant Alex Castellanos over the question of equal pay for women. Rachel reported that women in general make only .77 cents to the dollar for the same work that men do. Castellanos said that was not true, implying that it was not a fact. He offered a rather questionable interpretation of his own as to why such a difference existed, but he did not actually demonstrate it was not a fact, nor did he demonstrate that his alternative interpretation was a fact. In my simple mind it would seem to me that either it is a fact, or it is not a fact. So, did Castellano demonstrate it was not a fact or not? He could have believed it was not a fact. He could have believed it was a fact but for a different reason. He could have thought it was a fact but chose to suggest it was not for reasons of his own. He may have just not wanted to believe Rachel Maddow. He could have simply not believed in facts. Are facts subject to interpretation?  I have heard many people recite the .77 cent figure. I still do not know if it is a fact or not, but I tend to assume that it is.

I have also heard many Republicans argue that corporations and businesses pay the highest tax rate in the world. This would seem to be demonstrably untrue and indicate that it is not a fact. Do they believe it is not a fact, or do they merely choose to ignore the truth for political purposes? And if that is the case is it, functionally, not a fact? Must you believe something is a fact to make it so? Conversely, if you don’t believe it is a fact is it still a fact? You might think that demonstrating that corporations do not pay higher taxes than anyone else should be a simple matter of fact. It does not seem to be, could it be the case that it is impossible to determine whether something is a fact or not? Are determinations of fact beyond the capacity of humans?

If it is difficult to decide whether pay for women is less than for men, or whether corporations pay more taxes than in any other country, answers that ought to be easy, what about more complicated issues, especially issues that are of much more urgency and importance? Many claim that Social Security, for example, will be bankrupt before long because there will not be enough workers to support the increasing masses of retired people. Others claim this is simply not so, Social Security is solvent for quite a time and can be easily fixed to stay that way basically forever. What are the facts? Whatever they are they seem to be determined more by what one wants to believe than by any objective reality, objective reality supposedly being a measure of factualness. To be considered factual something has to have the quality of being actual, it has to have actual existence or be an actual occurrence, something that is not false and is known to be correct or precise. So, what’s with Social Security? Is it correct or precise to argue it is going to fail, or is it going to survive and continue to be solvent? What are the facts? Who says so? Do you believe it? Determining the facts is apparently not as easy as it seems.

Where the facts become absolutely necessary and crucial would seem to be in the question of global warming. It seems that some 97% of the world’s scientists agree that global warming is real, and most also believe human behavior has something to do with the causes of the warming. But little or nothing is being done to confront this potentially disastrous situation. The scientific facts are clear enough, but there are still people, including many in Congress, who deny them, and as a result little or no action is possible. Now if you cannot believe in scientific facts it would seem obvious you do not believe in facts at all. Does this mean there are no facts, that facts simply do not exist? Or does it mean facts are irrelevant? Or does it mean, perhaps, that facts might exist but they do not exist in science? It is said there are many people in America, including members of Congress, that do not believe in science. Presumably, if they do not believe in science they must not believe in facts. In the case of global warming, if they do not believe in facts, scientific or otherwise, they may eventually get us all killed. Do these deniers truly not believe in facts, or do they deliberately deny them for political or other reasons? Do they believe their tires are not flat? Are facts not facts if you choose not to believe them? Do they believe in some facts but not those having to do with global warming? Can they be forced to believe in facts? In a potentially disastrous situation like global warming should they be forced to face the facts? Should they just be ignored? Do facts that can be agreed upon actually exist or are they merely delusions made up for convenient purposes and you can believe them or not according to your personal inclinations? In spite of this potential confusion, I, for one, still believe in facts, and that’s a fact.

Facts are stupid things.

Ronald Reagan

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a truly mind-bending post!

Perhaps if the Bible doesn't mention it specifically, it cannot be a fact. According to some people, the guys that wrote the book had all their facts right, and we don't dare think otherwise.

Well, I don't believe in that book, and that's a fact.

Keep on writing the great posts.