There Are No Facts, Only Uncertainty
I’m going to go out on a limb here for a moment, inspired by a wonderful conversation that took place yesterday between two of my favorite Trump supporters and a young graduate student in biochemistry, for whom I have huge respect. They were responding to a provocative post I had made on Facebook about Trump supporters and tear-gassing children. It was a wonderful, heartfelt conversation across a vast distance in perspective. One particular underlying point of contention arose: how do we trust what we are being told?
Now, I tend to be pretty strict in this department. I define “believe,” in all its derivative forms, to mean, “accepting an assertion as true without any corroborating evidence”. I very rarely use the word. I also don’t see “true” and “false” as binary, but rather as a spectrum from “100% likely true” to “100% likely false”. Most statements fall somewhere between these two.
With this said, I’m going to go out on the skinny branches and say that there are no such things as “facts” as we usually use the word. No, I haven’t fallen in love with Kellyanne Conway or Rudi Giuliani… Bear with me.
What we think of as a fact, I would assert, is a combination of an event, an object, a piece of evidence of some kind, and a perspective.
The first lines of the oldest philosophical text known to the human species, the Tao Te Ching, scratched in a turtle shell, translated read, “The thing that can be spoken of is not the thing itself.” That is, when we put an experience, an observation, an idea into words, what we express is inevitably less than the whole of that experience, observation or idea. There is always something left out. The key to understanding perspective, or “camera angle,” another metaphor for the same notion, lies in what is included and what is left out. Of course, the other key is who is holding the camera?
Having gotten this far, let’s deal with “opinion”. Opinion is essentially conclusions drawn from or supported by evidence seen through a certain perspective. This is where who is holding the camera becomes critical. Evidence seen through the perspective of a certain opinion is going to draw or support the conclusion of that opinion. It’s all in what is left out. Opinion driven perspective leaves out anything that challenges or contradicts that opinion or conclusion. It becomes circular and self-confirming.
For about 5 years, I mostly taught computer applications, career planning, and internet usage to 9th graders. It’s true, you can find anything on the internet. Even with the filters schools use. What I taught, however, was how to “vet” information, how to determine whether it was reliable and verifiable as mostly true, and what its weaknesses or defects were. Two principals here: who is saying it and who is paying for it to go on the internet, on the one hand, and how many people from different perspectives agree on the other. That “different perspectives” is an essential part.
This works pretty well for researching STD’s or biographies of dead people. But what about the stuff that really matters? How do we know what is true or not about the nature of our world? Ok, now the branches are so skinny that the squirrels are nervous. I am going to suggest that ultimately, we can’t know, that we operate on trust, a complex surrender of disbelief based on the information our senses receive, including verbal information, filtered through the stories we tell ourselves about our reality.
Those stories we tell ourselves about the nature of our reality are called our narrative, and our narrative consists of everything we have experienced up until that point in time, and how we explain, organize and remember it in our minds. Personal narratives depend heavily on childhood and young adult experiences, our social circles and the stories and opinions we talk about. They are also shaped by trauma, as war veterans and the children of war veterans often learn.
People who study the human mind have long demonstrated that personal narratives are extraordinarily powerful shapers of our experience. The mind tends to exclude information that does not fit with what is already there. As teachers we learned that for a student to remember something, they needed to be able to connect it with something they already knew. Otherwise, they would rapidly forget it.
What is even more interesting is that our mind will fill in gaps in the information we receive through our senses with what our experience says should be there. A great example of this is a dead tree by the side of the road at night. My eyes at first see a deer, or at least my brain fills in the rest of the deer from the clues of the sticks. Then, when I get closer, it becomes apparent they are just sticks. This all happens in a second or two.
To summarize for a moment, between our minds and an object, event, or whatever, there are at least two levels of uncertainty: one, the camera angle or perspective of the observation (what is left out), and two, our personal narrative filter (which either leaves out information that does not fit in with one’s narrative or fills in the missing information from past experience).
Now let’s throw in another level of uncertainty: the media. By the media, I mean any conduit of the information we are exposed to. This could be television, radio, the myriad of web publishers, friends, family, stuff we overheard on the bus. All of these become sources of perspective, filters that leave certain things out and fill in other things from the dominant narratives of their viewpoint.
One of my favorite examples of this is the video of the “excited crowd of Iraqis pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein” during G.W. Bush’s Iraq war. A few days after it played on all the main stream media channels, other pictures surfaced from a farther distance showing the crowd was much smaller, had been arranged to look like part of a much larger crowd, and they had help from an Army tank recovery vehicle. Perspective…
All of which explains why good, honest, well-meaning people, observing the same events, or at least reading, hearing, listening to reports of the same events from different sources can come to totally opposite conclusions.
From here, the discussion branches into two directions: One, then how can we determine what is real and what is not real? And two, he (or she) who controls the narrative controls reality. Let’s deal with the second one first.
“Out there” political pundit Caitlin Johnstone is sometimes dead nuts on, and sometimes off her rocker. “Crazy wisdom” as Scoop Nisker would say. About narrative, she’s dead nuts on: “Whoever controls the narrative controls the world.” Key quote:
Mainstream American liberals think they’re clear-eyed because they can see the propaganda strings being pulled by Fox and Donald Trump, and mainstream American conservatives think they’re clear-eyed because they can see the propaganda strings being pulled by MSNBC and the Democrats, but the propaganda strings on both trace back to the same puppet master. (https://medium.com/@caityjohnstone/society-is-made-of-narrative-realizing-this-is-awakening-from-the-matrix-787c7e2539ae)
I heartily recommend the entire article. If this were a course, I would assign it. Spoiler: the puppet master in Johnstone’s terms is the oligarchy of extremely wealthy individuals that control and benefit from the world economy. Johnstone’s key point is not to be glossed over: both left and right are being manipulated by the same forces for the same reasons.
Parenthetically, when I was a lot younger and lived in ultra-liberal Berkeley, newspaper boxes were often vandalized with spray paint saying, “Government Lies!” Ironically, now it’s the Trump right that is saying the mainstream media is “Fake News”.
So, how can we determine what is real and what is not real? Short answer: we can’t. Not with absolute certainty, which can be really uncomfortable for people who have been raised with the idea that beliefs give you the comfort of certainty. Living with the assumption that certainty is impossible gets easier after a while and helps us recognize that anyone selling certainty is selling snake oil. There are steps we can take that make sense, steps similar to the ones I taught my students:
First, explore the same event from multiple perspectives. Remember, perspective leaves things out. Look for what is left out, what one source of information includes, but not another. Look for obvious holes that nobody is talking about. The primary purpose of the mainstream media, almost any media, is to enrich their investors. Anything that threatens or casts investors in a bad light will be left out. If something is obviously missing, dig it out and figure out why.
Second, expand scope, scale, time frame and context. Scope, both in terms of geography and in terms of the people (animals, plants, etc.) involved determines perspective. Scale, like scope, determines perspective for issues like racism that has individual, institutional and cultural manifestations. Time frame is critical to understanding the outcome of events. Police shootings, for example, are generally adjudicated using a very narrow time scale, beginning when the officer felt threatened. Expanding the time scale to the entire contact with the victim, or the victim’s history with police can produce very different understandings.
Similarly, context, the combination of expanded scope, scale and time frame changes perspective. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and its aftermath, provide an excellent example. From the Grand Jury’s perspective (I read all the testimony and the report), Brown’s death was the result of his own actions threatening Officer Darren Wilson. The context, however, was the City of Ferguson funding the city budget for its predominantly white administration, staff and police department through extracting exorbitant fines from its overwhelmingly black citizenry, for petty infractions, like jay- walking, which was the probable cause for Wilson’s stop of Brown. Citizens who couldn’t pay a $400 jay-walking ticket were jailed, lost their jobs and sometimes their homes. Makes Brown’s rage, and that of the people of Ferguson, more understandable.
Third, consider who gains from viewing an event through a certain perspective. This is Deep Throat’s admonition: “Follow the money.” Gain doesn’t have to be money. Gain can be gathering followers, clicks and attention, or it can be undermining a challenging perspective. Gain can also be empowerment for a group or category of people, if the perspective allows them to understand their reality better or how to change or improve it. Gain doesn’t have to be totally negative, but it is always there.
Fourth, research deeply. This takes time and energy, but once you are up to speed on something, staying current becomes easier.
Fifth, make and test hypotheses, the old scientific method. Hypotheses may be on the level of how something is reported, or on the level of what happens next. You can be more confident in your understanding of reality if your hypotheses turn out to be correct later.
Sixth, and this may seem incongruous, but look for humor and irony. I realized a long time ago that truth is served by laughter. Laughter can also be disarming, breaking through our narrative filters to give us new perspective or understanding.
Finally, an observation: Scholarly research is honored because it is built on the knowledge previously uncovered, and is vetted by other researchers in the field. As Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions points out, this can be a problem when some new finding comes along that calls scientific orthodoxy into question. But if those findings can be replicated and result in predictions that turn out to be correct, eventually the scientific community comes to accept the new “reality”.
So, my advice: Stay uncertain. Stay open to new perspectives. Question yourself at least as hard as you challenge anyone else. Become aware of your personal narrative, the stories you tell yourself about the nature of your reality, and try to see how your narrative filters the information you receive. And above all, be gentle with yourself and all those around you, for the times are hard enough without us being hard on ourselves or each other.
As the monks would say, take what of this is useful and leave the rest.