The Utility of Facts

Each person’s worldview is not a single fixed thing. It is a tapestry, woven from countless threads, or a photograph made of countless pixels. And each of those tiny, barely-perceptible threads, those ever so faintly-twinkling points of light, is a fact. 

Our understanding of the world is an emergent property of the gigantic ocean of information swimming around in our brains. This is why facts are important. It is also why the answer to false facts is more facts, not fewer. It is why denying people information is cause for such suspicion in us, and why our brains crave it so intensely. In each moment we are building our sense of what the world is anew, and we can construct it only with facts. 

But facts are not merely means to ends, and treating them as such is not only ignorant, but dangerous and self-defeating. 

Unfortunately, much of our politics and social affairs, by their very nature, are most susceptible to treating facts as means. Across the political spectrum, facts are often treated as mere levers for shaping beliefs or justifying action. 

Political parties are the obvious example. Most of us hardly trust the press releases from our own side. We take the facts they choose to emphasize with a grain of salt and the conclusion with a heap. We know the source has a significant vested interest in us coming out with a certain belief, true or not. It’s not a problem that can be solved, only mitigated. 

Of course, none of this is to say we feel facts play no role in our political opinions, discourse or actions. In most minds it’s quite the opposite. We all think facts form the bedrock of our beliefs, even if that is mistaken. But what we all rely on at the end of the day, really, are beliefs.

This is also why conclusion-first reasoning, wherein one goes looking for truths to justify pre-existing beliefs, is so dangerous. It’s a paint-by-numbers approach to learning and discovery that starts with an inherent contradiction as its assumption: I have arrived at the correct picture of the world with whatever limited facts I have, and from here I need only the ones that further justify these conclusions. The other facts are automatically viewed as  inherently flawed, false, or irrelevant. This approach, built as it is from a body of facts, however limited, hides a contradiction at its core, and ultimately a fatal one that must be defended by force. 

So the process by which we come to believe things are facts or falsehoods, is important to understand and evaluate, especially since it’s influenced by beliefs we bring to the table. The mechanisms by which we gather evidence, and decide whether a particular brick of information is load-bearing for our temple of knowledge, are important to understand and revise. 

Broadly, we observe and intuit, learn by experience, or are told things. You watch your brother slap his drunk hand on a hot stove: his scream tells you that it is very hot indeed. You try to climb a waterfall and slip halfway up: that’s a tough but fair way to learn something about your physical limitations, not to mention gravity. Your teacher tells you the sun is the center of the solar system. Simple enough. 

So you gather these facts together in different ways, reconcile them with your existing beliefs, and build new ideas and beliefs about the world from this process. This is induction. You recall that time you fell down a waterfall and infer that a worse fall from your 12th-floor balcony would be fatal. Remembering back to the smell of burnt flesh, you stay well-back from the massive bonfire at your outdoor party. Realizing your teacher taught you some basic astronomy that turned out to be true and helpful, you conclude she is trustworthy on the topic and  ask her about another planet.

Induction isn’t always linear in practice. This process of generalization makes organisms more flexible but also complicates our conversation. The world is far too complicated to reduce facts to perfectly predictable logical chains. But the premise of induction for the average person, to an extent, is also built on those chains being linear and predictable. How to resolve this? 

Well, if an answer or conclusion isn’t adding up (or is incomplete) from the facts you’ve gathered, then there’s something you‘ve failed to account for. There’s a fact you’re missing, one you’ve misunderstood, or one that’s incorrect. Oftentimes this is very simple and easy to understand: you asked your teacher some more questions about astronomy because she helped you before.This time, she gives an answer, but with your own basic research afterward you verify she is mistaken. You make a mental note of this to ensure you verify again next time, and replace the answer she presented to you as a fact with the correct answer. 

This is why more facts are better than fewer. Put another way, facts are additive, not subtractive. Facts never get removed. When they get corrected, it’s more like they got swapped out, like removing a fractured brick from a wall and slotting in a new one. Mistakes are often easy to change out and correct when apparent, and it is less painful to do so when there are no malicious intentions at play.

This is also why lies are such destructive things, particularly in the public sphere, even when they’re incidental or largely innocuous in themselves. Humans incorporate information we encounter into our mental constructs of the world. If we mistrust the source after we realize we have to repeatedly switch out their presented facts with better or truer ones, it builds an image of them as unreliable or even deceitful. 

But if we take what a deceitful person says as truth, we add it to our personal understanding of the world, and some lies become keystones; weight-bearing structures on which other beliefs may be layered. When enough lies build up, our mental construct can be at risk of total collapse if one of the keystones comes out. Most people understand (consciously or not) how shaking such a collapse could be, and this increases our incentive to defend our worldview. We’re always incentivized to defend our worldview, but the more of it is under threat, the greater our incentive to hold our ground. And if we have reason to suspect that there are lies and falsehoods woven throughout our worldview, with the risk that one shattered could send the whole structure crashing down, we’ll get very defensive about it indeed. 

This is why our understanding of the world must constantly be examined and trimmed. If falsehoods and lies, even small ones, build up enough, then they can come to dominate our structures of knowledge, and even small lies can be keystones that compromise the integrity of all that rests on them. But at some point we will realize that our temple of knowledge was built on sand. So we seek to reinforce it, fearing the collapse of our entire worldview and the loss of our ability to understand the world. 

Thus we can find ourselves trapped in self-deception, our natural inclination to try and find the truth turned against us by the biological imperative of self-preservation. And this is the utility of facts. We can build an understanding of the world that not only doesn’t need to be strenuously defended, we can build one that defends and repairs itself, and one that can survive repair. If we know the structure is strong, it is much easier to accede to the replacing of a brick here and there. Over a lifetime, the whole structure might look entirely different. 

When we step back and look at the structure, we may come to certain conclusions: Universal Basic Income is a great idea, for instance. Universal Basic Income is dangerous socialism, is another conclusion we could come to. 

But we run into a terrific danger when we decide ahead of time what our structure should look like, and go looking for facts to build it with. What are we to do if the house of our dreams can only be built with crumbling bricks?

To avoid being trapped in ideological holes, facts must always be our guides, not our destinations. If we reject facts because we fear the conclusions they could lead to, we negate our ability to navigate the world. We cling to the life preserver of ideology, caught in a storm, and leave our fates entirely to chance. And when it comes to an issue as big as land repatriation, or reparations, with so much on the line it’s easier than ever to cling to our beliefs and deny new facts.

Facts aren’t just things that we slide into place to justify high-level ideas. In a very real sense we build our entire world out of them. Our beliefs are the consequence of our facts in aggregate. It is rarely worth sacrificing the material for an entire world in service to one project, however noble or ambitious we perceive it to be, and it is a dangerous sort of ideology that starts with its conclusions and goes looking for its evidence. Treating facts as merely ways to enable policies or justify beliefs is equally dangerous. It’s a reductive, fear-driven idea that we have found perfection in some conclusion, and we must preserve our house against the world. 

It is more worth our while to let a weak house fall and build a strong one in its place, than sacrifice so much to shore up flimsy foundations.

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About the Author: Connor Lynch

Connor is a professional journalist from Ottawa, Canada. He is the Editor in Chief of Speaking Liberally and a contributor.

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