No One is Entitled to Their Own Facts

The title is a paraphrase of a quote from a deceased Democratic Senator, Patrick Moynihan:

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”


You can interpret this a few ways, but the most likely to be true (but not the ONLY way that could be) is that there is a correct answer to every question and choosing to believe the wrong one due to faulty logic or disreputable sources is not something you are entitled to.

Surely, in America we ARE entitled to believe what we wish. How could we possibly PREVENT it! I take the quote to mean that if someone uses faulty logic and unreliable sources that their view is not equally valid and that arguments based on premises backed by these two methods of information gathering are consequently also going to be less valid. This is the premise of the entire field of logical reasoning.

If we choose to ABANDON logic as the method used to construct a world view, so be it. Say so and inform those arguing with us that it is not a restriction you feel encumbered by.

The word “Fact” is a troublesome word. (So MUCH sloppy debate is a result of a failure to DEFINE words one uses. More on that later) A fact might be defined as an observation that no one is able to deny and therefore a terribly useful thing upon which to base evidence and debate. The trouble arises when we cannot agree on the means by which one ascertains what constitutes a fact.

FACT: “Up is the direction away from the earth.”

Fair enough, but with adequate precision made available, that direction is different for every person on the planet unless they are on separate floors of the same building, aligned just so.

If they are equidistant from the moon and the Earth, which way is “Up”? If you point in opposite directions with two fingers, you’d be arguably correct.

Some facts are conditional and some facts are agreed upon incorrectly. I may point up and you’ll agree that I am correct without trifling over the likelihood that the ground I’m standing on has not tilted my body in such a way as to exactly match what your trajectory would be. As unimportant as this difference is, you are wrong to agree that I am pointing up without this caveat.

This specificity illustrates a point. You have to consider the SOURCE. I told you which direction was “Up.” It matched your own opinion closely enough because our circumstances were similar. You felt confident you could trust my “fact”.

Still, you were wrong. As certain as you were, you were wrong by the tiniest bit. By an inconsequential amount. I bring this up because “facts” more complicated than the direction of “up” are commonly more difficult to confirm. Circumstances will be far tougher to identify than seeing whether the person is close enough to you and the person’s angle of their arm is adequately parallel to their body to satisfy you.

If a person on a roof points at you on the ground and says your direction is “up”, you will want some more information before trusting this person’s “facts”.

1)  Are they pretending to believe something they really don’t?

2) Are they using a different definition of the word “up” than the one you’re used to?

3) Is he a bit eccentric and he was referring to the point of view of someone on a continent  not quite on the opposite end of the earth?

4) Are they a lunatic?

Depending on the answers to these questions which are NOT exhaustive, the person is exactly right, dead wrong, trying to deceive you, or incompatible in his communication with you. We might begin our investigation with the insightful question, “Huh????”

Is this man entitled to his own “facts”? Certainly. We can’t stop him. One issue is the definition of the word “Up”. Another is the precision of the answer we will find adequate. Finally, is our meaning of “up” the objective definition “away from the ground no matter where you may be at the time.” or the subjective one that instead includes, “where we are standing right at this moment, more or less.”

I’ve spent this whole essay attempting to convince you that the very word “fact” is not as rock solid as we like to think and we should be careful how quickly we attribute this word to any notion we have in our head without evidence that the concerned parties agree upon. (We won’t go into the definition of ‘evidence’ right now for the sake of maintaining reader interest, but make note that defining terms can be important very early on in an argument.)

Suffice it to say, when we say we’re not entitled to our own facts, I would generally agree with Senator Moynihan, but I might caution people that there are far fewer of these elusive, useful notions than we wish and those notions we honor with the label of “fact” may be undeserving. “Facts” may be merely notions that have abundant evidence that will be convincing to ALMOST everybody. Some will be notions that have sufficient evidence to convince anyone with an open mind. Still others will be ideas with more evidence in their favor than refuting them. Still others may be notions you lack the information necessary to realize they are wrong. And finally, there are those unfortunate moments when your facts are exactly wrong because of incorrect information you’ve gathered. Some of which you will choose to abandon and others you will keep hold of through desire or faith in evidence you cannot (yet?) demonstrate.

When we discuss important matters with others: what “facts” are they basing their arguments upon? Can we convince them with “facts” of our own? Will we allow ourselves to be convinced by “facts” that contradict ours?

Much public debate is unproductive for want of determining the answers to these questions beforehand.

NEXT:  Consider the Source


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