Facts Won’t Speak For Themselves
This the sixth post in a series on the pandemic and its impact on progress and problem solving. In the last post, we looked at uncertainty in science.
Which ‘Science’ Do You Believe?
The pandemic is killing the myth of The Science. But are we ready to embrace an uncertain reality?
The gruesome toll should make the pandemic undeniably salient, undeniably factual. But the denials mount as fast as the casualties. In his latest of many statements downplaying the pandemic, Trump declared that 99% of COVID-19 cases are harmless.
You may think this a lamentable reflection on human nature (and you’d be right). But it’s also a comment on the nature of facts. I don’t want to dwell on misguided people behaving badly. I want to explore how reasonable people misrepresent facts and how this tendency leads to an impasse of the worst kind.
Here’s the cruel irony: Denialists succeed by treating facts just like facts should be treated. They argue facts as explanations. Granted, their explanations may be deplorable. But let’s focus on their methods, not the madness.
Uncertainty provides an ever-present vulnerability to attack. Yes, there are deaths. But how do you count the dead? Do we include old people who were already perilously close to death? How about indirect casualties, those who avoided hospital care out of fear for the virus, or those impacted by the economic or mental hardships? And if a person dies from pneumonia or a heart attack, who’s to say this is attributable to the coronavirus? And how can we even trust the numbers we’re getting?
Fomenting confusion about the pandemic’s victims is unconscionable. And sadly, it works. Despite a massive spike of excess deaths over the course of the pandemic, with tens of thousands more deaths than encapsulated in the official counts, a majority of Republicans believe the official death counts are exaggerated.
We can’t beat denialists with bare facts. We need to argue the facts. We need to beat bad explanations with good explanations.
In one of his characteristically concise tweets, Eric Topol demonstrated how the explication of facts can move us closer to the truth. He highlighted how the official death counts significantly undercount the true number of deaths. (When excess mortality data is incorporated in the analysis, 100,000 deaths becomes approximately 130,000.) A life lost can be expressed as the number of years of life lost (one death extinguishes approximately 11-years of life when the age of the victims are considered). And many of the survivors will face long-term impacts such as lung scarring, stroke, embolisms, blood clotting, heart damage, and neurological and mental impacts.
And just like that, the grim reality of this pandemic is recovered.
Too frequently, facts become a hill to die on, a foundation that needs no further explanation. “We need to let the facts speak for themselves,” the factists proclaim. Or worse, “The facts are not up for discussion!”
How did facts become such a conversation killer? A short (and liberally edited) history is illuminating.
The word fact comes from the Latin factum, to ‘do’ or ‘act’. It was initially conceived in a legal context. Human events were considered a “matter of fact.” As such facts could be true or false. But science narrowed the meaning of facts considerably. Facts became associated with reality and evidence. The Royal Society was founded in 1660 with the motto, Nullius in verba, “take nobody’s word for it.” According to David Wootton, it signaled their resistance to traditional authorities, the kings and churches. Henceforth, science would concern itself with “facts not explanations.”
Science certainly displaced the old authorities. But it inadvertently created a new authority of facts and observations. This is the common sense meaning of facts that most of us carry, facts as objective and authoritative chunks of reality.
Unfortunately, this view of facts turned out to be unjustifiable. The great 18th-century philosopher David Hume was the first to succinctly formulate the problem and it remains unsolved to this day. How can we justify our belief in something unobserved based on something observed? Facts may cause us to believe something is true, but they can’t provide a logical justification for those beliefs.
Most people are deeply uncomfortable with the suggestion that facts lack such justification. The realization is often intoned with despair. It has even driven some forlorn factists to deny the objectivity of reality itself.
But none of this is a barrier to truth and objectivity. Facts, like any other explanation, may be criticized. Objectivity is found through argument, as people compare their subjective assessments of fact statements.
By the 20th century, it was generally understood that all our facts and observations depend on our explanations. Facts are statements about reality. These statements may broaden to envelope entire theories, even laws of nature itself, such as the fact that the earth orbits the sun or the fact of evolution. Facts are inextricably connected to their explanations.
While the philosophy of facts has evolved considerably over time, most people continue to misapply facts as authoritative chunks of reality. They contend that facts are self-evident, needing no further explanation. In turn, we attribute malice to those that are merely ignorant of the underlying explanations.
Consider this tragic testimonial from a Trump supporter:
“We had a friend who died from Covid, and his son was on a ventilator, he almost died. So we know it’s real, but then at the same time you don’t know what the facts are, you feel like maybe one side plays it one way and the other side plays it another.”
This person is clearly standing on the wrong side of the evidence. But on one level he’s right: There is an objective reality, but facts won’t speak for themselves. They need reasonable people to explain them.
The alternative is unthinkable. When we retreat to our respective authorities, even our authoritative facts, we reach an impasse. Without explanation and argument, there’s no where else to go. All that remains is violence.
We’ll look at the end of silence in the next post.
From The Explainable Startup, exploring the science and philosophy of problem solving.