Facts is Facts

I’ve observed over the years that most people don’t quite know the difference between a fact an an opinion. They don’t quite grasp the sometimes-subtle distinction between a fact and a theory. A fact and a meme. A fact and a judgment.

First off, a fact is — by definition — neutral. A fact cannot be mean spirited or rude, nor can it be kind. A fact cannot be racist, nor sexist. A fact cannot be fair, nor can it be unfair. A fact is not influenced by your perceptions, though hopefully the inverse is true. A fact is not truth.

Black people in America, proportionately, commit more violent crime than white people. This is not a racist statement — it cannot be racist; it is a fact. There are hard numbers to back it up, and unlike many statistics, the math is straightforward. If I take that fact and use it as a basis for judging individual blacks about whom I otherwise know nothing, that is racism; but it’s racist theory and opinion — the underlying fact does not change.

If I say a person is ugly (or beautiful), that is an opinion. If I say premeditated murder is illegal, that is a fact. If I say murder is wrong, that is an opinion (albeit a widely held one.)

There are situations wherein one group will claim a fact is a judgment, by claiming that the use of a word is, by definition bad. “Retarded” is a good example — it is a perfectly, factually accurate word to describe the mental state of certain people. The word itself means that something has been held back, or impeded; so “mentally retarded” simply means that in that particular person, normal human mental development has somehow been held back or impeded. It is a factual, neutral term. (To make the point further — anyone can be “mentally challenged”. Einstein was mentally challenged when he came up with relativity.)

You frequently hear statements that purport to be the “truth”. I tend to ignore any such argument. Why? The difficulty there is that “truth” can mean many things — it is a flexible term that can be used to mean just about anything you want it to. Philosophers talk about “truth”. Preachers talk about “truth”. Politicians often talk about “truth”. Many reporters (unfortunately) look for “truth”. “Truth” is what you believe to be true, or what you want to be true. If you look for “truth” you are likely to fall into the trap of coming to a conclusion and then cherry-picking only that which supports the idea. Science looks at facts.

I always liked the bit in the old Dragnet television show where Sgt. Friday wanted “just the facts”. He was good because his thought process wasn’t clouded in his search for “the truth” — he only wanted to talk about facts. Not opinions, not what the person thought about the situation. This point is also stressed in the TV show CSI, in the character Gil Grissom’s mantra, “The evidence never lies”. Witnesses can mislead you with opinions, lies, or simply errors, but the physical evidence is fact. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes puts it:

From a drop of water a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other.”

Logic and facts are a powerful combination. Doyle’s statement is true because, simply put, that drop of water is a fact. If that same hypothetical logician had bad information that he believes to be fact, that same logic could lead him it a completely different place.

There is a place in common discourse for opinions, and judgment, and theory; but if you do not want to be misled, look for that distinction. In news reporting, opinion and theory are frequently reported as news. This is a mistake. “Hard News” reporting should be based on fact, and nothing more. There is room in such outlets for editorial pieces (opinion again), but it must remain distinct. If a politician tells you to believe in something because everybody else already agrees with it, beware. Facts are not dictated by popularity; facts are often decidedly unpopular (just ask Galileo). Besides that, if a politician is trying to convince you that everybody believes something, he wouldn’t be wasting his time unless he knew that a whole lot of people do not believe it — it’s a self-fulfilling falsehood.

Facts are not influenced by belief, nor convenience, nor popularity. They are not warm and fuzzy; they are hard and cold. They are reality — unvarnished, and raw.

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
John Adams
‘Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials’
December 1770

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6 Responses to “Facts is Facts”

  1. Doug H Says:

    Hi, your paraphrase from Adams:
    “facts are often decidedly unpopular (just ask Galileo)” isn’t quite what you think it is.

    Galileo wasn’t put under house arrest because of the facts he presented or books he wrote. He was put under house arrest because he wrote letters to powerful Cardinals and basically called them dunderheads. He was “confined” in what today we would call a mansion or villa, since it’s Italy.

    The Catholic Church, being a huge bureaucracy, is slow to change. Irritating leaders is not a good way to convince them…. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Strider Says:

    Heh. Didn’t realize I was paraphrasing Adams. Still I guess my error is in good company. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    (Unless your referring to the end quote, which does not reference Galileo(?) )

    [Update: Umm… and your Galileo link doesn’t support your statement of why he was arrested..]

  3. L.B. Says:

    I’m a user of your VMB plugin for WordPress and I gave you a donation based on my use your program, which I love. So I must say that I was a bit disappointed when I decided to look at this blog and I discovered this statement:

    “Black people in America, proportionately, commit more violent crime than white people. This is not a racist statement ? it cannot be racist; it is a fact.”

    It’s funny that you put a statement like this in a post discussing the undeniable and infallible nature of facts. Why? Because this statement is a perfect example of the problem that arises when people with certain biases look at facts. Taken out of context, facts are often turned into opinions and then repackaged to others as more fact.

    This statement is based on a small set of facts that have been taken out of context and combined into a non-factual and frankly untrue statement based due to bias. Of course, I’ve heard this statement repeated in other places before, so I’ll give you a some credit and assume that you didn’t come to this false conclusion on your own, but rather you’re merely regurgitating biased statements that you’ve heard before. So let me clear up a few facts for you:

    However, not knowing where you get your facts from, I’m going to assume that they’re based on a couple statistics that I’ve often heard misinterpreted and misused. This is only an educated guess on my part until I know where you got your numbers. Anyway, two often misused facts are: the rate of Blacks and Latinos in the prison system and the rates of violent crime in poor black neighborhoods…. for starters: yes, there are higher numbers of Black and Latino men in America’s prisons than white men. However, the fact is the majority of these men in prison are there for non-violent drug offenses. Therefore, if you based your “factual statement” on a prison rates, then it is flawed.

    Next, the rates of violent crime in poor black neighborhoods: For starters we’re looking at impoverished neighborhoods often ravished by drugs, etc. White neighborhoods in similar conditions have the same rates of violence. If you’re statement is based on proportionality, then you need to realize that proportionally more Black Americans live in impoverished neighborhoods than their white counterparts. However, the majority of Black Americans living in these neighborhoods are not themselves violent. People in these neighborhoods are victims of the violent few who prey on the non-violent majority (as well as each other). Thus the appearance of a higher proportionality.

    Numbers taken out of context are far too easy to misinterpret. So please be careful when making racist statements like the one you made (I’m not calling you racist, I don’t know you, but that statement is certainly racist).

    On a final note, since we’re talking about the rates of violence in America… I find it funny that some people are quick to say “black people in America are more violent, blah, blah, blah” while always choosing to overlook the fact that white people have the highest rates of violence in the history of this country when you include the genocide of native people (perpetrated by this country’s colonizers), hundreds of years of slavery, the violent acquisition of of the land that is now Texas from Mexico, and the civil war.

    Sorry for the long post, but I had to respond to what I read.

  4. L.B. Says:

    One last thing. You say this in your post:

    “Facts are not influenced by belief, nor convenience, nor popularity. They are not warm and fuzzy; they are hard and cold. They are reality ? unvarnished, and raw.”

    However, you are putting too much faith in “facts”. Researchers are humans, and humans all have their own biases. Research is conducted based on a hypothesis and therefore you always need to look at the original hypothesis when looking at facts. The hypothesis will generally determine which questions are asked and which aren’t, so when it comes to social sciences, biases play a bigger role in the results than in other forms of science.

    Therefore the source of the numbers should always receive as much scrutiny as the numbers themselves.

  5. Strider Says:

    LB — I understand your response to the statement. It is jarring. It just… can’t be right. And yet, (and with all due respect), it is a fact. I deliberately used an example that would make most people jump a bit, but for which the fact is readily supported by hard numbers. Most people, looking at that statement, will see it as racist — which is exactly the point I’m making in the post.

    I also very deliberately said “violent crime”, and not simply “crime”. I’m well aware of the absurd number of nonviolent offenders behind bars for such things as smoking dope. I tend to be fairly libertarian in my views — and in recent year have been leaning toward an attitude that we should legalize recreational drugs because the “war” is causing more damage than the drugs every did.

    Here is a good example of where I get my statistics: The U.S. Department of Justice. That page has murder stats, not simply violence, and yet the differences are quite stark. In hard numbers blacks commit more murders than whites. When you look at it proportionate to population, as I did in the post, that levers the numbers even farther. Even if you account for a certain sample bias, that can not account for the breadth of the disparity — blacks, per capita, committed seven times as many murders in 2005.

    [Updated: Taking violent crime rates by race from the Dept of Justice for the year 2000 (this download, see rpt. #40), and the racial makeup of the US from Wikipedia for the same year: blacks are 12.4% of the population, and commit 24.1% of violent crimes; whites are 69.1% of the population, and commit 63.4% of the violent crimes. Per capita, that puts blacks at nearly double the rate of whites.]

    I was expecting a reaction such as yours from somebody. You hate to hear anyone state such numbers — it seems wrong to do so. And yet… it is what it is.

    You said: “Taken out of context, facts are often turned into opinions”. Facts are not altered by context. However, you do have a good point that I should have made, that in considering facts you must regard context as well. Poverty breeds violent crime, as can many other factors. Though that may exculpate the blame a bit, it does not alter the fact as stated.

    One last thing — I certainly do not want this page to turn into some sort of diatribe against blacks. I used the statistic for a specific purpose, and immediately followed it up with a statement of how making judgments based on such facts can lead to racism.


  6. xandra Says:

    Yep, facts are facts. In fact I think they are not something you can discus over. I know my name and that’s not a thing you can question. That the gras has the colour green is something we
    agreed upon. (a bit different)
    We can talk about almost everything but facts are not something I get into an argument about.
    BTW, i enjoyed reading this!

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