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Four Things that Look Like "Facts" But Aren't

by Michael Austin, published
You are to be in all things regulated and governed . . . by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact.—Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times

Facts have always had a lot rhetorical power. Unlike, say, opinions or value judgments, facts can be established with absolute certainty. We can look them up. And if somebody gets a fact wrong, we can humiliate them in front of people. But here’s the problem: we like facts better than we understand them. We like the rhetorical power of labeling something a fact more than we like the rhetorical hard work of separating claims of fact from other kinds of claims that kind of look like facts but aren't.

Here are a few examples:

Definitions are not facts:

Several months ago, I wrote a column about Egypt arguing that “democracy” could mean several different things, some of which applied to America (and Egypt) and some of which did not. One of the first comments I received on that article went like this: “Neither of those is a factual definition of Democracy. Democracy is majority rule, plain and simple. Whatever the methods and processes might be to implement the will of the majority, that essential fact remains.”

This is a textbook example of asserting a definition as a fact. In classical rhetorical theory, there are four kinds of claims that one can make: claims of fact, claims of value, claims of policy, and claims of definition. Each one has to be supported in different ways. And it is rarely as easy as looking in the dictionary, since 1) dictionaries specialize in acontextual definitions while most political discussions require definitions in context; and 2) most dictionaries have a lot of different definitions for words like “democracy.”

Adjectives are not facts:

This is a hard one for most people to accept, but it follows from the logic that is encoded in the way that we use language. Adjectives are descriptive terms, and description is almost always perspectival. Sometimes, the descriptor is so common that it approaches a fact (ie, most of us could agree that a car is “red,” though I have had arguments about different shades). Other times, the adjective tacitly assumed a point of reference (“the tall girl” usually means “tall for a girl her age” rather than “tall for an NBA center”).

A lot of the time, though, asserting adjectives as facts is just a way to import insults into arguments: “Obamacare is disastrous,” “Republicans are heartless,” “Iran is evil.” Statements like this use a loophole in English grammar (that predicate nominatives and predicate adjectives use the same sentence structure) to assert an opinion as a fact.

Predictions are not facts:

Over the past few years, the two most common “facts” that I have heard about the Affordable Care Act have been (from the left) that it will help millions of uninsured people get health insurance; and (from the right) that it will destroy our health care system. No matter how many facts one brings up to support these predictions, they are not, in themselves, facts. The category of fact simply cannot apply to something in the future, since we can never predict the future with the level of certainty required to make something a fact.

The narratives that we build around facts to make them meaningful are not facts:

With a little bit of work, we can usually get people to agree that the price of gas is X, or the number of unemployed people in America is Y. But those figures don’t prove much by themselves. Facts become meaningful when we situate them in a narrative that includes things like sequence, motivation, and, above all, causation. “Gas prices are high because Obama wants to cut corporate profits by eliminating offshore drilling options.” Now there’s a narrative to conjure with.

We all do this, of course. Human beings are designed to tell stories, not to memorize lists of facts. But we have to be very careful not to confuse the narrative that we create around the facts with the facts themselves. We are extremely good narrative builders—and most of us can incorporate the exact same set of facts into radically different political narratives and then convince ourselves that our particular narrative is the only one based on “the facts.”

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