Facts and Truth

There seems to be considerable confusion in our day about the whole notion of facts and truth, and how anybody can tell what they are, and why exactly they matter. In the last of this month’s reflections on our heritage, I want to note that part of what we’ve inherited in the church is a commitment to seeking and telling the truth, and it’s essential that we maintain that commitment now and pass it on to future generations.

We hear redundancies like “true facts,” as if there could be any other kind. By definition, if something is a fact, it’s true; and if a claim is not true, it’s not a fact. “False facts” is an oxymoron. This matters because the very suggestion that there could be “false facts” muddles our thinking.

And what about the newly invoked notion of “alternative facts”? If it simply means that we need to consider other facts in addition to those already presented, fine. We do that all the time, whenever we care about understanding complicated issues, or when we have to decide something where different facts favor different choices. But if “alternative facts” means that we just make things up because we’d rather believe them than what’s actually true, then we’ve gone down a rabbit hole where the idea of truth itself begins to evaporate in a fog of mental confusion.

“That’s true for you but not for me” is another line that can be a seedpod of misconceptions. Some truth claims are relative; e.g., “I’m from Pennsylvania” is true for me but may not be true for you. Preferences are like that too: “The Steelers are my favorite football team” is true for me but not for Ravens fans. But the fact that some truth claims are relative does not imply that all truth claims are relative. “Two plus two equals four” is true for everyone. “The United States is bordered by Mexico to the south and Canada to the north” is just a fact, and there are a myriad of such facts that are simply true, given the way we use our language.
All of this is obvious enough, but we hear a great deal of loose talk and muddled thinking these days, especially when people have an interest at stake. Psychologists are rapidly cataloging forms of confusion when people engage in “motivated reasoning”—i.e., when they want the truth to be one thing rather than something else. “Confirmation bias,” for example, lets in evidence to confirm what we want to believe and filters out countervailing facts. Partisans of all kinds, on the average, tend to ascribe more virtue to their own tribe and more faults to opposing tribes than vice versa; and there’s a tendency to discount truth claims that contradict our own positions—not because they are false, but because they conflict with our other interests.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what the truth is, and in those cases reasonable people can disagree. But a commitment to knowing the truth, and basing truth claims on evidence rather than wishful thinking, is essential to our personal integrity and to the prospering of our society and the world in general. That should hardly need to be said, but in a world cluttered with “false facts” and “fake news,” we need to keep reminding ourselves how much hangs on our commitment to knowing and telling the truth.

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