If there is one aspect of the idea of Post-Truth that I am comfortable with, and that is the idea there is no such thing as facts.
Right. Initial inflammatory statement made; how to continue?
If you want to skip ahead to the part where I regain sense and reason, head to the All that said section below. If you want a little journey inside my head, simply follow on below…
So here’s the Platonic dialogue that I ran through in the shower this morning:
BeardyMan No such thing as facts eh? Well how about this one: London is the capital of England.
GingerDan Alright. Is it also the capital of the United Kingdom?
BeardyMan Er… let me get back to you on that one. But it is definitely the case that London is the capital of England.
GingerDan Yes, but what does that actually mean?
BeardyMan Well… it means that is where all the key stuff for a country happens. Like government,
GingerDan So you are saying that all governmental decisions happen in London?
BeardyMan Well obviously not, but the physical location of government is in London…
GingerDan *whispers* Apart from regional government you mean
BeardyMan …and that is where the monarch resides.
GingerDan Except when she’s not. I think the point I’m arguing with myself here is that without context or a point you are trying to make, the connection of London with England with the concept of a capital, is pretty meaningless.
BeardyMan Fair enough. Now get out of my/your shower, you’re late for work!
I think what this dialogue is about is that whilst there may be things regarded as “facts”; we don’t necessarily know what to do with them. Or we do, and we manipulate people’s ways of thinking.
Facts can be used to make things seem superior, better, etc.
As a simplistic example – do you remember Top Trumps? I had one about cars, and the “best” card in the pack was a Ferrari of some kind. You’d always win with that card because it had the highest BHP, biggest engine size, highest cost, etc. It helped make that car desirable.
But – in the real world, as a grown-up – I’m not sure I want that Ferrari. For one thing it is bloody expensive! Yes having the highest costing car made you win that Top Trumps category – but in reality, that means an awful lot of money I’m never going to have at one time…
So, really, is having the highest of something the best? Classic counter-example – in golf you want the lowest number of shots.
So what if London is the capital of England. So is the letter ‘E’. Same type of ‘fact’, just shifting the context.
However the ‘fact’ that London is the capital of England, effects so many things – that is where Parliament is located; that is where house prices/rents are – generally speaking- the highest. That is why the Olympics were in London, rather than in Bromsgrove.
To be clear, this blog isn’t a rant at the fact that London gets these things. It’s not a rant about London at all.
All that said
I’m just trying to explore the notion that facts are – on their own – useless. And I think the idea of regarding them as absolute objective statements is incredibly dangerous.
Same with statistics – you can “prove” pretty-much anything with statistics, if you are selective about it. An example anecdote from childhood – my friend’s mum made the point that ice-cream sales were in direct correlation to drowning in lakes: Ice-cream drowned people in lakes. The reason for the correlation? Hot weather – more people out buying ice-creams; more people outside and swimming in lakes; more people likely to drown.
There is always a context to a fact. Some of these are often helpfully flagged in the narrative – “my mate who works there told me that…”. But people aren’t always helpful – or you are told something with so much conviction, and it seems to be echoed by those around you, so you miss that what you are being told is opinion represented as fact.
So – my summary:
Most statements are opinions. Not statements of facts.
Only in the abstract can you have a completely objective statement of fact. “London is the capital of England,” could be considered a factual statement in isolation – but it is a useless statement, really. So is ‘Henry the Eighth had six wives’. The sort of school facts you are told, for future pub quizzes. Some people might be then interested as to why he had six wives. Does that mean at the same time? Does the word “wife” mean the same in that context then as it does now?
And because there is no point in presenting objective facts without context; people don’t. There is always a context. There is always an angle.
Not necessarily because people are trying to sell you something; or because they’re trying to deceive you on something [although obviously these things happen] – but because it isn’t possible to be truly objective. You are by your very nature subjective.
And that’s a fact.
[Okay, so I wanted to end the article there because it sounded pithy and good for the narrative – but purely for those reasons. I don’t think this is a pithy subject; it does sit at the core of what I think is important to navigate life – subjective reasoning. But that’s a grander subject for another time. Thanks for reading!]