For many, the word “fact” is a common-sense way to refer to the actual reality of things - outside of opinion or subjective judgment. From this perspective the word is non-controversial - in fact, it is the epitome of non-controversial (so much so that to say “in fact” means to say “in reality”).
For others, the word “fact” has come to be used as an attempt by one person or community to establish its position as unquestioned and irrefutable - in particular, by the suggestion that objective observation, data, and science itself is “on our side.” Indeed, “here are the facts” is used by virtually every socio-political community in talking about different sides of virtually every issue in America - e.g., proponents and opponents of vaccination are each ready to “tell you the facts.”
Postmodern thinkers point out that scientific data itself does not and cannot speak without a human interpreter - thus questioning the existence of evidence “outside” of human interpretation and objective judgment that establishes truth beyond a shadow of doubt. This is not to say that a reality doesn't exist...but simply that our attempts to know it, from this perspective, are always, inevitably, inescapably held in our interpretive frameworks (which more, or less, correspond to reality). Rather than an argument for relativism, then, this simply points out that each “fact” represents a particular argument about reality or the data.
Once again, some would push back by saying that “we have to have some facts to have a functional society,” - e.g., someone is alive or dead. A war has been started or not. A bill has been passed in the house or not. From this vantage point, it is unsettling to have moved away from a time when Americans held certain things in common as “facts” - drifting to a point where we now have different sets of “facts.” From this perspective, some facts should not be up for debate. There must be some things that reasonable people should be able to agree upon.
What exactly those uncontested, undisputed facts are, of course, is a point of disagreement! (Vaccines as a public good? Climate change as the great threat to society? The Bible as the word of God?)
By contrast, others would simply say “we need to have thoughtful discussion about our different views of reality in order to have a functional society” - without so much expectation that we will come to alignment on what that reality (or “the facts”) indeed are.
QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:
-What, in your mind, is necessary to make something a fact?
-Can you think of any things you once thought were facts but no longer think are?
-Have you ever had an argument with someone where you both had your own sets of facts? How did it end? What might have happened if you had put facts aside and talked about other things, like values or perspectives or experiences?
Joan Blades, Ralph Benko, Jacob Hess
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