Back in April and early May of 2011, the situation in Wisconsin was dire, but interesting to most people who are watching the drama play out. The real question was when we outsiders would be caught up in a drama of our own. Many people have many opinions on the situation in Wisconsin, and if one listens to the news on local channels, or MSNBC, CNN or (God forbid) Fox News, the chatter is still all about “facts”. The Wisconsin government/ budget/ worker rights issues isn't the only story where news media and plain old folks got caught up in talking about the facts of the situation.
Depending on the who you listen to, you are going to get the “facts”. “Facts” are interesting bits of information, but strangely enough, when I was teaching and I asked students to define what constituted a “fact”, about 90% of them were pretty much stymied. Now these weren't young students in 8th grade – no, they were 12th grade students who would graduate in a few months (most of them did) and presumably take up the full mantle of citizenship. They would vote, pay taxes, and do all those things that are considered part and parcel of the good citizen assuming his or her responsibility. And they would (we should all hope) make all those decisions based on “facts” that they understood.
You see the rub. Most of them couldn't really define what constituted a “fact” and yet they were expected to deal with reality in a way that suggested that they understood. They are, I suspect, not all that different from a vast majority of the American people who would also have difficulty in defining what constitutes a “fact”. (The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, if you follow my thinking.) And now it is 2016 and we are in the midst of a Presidential election. Republicans started the field with 17 declared candidates, most of whom have withdrawn or shut down their campaigns. At the present writing, we have five candidates still vying for the Republican nomination and two vying for the Democratic nomination. There are other parties who have candidates, but most folks have never heard of them, so for all purposes, there are only candidates running in two parties. Have things changed since 2011? Is it still difficult to distinguish fact from fiction? Are people more aware and concerned with distinguishing fact from fiction? Are people better able to distinguish fact from opinion? And the answer is NO! A goodly number of people cannot distinguish the difference between fact and opinion. What's more, there is a significant number of people who will openly say that it doesn't matter to them. They have heard a candidate who speaks to "their" language and they aren't listening to any other voices. I know this from a personal experience. A friend of mine and I were discussing the political issues and I thought we were both being open in asking questions and presenting different points of view in a kind of friendly debate. Suddenly, the moment got serious and he said, "I don't care what you say or what "facts" you present, I'm not going to change my mind or my opinion." The only thing I could say was "Good to know. I guess we've got nothing to talk about any more in this regard."
I know people have difficulty distinguishing fact from opinion because when I worked as a newspaper writer at several different newspapers, I wore two hats. I was a reporter who attended things such as city council meetings, Chamber of Commerce meetings, dog shows, parades and the like and would report what happened, and what was said at these events. The other hat that I wore was that of a columnist. At one paper, I wrote the weekly editorial, and a personal column similar to some of the opinion blogs I've read. I expressed my opinions and impressions of the world around me. Anyone who read any of the newspapers was invited to freely express his or her opinions as well.
But about every other month, we would receive a letter or two from some member of the community who would rail that we were biased in our reporting and then would cite the offending piece that appeared on the page labeled “Editorials and opinions”. We were, they would say, not reporting the facts, but expressing opinions. And I would write a nice little piece referring them to the top of the page where it was clearly labeled.
You can see that writing for a newspaper for any length of time can lead one to serious indigestion, a jaundiced view of humanity and the world, and the supposition that a goodly number of the readers might have fallen asleep in high school during class discussions of the difference between fact and opinion.
I will give you another example of how facts are misinterpreted because they get mixed up with emotions.
When I wrote for one paper, I attended football games. This year, the coach decided that his best bet was to use a freshman at quarterback. I snapped a picture of the lad in action and wrote a caption which said that **** completed one of three passes for the night, an improvement over the four interceptions thrown last week.
I received several letters and phone calls from people in the town berating me, not for being inaccurate, or twisting the facts, but for reporting them accurately. My sin was not inaccuracy, but being frank ("harsh" as one complainant put it). He was only a freshman they said. His fragile ego would be fractured. Because of the captions I was toldhis sister cried and was heartbroken. And yet, none of caption was non-factual. What had happened was that people added their emotions, and interpretations to the reported event to make it mean what they wanted.
A Short Primer on Facts
Personal facts - Often times we label several different kinds of statements as fact. For example, there are things that we know from personal observation and experience. A person might witness a crime and describe what they saw happen. But sometimes even personal observation can be suspect as has been shown in more than one criminal case. So personal observation and experience is the first kind of fact. Since the experience or observation is one known to you personally, it is important that you give as much pertinent information as possible about the experience and how it relates to other topics. Don't expect everyone to jump up and down and applaud since they may have had different experiences under similar circumstances. Remember personal experiences and observations are rightly labeled “personal facts.” That doesn't mean they are wrong, just that they may be limited in scope.
On at least two occasions, fellow teachers and myself created a bit of a skit unbeknownst to observing students. On one occasion a participating student (Janet) was called outside the classroom into the hallway. The door was left open, but we were out of view of any of the students in the classroom. We proceeded to have a heated argument about why the student would not pick up a dictionary she had placed on the floor. The discussion escalated and I backed up tripping over a chair and falling down. I was now lying in the doorway, and students in the room could see me. Then Janet walked briskly past me lying on the floor, and hurled her last pretend insults at me. I recovered my dignity, got up, (the inseam of my pants torn) and went back into the classroom. It was deathly silent. Then I asked all the students to write up and account of the incident that would be reported to the principal for disciplinary action. The interesting part of the event was that 90 per cent of the students reported that Janet had pushed me, causing me to trip over the chair (she didn't). Accuracy as to what was said in the hallway varied remarkably. Janet was accused of cursing at me, (she didn't), of threatening bodily harm (she didn't), of accusing me of picking on her (she did). According to each of the students, these were the facts of the case. And they were "personal facts" which each student was convinced were accurate because they had heard and seen the event.
Reported fact - Reports or the observations of others are often times labeled or passed off as fact. Not long ago, Rep. Michelle Bachmann said that President Obama's trip to India would cost the American taxpayer $200 million a day. It seemed like a lot to some people who challenged her on it, to which she replied that she had gotten the information from a news source (I believe it was source in India). To be accurate, the trip did not cost anywhere near that amount, yet the statement was represented as a fact. Reports of others have to be regarded with a good deal of skepticism. Few people would put much credence in a report that Elvis had been seen at a supermarket in Detroit, or that JFK was alive and living in Australia, but that is the kind of thing that is reported in papers like the National Enquirer. And sadly enough, that kind of reporting is also going on in our newspapers, television and radio. And sometimes even our friends and neighbors are guilty of similar types of reports. I've been e-mailed all kinds of material that is purported to be true and believed by some of my friends and relatives. When examined closely under the light of skepticism, the material doesn't hold up.
Agreed Upon Fact -Agreements are agreed upon standards. Things like there are three feet in a yard, 2000 pounds in a ton, or twelve inches in a foot. But that was not always so. A foot is an English unit of measurement and at one time was defined as the length of the king's foot. So if you were lucky enough to have to measure your plot of land during the time of Richard I (rumored to have rather large feet, he stood 6' 4”) as opposed to to say Charles I was was about 5'4” and rather delicate, you would undoubtedly have more land under Richard than Charles. It's easy to see why a need for standardization needed to be agreed to.
Inferred fact - Inference is simply an extension of what is known. Many Americans infer that the “S” in Harry S. Truman's name is the initial of his middle name. They do so because in their own experience, most of those with a middle initial know that initial to represent a middle name. My middle initial is M and represents my middle name Michael. However, the S in Truman's name did not represent a middle name at all. It was simply a middle initial. According to the website Infoplease.com, “Truman was given a middle initial, but no middle name. The S in Harry S. Truman refers to the names of both of his grandfathers, Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young.”
Value judgement or opinionated fact - An example of a value judgement occurs in courts of law. Often times people with long experience are asked to give expert testimony. While an expert may know a lot of about a behavior generally, at best he or she can only speculate based on what behavior might occur in other situations. He or she offers an opinion as whether something might have occurred, or whether a particular behavior should be linked to a defendant. Remember Johnny Cochrane, the defense lawyer of O. J. Simpson? “If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit,” he said again and again. What he did was to build a using a combination of agreed upon fact, reports by others, some report by his client, and a good deal of inference which he laid out neatly for the jury. Then he (in effect) offered his opinion that a glove not fitting was enough to allow the jury to acquit Simpson of the murder. Notice the term as well. “Acquit”. It's not the same as finding a person not guilty, nor is it the same as finding a person innocent of the charge.
Late one night when I lived in an apartment, I heard loud voices outside the door. Four young men were standing in the entryway (apparently having consumed some alcohol) and were arguing about the "best" truck. Was it Ford, Dodge, Chevy? They seemed to be the main favorites. But the point was that no one bothered to define what "best" was. No criteria for judgement was offered or laid out. It was all based on personal favoritism filtered through the prism of alcohol. When Consumers Report offers a recommendation, they articulate the basis of the recommendation. They weight the various criteria in order to come to a conclusion unlike the young men in the hallway who apparently thought that best could be decided by who talked the fastest and the loudest about his favorite truck.
What's it all mean?
So after this short primer on fact, what has all this to do with the Governor of Wisconsin and the protestors? the news media? And the general population? A quick review and skim over Through the Looking Glass gives as good an answer as any. Remember Humpty Dumpty who said: "When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.""The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master— that's all."
(I am taking a huge risk and making a large assumption that each reader has an approximate meaning of all the words I've written here. That may or may not be the case. Hence, there will be some who will disagree and claim a different set of facts for themselves.)
All of the above mentioned groups use words to describe what it is they mean. The only problem is that no one has exactly the same meaning for any one word or all of them taken together as a kind of message. And yet, all those groups claim to have “facts” which when taken in the aggregate, supposedly reveal something else that is even more desirable. The Truth.
What is happening in Wisconsin is happening all over the United States, at all levels of government, industry and even in homes. And all of the trouble can be traced to “facts” and words. We all use them, but few of us give much thought to the impact that they can have. Worse, because we use words and have been for any number of years, we often act so arrogantly, as though we could not possibly misuse the power of words and facts. And then there are the word manipulators who take advantage of the arrogance to manipulate us with their very words.
So much for these first musing on facts and words. Drop by again for a scintillating discussion on abstraction and reality, euphemism and propaganda techniques as used by politicians, et.al.