First a brief review of the difference between fact and truth.
A fact is something that can’t be logically disputed or rejected. Within the base ten system, two plus two will always equal four. That’s a fact.
Truth on the other hand has within it the quality of judgment. That’s because pointing out what is “true” immediately also identifies what is “false”.
Truth is something that must be discovered or created. Here’s an example. The observable facts are that the path that light from a distant object takes can be curved by the presence of another large object (the sun). This observable fact supports Einstein’s general theory of relativity. We accept that theory as a true description of how the universe works because it explains all of the observable facts that we can assemble.
The search for meaning (truth) has always been part of the human condition. In that search, we assemble observations. Some of those observations are facts (mathematics). Some are not (religion).
The challenge of course is that all humans are also susceptible to accept those observations that agree with our point of view as fact and dispute those truths that call our favorite “facts” in question. Scholars from Johnathan Haidt to Aristotle have wrestled with this question of whether there is an absolute truth that can and should be universally shared.
Science has moved the furthest in the direction of separating fact from belief and true from false. The way that they do that is through a version of crowd sourcing called the scientific method.
When someone discovers something that they propose as a fact, they share it with everyone else in their scientific community. If others can duplicate that observation, it is affirmed as a fact. Others in the community can challenge that fact, but they have to produce their own observations that can be duplicated that demonstrate the the original observation was inaccurate.
Only after accepted facts are established, do members of that community attempt to discover or create theories which explain why those facts occur. Those theories get tested and re-tested as new facts are discovered. Eventually some subset of theories emerge as accepted truth because a majority of the scientific community agree that these theories accurately explain all of the applicable observed facts.
That doesn’t mean that these truths are absolute. As our knowledge expands, there is always the possibility that new facts will be discovered that force a re-evaluation of previous theories. This process of enhancement is what improves theories. Occasionally, observations require a radical change to theories. But usually the change is more gradual. That gradual change is currently underway in improving the climate models that we have. But one of the accepted truths in climate science is that the atmosphere is warming at a rate that exceeds what can be explained by natural phenomena.
What makes all of this work is that this scientific method is BIASED toward crowd sourced peer review that is eager to discover and prove new facts. The claim by some that the scientific method suppresses facts in an effort to prevent contrary theories from emerging is self serving FUD. Those who voice that opinion are attempting to discredit the process because they oppose the results of the process – not because they have any proof that the results of the process are flawed. If anything, exactly the opposite is true. The scientific community gives fringe opinions too much respect. This provides those who practice “science for hire” undeserved legitimacy. One example of this junk science were the tobacco-funded researchers who for years tried to disprove the fact that tobacco caused cancer. The fossil fuel industry invests in similar research today in an attempt to muddy the water regarding the real causes and likely results of climate change.
The challenge of trying to live a fact-based life, however, is that it often fails to satisfy our basic need for meaning. We have a gut feel that there is a God, even though it can’t be proven. We have a gut feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with dependency, but we can’t explain why. We have a gut feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with discrimination, but we can’t explain why. There are some human activities that we feel are revolting or depraved even when it only involves willing adults.
We long for a connection to a higher power who can help us resolve these conflicts, provide us direction, and give us purpose.
This is a belief-based life.
Those who live belief-based lives are sometimes vulnerable to intolerance, bias, discrimination, and even fanaticism in response to those who don’t share their beliefs.
The problem is that those who claim to live fact-based lives are no less vulnerable to the same temptations.
So where does this leave us?
Confirmation bias clouds our vision, confuses belief with fact, and causes us to take positions on an emotional basis and then attempt to defend those positions with junk science or conspiracy theories. In other words, facts no longer have an objective quality. Instead every fact gets evaluated against the filter of how it affects our view of the truth. Truth constructed from beliefs can’t be questioned even when there are no facts to support it. Climate change is a perfect example of this phenomena.
While no one has a monopoly on facts or the truth, the further we drift away from respect for facts and the certitude of science, the more difficult it becomes for us to find the common ground that we need to allow our Democracy to work.
Aristotle summed it up best.
The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, no one fails entirely, but everyone says something true about the nature of all things, and while individually they contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed.
The universal truth may be that we are all human and in that shared humanity are the seeds for transcendence and destruction. This holiday is the celebration of our shared hope that we can overcome our weaknesses and build a better future where we all can live in peace.