Facts and other stories

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture
Facts and other stories

Just the facts, ma'am.

-- A Los Angeles Intellectual

 

"NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!"

The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders, - nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was, - all helped the emphasis.

"In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!"

The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

The One Thing Needful

 

The world has grown tired of preachers and sermons, today it asks for facts.

--Clarence Darrow

 

To be a fact is to be a failure.

--Oscar Wilde

 

e=mc² 

--Albert Einstein

Issues Pages: 
Catchfire Catchfire's picture

This thread is a human-made tributary of the Margaret Wente plagiarism thread.

bagkitty bagkitty's picture

Well it may be all illusion, and all interpretations subjective... nonetheless, I strongly recommend against sticking your arm into the woodchipper to clear the jam.

[ETA: felines are prone to be reductionists]

6079_Smith_W

Never mind facts... it seems it's all in the timing. As in, I just finished summing up my thoughts on this in the other thread.

But sure, I'll bite.

Beyond those colourful quotes, I'm not sure there's much value in news reporting that isn't based on information that can be verified. Feel free to make the case, though.

Oh, and since it's shaping up to be a quote-driven thread:

In war, truth is the first casualty - Aeschylus

 

ygtbk

Perhaps felines are prone to be reductionists because they either do, or do not, catch their prey?

Here's what I think:

Propositions can be classed as (at least, this is not exhaustive): true, false, true by definition, true under normal circumstances, matters of opinion, meaningless, self-referential, undecidable, or indeterminate. The last four are of most interest (usually) to logicians and quantum physicists. The first two give us the realm of facts. Matters of opinion are not matters of fact (although it can be a fact that someone has an opinion).

Here's what Robert Heinlein (or at least one of his characters) thought:

Quote:

What are the facts? Again and again and again - what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what "the stars foretell," avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable "verdict of history" - what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!

Perhaps retired naval officers are inclined to be reductionists for the same reasons as felines.

kropotkin1951 kropotkin1951's picture

If you put Bagkitty in a completely sealed box with a vial of poison would she be alive when you opened the box?  If not was she alive until the moment you opened the box?

Whether or not one accepts matters as a fact or not is often determined by ones biases about the definition of the term.  What is democracy?  Is it a fact that Canada is a democracy? If so is the USA also one, how about China or Iran or Iraq or Cuba or Honduras or Indonesia or Pakistan?  They all have systems that claim to be democratic and involve some sort of voting system that leads to the elite ruling without much opposition.  Personally I think the fact (given my definition) is that none of the above are a democracy.  However I could be convinced that if you lower the bar to include the USA then it seems that they could all be democracies. 

Is it a fact that the G & M is a national newspaper or is that merely true by using a loose definition or is it more a matter of opinion. Whichever it is, for sure it is not a laughing matter.

Waves at Bagkitty in the box.  Hope there's no radiation in that box. 

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schr%C3%B6dinger%27s_cat

bagkitty bagkitty's picture

but, but, but.... Bagkitty is a tom! (And yes, I have certain biases about the term)

6079_Smith_W

I'm not so concerned about switching dimensions or esoteric definitions. Everybody knows there are going to be competing claims and differences of opinion around that.

I'm thinking of far more basic things like was "John" the face of the occupy movement, and was he a real person at all, or just made up?

Did Hillary Clinton really call people "savages"? There's something floating around the internet being passed off as a direct quote; but is it true?

Who actually killed all those Polish people in the Katyn forest in 1939?

Was the placard in that photo really from the demonstration in the article?

Did those lemmings really jump off that cliff, or was that staged?

Do we need to know that the fellow giving that interview was in fact a prisoner, and in fear for his safety when he said the things he did?

Was that protester really resisting arrest?

Who set that cop car on fire?

In short, do the facts matter, or are our political perspectives and allegiances more important?

If you look at most real charges of false and inaccurate reporting, they don't involve fancy questions like the definition of democracy or fascism. They involve cherrypicking statistics, omission of key information, or outright lies.

 

 

kropotkin1951 kropotkin1951's picture

6079_Smith_W wrote:

If you look at most real charges of false and inaccurate reporting, they don't involve fancy questions like the definition of democracy or fascism. They involve cherrypicking statistics, omission of key information, or outright lies.

While they involve cherry picking statistics, omission of key information, or outright lies however in our MSM those often enhance the acceptance of the "fancy" questions like what really is a democracy and why should we bomb the fuck out of people to bring it to them.  There are two pictures in play. The minutia you refer to is extremely important and should be reported accurately but the big picture is also very important and in most reporting forms the backdrop to the minutia.  If you get either or both of those wrong you get a distorted image of reality not the "truth."

6079_Smith_W

I agree with you on that k. Completely.

I mentioned the minutae (or the bones, as I called it) not as a rebuttal to you, but to establish that there are sometimes undisputable facts, and that they are important. And also, it is usually these fine points that people get caught on - not the big ones.

 

 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

There are a couple of things going on here. The larger question, posed to me, seems to be something along the lines of "how can you judge if a journalist is honest/effective/skillful if you don't believe in objectivity?" And "objectivity" seems to be shorthanded to "facts." When I think of facts, I think of things like "global temperature trends over time"; "average annual rainfall in the Amazon basin"; "Hillary Clinton's hair is blonde"; "2+2=4." I don't really care if you consider those cold hard facts or if you consider them pretty good stories based on the information we were able to gather. I feel its more useful and more accurate to consider them under the second definition (It would be easy to point to the "facts" offered in this thread, the serious ones and the witty ones, and undermine their "factness"), but I also live in the real world and know that I will never be able to convince a population bred on enlightenment doctrine to come wholly over to my way of thinking.

What I do care about is the ideology expressed in the previous thread, by Mr. Gradgrind in my OP, and by Bobby Heinlein's curmudgeonly character: which is, if I can summarize, that facts, alone, can save us. They can't; and they won't. This idea that when Wente spreads her manure with facts instead of flourishes she's some kind of quality, seasoned journalist is nonsense. Fetishizing facts leads to a monopoly on meaning, and monopolies are always controlled by the most powerful, those with the best access to resources, education, labour and always leads to tyranny.

The judge wrote on and then he folded the ledger shut and laid it to one side and pressed his hands together and passed them down over his nose and mouth and placed them palm down on his knees.

Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.

What’s a suzerain?

A keeper. A keeper or overlord.

Why not say keeper then?

Because he is a special kind of keeper. A suzerain rules even where there are other rulers. His authority countermands local judgements.

Toadvine spat.

The judge placed his hands on the ground. He looked at his inquisitor. This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.

Toadvine sat with his boots crossed before the fire. No man can acquaint himself with everthing on earth, he said.

The judge tilted his great head. The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But the man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.

I don’t see what that has to do with catchin birds.

The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I’d have them all in zoos.

That would be a hell of a zoo.

The judge smiled. Yes, he said. Even so.

--Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian. (1985)

6079_Smith_W

Catchfire wrote:

And "objectivity" seems to be shorthanded to "facts."

They are not the same thing at all. Facts are things which are or which happen. Objectivity is a question of perspective, and in terms of journalism I don't think it exists.

As I said (again, tail end of the last thread) the notion that the news is or can be objective is probably the most damaging idea there is, because people who assume that assume that what they read is The Truth.

I think you generally cannot  be a good writer without having some kind of analysis or opinion (even when it is contained, as in documentaries like Lake of Fire, or Manufactured Landscapes). But I do expect writers to be honest and fair. That doesn't mean giving equal time to Hitler, but it does mean being critical of all things, and mindful of perspectives other than your own.

(edit)

More importantly, it means having enough of a resistance to ideology  that you will tell what you see as the truth, even if you don't like it, and even if it does not help your cause.

 

ygtbk

@Catchfire:

I'm still not understanding your point on facts vs. stories.

When, in the Wente thread, you wrote:

Catchfire wrote:

When I say that an argument is divisive and hateful, that is not a euphemism for "right wing," "conservative," or "something with which I disagree": it is a specific characterization of their methodology and practice.

are we to take this as being something we can rely upon, a story, an opinion, or something else? Because if there is no fact of the matter, there is no reason for me to base my actions on your statements. If someone else says, "Oh, I love Wente's writing" (unlikely, I'll admit), why would I choose one opinion over the other?

ygtbk

@Catchfire (again):

When you say:

Quote:

I also live in the real world and know that I will never be able to convince a population bred on enlightenment doctrine to come wholly over to my way of thinking.

is it permissible to ask what you mean?

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Judith Butler famously said that gender is performative, meaning that there is no essential male-ness or female-ness on which to base an objective or stable theory of gender, sex and sexuality. But she also said that just because gender is performative, that doesn't make it any less binding. That is, if I identify as male--through the complex social practices which emerge in family life, schools, pop culture, etc.--I can't just start "performing" as female even if I know that I'm only "performing" my maleness. My programming is too deep, too sticky, to dislodge. So too with facts: facts are just stories which have become distilled down to some nugget, through common (not necessarily good) sense and other forces of normalization.I think the problem is you've internalized a binary which says : fact=good; story=bad--somewhat derived from onther binary: true=good; false=bad. I, on the other hand, don't make a value judgment on either. A story is a fact, and it can be true or false, good or bad, in any combination.

A fact is simply a hegemonic story. It's not good or bad, but it is not the root on which all reasoning and thinking grows. It's a story. It doesn't take much work to find out when "facts" have done some dirty work for the ruling class. "Oh those facts were the wrong facts," the dissenter says. "We've got better ones now. You should see them. Very true. Very true."

As for the Enlightenment quote, I am talking about the c-18 philosophical, cultural and political movement which sought to liberate humanity from its "self-incurred tutelage" through capital-R Reason. It brought us Immanuel Kant, Charles Darwin, the French Revolution etc. It's been pretty successful. Its age is starting to show, though. Nevertheless, it still mostly defines how the West pictures the world, and so trying to get people to believe that capital-R Reason is a fiction written by, among other things, patriarchy, imperialism, and capitalism, has caused me trouble. Which is to say I am familiar with my chances of success, here and elsewhere.

6079_Smith_W

Catchfire wrote:

A fact is simply a hegemonic story.

What dictionary did that come from? We're not talking about the same thing at all.

Faking a quote or a photograph, or inventing people and passing them off as real, or leaving out important information  is not a hegemonic story; it is a lie.

If you want to talk about biases and perspectives, fine. I agree with you that they exist, although I expect you and I are more aware of different ones;  again - perspective.

But that's not what started this tangent; I do think messing with the facts is a breach of journalistic standards that is at least as bad as propagandizing, because at least propaganda I can sift through for grains of truth. If someone is just making stuff up it's completely worthless, even if it happens to be an opinion I agree with.

Now jello? Sifting through that just makes my brain hurt.

 

 

ygtbk

Catchfire wrote:

facts are just stories which have become distilled down to some nugget, through common (not necessarily good) sense and other forces of normalization. I think the problem is you've internalized a binary which says : fact=good; story=bad--somewhat derived from onther binary: true=good; false=bad. I, on the other hand, don't make a value judgment on either. A story is a fact, and it can be true or false, good or bad, in any combination.

A fact is simply a hegemonic story. It's not good or bad, but it is not the root on which all reasoning and thinking grows. It's a story.

...

so trying to get people to believe that capital-R Reason is a fiction written by, among other things, patriarchy, imperialism, and capitalism, has caused me trouble. Which is to say I am familiar with my chances of success, here and elsewhere.

Thanks for taking the time to clarify. However, I emphatically disagree with your proposed definition of fact. There are many kinds of propositions (as I noted above) but the true ones get a special name: facts. This is pretty standard: see Wittgenstein with "The world is all that is the case."

I really hope that you don't think that the structure of formal logic (which is about making valid deductions) is dictated by patriarchy, imperialism, and capitalism, but your words can certainly be interpreted that way. If you are having trouble getting people to believe that, then there's an obvious explanation.

6079_Smith_W

And I have to say, when I have occasion to take on people who want to teach that the earth is 6,000 years old, and that dinosaurs and people lived at the same time, it's refreshing to know I can put some hard evidence on the table, even if they may refuse accept it.

Leaving our common reality up to whose burn heals first, who floats, or whose worldview is bigger doesn't always serve the principles of truth and  justice well.

Really, it plays into a dynamic of opposition rather than resolution (if I can be allowed to serve up a bit of jello too).

 

 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Yes, well obviously I am not the person who made up this line of argument. If you want to compare it with Creationists, I have a three-word, reflexive transitive rejoinder and complementary auxiliary for which you can make up the direct object.

I really encourage you to stop arguing with a shadow who is saying "how do we know anything is true? Nothing can be true! Everything is subjective!" and rather have a think about it.

@ygtbk I guess when it comes to "facts" I don't ask "is this true?" which leads to binary thinking, which I think is rather limiting; but rather "what about this is true? The way facts function in society usually resembles the former rather than the latter. And excessive lionizing of facts, as we in the West are wont to do, leads to bad thinking and bad results. Again: it's not the facts that are the problem, it's thinking that they are the only things that can save us.

 

6079_Smith_W

Sorry CF, but how am I to respond to your definition of "fact" - especially given that I agree with you that all journalism is coloured by perspective? 

I am talking about something far more basic than that, and I think I have given enough examples that it should be clear. If not, please let me know and I'll offer a few more.

And really, it is not just a matter of "the facts". It is also, as I said in #11, a matter of putting the truth (and I mean YOUR personal sense of the truth, not some amorphous objective truth) above any beliefs or causes you might have. As in, if your cause is so important that you will lie for it, you fail.

Politicians, activiists and partisans can get away with that, but journalists, like judges and scientists, cannot without cracking the foundation of their work.

(edit)

And I'm not comparing you to a creationist CF. Fact based argument is always important. That just happens to be one case in which it is glaringly so.

 

 

 

 

ygtbk

Catchfire wrote:

@ygtbk I guess when it comes to "facts" I don't ask "is this true?" which leads to binary thinking, which I think is rather limiting; but rather "what about this is true? The way facts function in society usually resembles the former rather than the latter. And excessive lionizing of facts, as we in the West are wont to do, leads to bad thinking and bad results. Again: it's not the facts that are the problem, it's thinking that they are the only things that can save us.

I'm not aware of anyone in this thread (or the Wente thread) seriously saying that facts are the only thing that can save us. (Even Heinlein is saying, through his character, that you need them _in order to_ achieve your purpose. Gradgrind is clearly a caricature).

FWIW, I agree with you that saying "what if?" and suspending some elements of what you know to be true can lead to creativity. However, having come up with a new idea, you then evaluate it in light of what you in fact know. And some things are true and some aren't. I'm not sure exactly what counts as "excessive lionizing of facts", but there are definitely such things. (I was going to insert some science and engineering examples here but I decided not to.)

Slumberjack

A barrel of facts could be presented to the average creationist for example, but if the contents of the barrel are only evident to the person holding forth on them, the facts become of little to no importance in the debate.  You wind up with definite truth being seen as nothing more than a personal opinion no matter what criteria is considered relevant to the debate.  As it pertains to politics, justice and journalism in particular, it would appear that the respective foundations we're mostly familiar with caved in long ago.  Here the only curiosity resides with who exactly they're still trying to convince.  With Capitalism, there are already more than enough facts to work from.  Additional information for or against are ancillary to the longstanding objections that have gone nowhere.  At this juncture, the debate over facts might be considered as a distracting academic exercise, while those who are not exactly predisposed to the facts are off plundering and eradiating the Earth.  The value placed on fact and people’s obsession with it could stand a re-evaluation in terms of its oppositional effectiveness.

6079_Smith_W

Slumberjack wrote:

I believe that flying chimpanzees with little organ grinder suits really exist.

Well SJ, I think that is an outrageous statement and completely wrong. And you have absolutely no way to prove otherwise

 

Slumberjack

Well, it's wrong because the chimpanzee would be dressed in clothes suitable for dancing.

ygtbk

6079_Smith_W wrote:

Slumberjack wrote:

I believe that flying chimpanzees with little organ grinder suits really exist.

Well SJ, I think that is an outrageous statement and completely wrong. And you have absolutely no way to prove otherwise

Pshaw! It's obvious that the Flying Spaghetti Monster really exists, but these alleged chimps, not so much.

Slumberjack

Catchfire wrote:
Fetishizing facts leads to a monopoly on meaning, and monopolies are always controlled by the most powerful, those with the best access to resources, education, labour and always leads to tyranny.

The most powerful and educated people in the world are likely to be in possession of any number of facts. With all of that power, wealth and education, for them it should be a well regarded fact that every generation of monopoly men thus far has been successful in wagering that no matter what they do in the process of acquiring more wealth, it is unlikely to result in the final collapse of the planet's ecosystem while they and their children are still alive. The fact that on a much larger scale, the global political economy operates in similar fashion to Montreal city politics and the construction industry, except with far more violence, matters not one iota. In that case, everyone involved could find themselves in jail, or in Wente's case fired from her job, and it wouldn't substantially alter the nature of the apparatus expelling its unmasked failures. Fact is, every village, town and city in this country is a microcosm of the national and global socio-political structure. The local and the global are exactly the same, with varying degrees of intensity depending on what is required to maintain order while wealth is being extracted. These are the only facts that ultimately matter in terms of our species and every other living thing.

6079_Smith_W

Yes, SJ. Of course that's the only fact that matters.Nothing else.

Meanwhile, on the Rick Mercer Report:

http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2012/09/28/263893/exclusive-assangemossad-t...

Maybe I'm stupid, but I got to the end of that without finding anything at all to substantiate the claim Julian Assange had ties to Mossad. I can see why it's an exclusive; nobody else would even bother to touch that story.

As an aside, I just got fooled this morning by the fake news story about Michelle Bachmann wanting a ban on falafel in school lunches because it was a gateway to terrorism. Some in the real media got fooled  by it as well.

Does it matter?

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Yes. Next question?

6079_Smith_W

I don't think I have a next question.

If it is established that the media should be expected to back up their work then I rest my case.

 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Who said the media shouldn't back up their work?

6079_Smith_W

Seems to me if the media is expected to back up their work, that means sticking to verifiable facts.

And conversely, if they just make shit up, it's not news at all. And as I see it, it's also a big problem.

Hey, I half wished that Michelle Bachmann story WAS true. But it's not. And all the retweets and internet memes in the world won't change that.

 

 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Seems to me if the media is expected to back up their work, that means sticking to verifiable facts.

And conversely, if they just make shit up, it's not news at all. And as I see it, it's also a big problem.

If you already had the discussion worked out in your head, why did you bother showing up for it? It's very difficuly to debate someone when it dawns on you that all along your colleague was arguing with a shadow and didn't even realize you were in the room.

 

ygtbk

Catchfire wrote:

Seems to me if the media is expected to back up their work, that means sticking to verifiable facts.

And conversely, if they just make shit up, it's not news at all. And as I see it, it's also a big problem.

If you already had the discussion worked out in your head, why did you bother showing up for it? It's very difficuly to debate someone when it dawns on you that all along your colleague was arguing with a shadow and didn't even realize you were in the room.

 

Still waiting for an answer to question posed in post #12 - no rush... but it seems relevant here.

6079_Smith_W

I'm scratching my head a bit too, CF.

I don't see how this discussion is about objectivity, because I'm guessing that we both agree it is a myth.

Near as I can tell it sprang from me saying that I felt errors in journalistic accuracy (particularly when done on purpose) are as bad if not worse than media bias.

Specifically, I do consider some of the plagiarism charges mentioned in that other thread to be as important as the writer's political slant.

In short - being fair and honest in trying to get the facts right is of more fundamental importance to me than a writer's politics. I have explained why a couple of times now.

 

Slumberjack

I can't decide if I should be appreciative about CNN.com'zzzz "five things we learned" series of infomercials they put out there on any given story, as in "here's a few things we took away and would now like to share with the public, or offended, because they're providing the audience with suggestions as to what they should learn from the story, and in the same order more or less in which its being presented.