Tuesday, April 13, 2010



I went to Starbucks this morning to buy a coffee. I wasn't really thinking about anything. I was groggy and I was battling a cold. But as I waited for the barista to serve up my venti bold, I overheard the man behind the espresso machine say to his coworkers: "Wikipedia is written by us. Those aren't real facts."

My mind immediately sprang into action. I really did not care about the man's opinion about Wikipedia. Everyone knows that you need to read Wikipedia with a grain of salt. Its reporting can be unreliable, just like any other source. But I took serious issue with his assertion that Wikipedia does not contain "real facts" because "people like us" write it, as if "regular people" are incapable of reporting "real facts."

I was saddened for two reasons. First, the barista's comment revealed the widespread--and servile--public belief that "facts" must flow from certain "official" sources. Second, it revealed the belief that "regular people" do not deserve credibility when they report "facts."

Let us begin with "facts." More than a year ago, I struggled to formulate a workable definition for "facts." Everyone thinks they know what "facts" are. They think "facts" are "things that actually happened." But it is impossible to really know whether something "actually happened" if you were not there to perceive it. Everyone else must rely on second-hand reports to form an opinion about "what actually happened;" and that opinion may not reflect what "actually happened" at all. Facts intertwine with belief; a person calls something "a fact" as long as he subjectively believes it to be true, even if it is not. A person's belief, too, is a "fact." It is a "fact" to say: "John believes that Mary robbed her mother." It is not necessarily true that Mary robbed her mother. But if John believes it, John's belief about it is "a fact."

Viewing all human existence as a whole, most "facts" are incredibly banal. It is a "fact" that I just moved my eyelid and that I just pursed my lips: I perceived these "acts" through my visual and tactile senses, so they are facts. Facts are rarely newsworthy, and almost never "the stuff of history." Yet many people mistakenly believe that "facts" must be "official." Like the barista, they believe that something is not a "fact" unless some reputable source reports it. To use the barista's term, only certain sources can present "real facts," not plebeian sources like Wikipedia.

What is a "real fact?" How does a "real fact" differ from any other fact? After all, a "fact" is any event, act or condition that is objectively verifiable and perceptible by the human senses. Your own emotional state is a "fact" at this very moment. Whether you're wearing blue jeans right now is a "fact." These are "conditions" and "acts" perceptible by human sense. The New York Times will never report these "facts," but they are still facts. Anyone can recount facts. As human beings, we all can recount our sensory impressions through memory and language. Put simply, the power to recount facts does not require a reputable press pass or an advanced degree.

Facts do not distinguish. There are only "real facts" to the extent that another person chooses to believe them. Source is irrelevant to the inquiry whether something is a fact. Source is only relevant to the question whether a reported fact is credible or reliable.

But the barista confused theses issues in a deeply troubling way. He not only manifested a belief that certain sources were not reliable. He also revealed a belief that certain sources cannot even report "facts" at all. According to the barista's logic, only reputable sources dispense "real facts." Sources like Wikipedia do not. Yet this is pure nonsense. Wikipedia definitely reports "facts." It reports "acts, events and conditions that are objectively verifiable and perceptible by the human senses." True, its reports might contain inaccuracies and falsehoods. But that is a danger inherent in all reporting. And in the end, "facts" are not about "what actually happened," but rather about "what we are willing to believe." Both Wikipedia and the New York Times face the same "factual" dangers every day when they report on matters that occurred beyond their writers' own sensory range. Both Wikipedia and the New York Times ask their readers to believe their words to be facts, no more. In that sense, they are exactly the same.

It is dangerous to believe that only certain sources have the power to dispense "facts." When people believe that only certain "official" reports deserve credibility as "facts," they disempower themselves. They yield their power to judge the truth for themselves by conditioning their belief systems on "official sources." The barista's comment revealed this servile dynamic at work. He demeaned Wikipedia because "regular people" write it, not "official sources." As such, he refused to even believe that it reported a single "real fact," as if any fact were more real than another.

Worse, the barista tacitly acknowledged his inferior station in our society's truth-creating hierarchy. Our society perpetuates the notion that truth can only proceed from certain "official" sources, like news agencies, universities, government offices, courts, churches and science labs. While those sources might deserve credibility in particular circumstances, the ultimate decision whether to believe something is entirely individual. And when people do not do their own research by investigating as many sources as possible, they subject themselves to dominant power systems. They accept some reports as "fact" solely because they flow from some exalted source, not because they verified the reports themselves.

We all can perceive the outside world. We know facts because we perceive them. We can report what we know. When we are honest, we know our word is the truth, even if we are not an "official source." We might even write an article about our knowledge in Wikipedia or some other popular publication.

Yet according to the barista's logic, we do not deserve belief. More substantially, we are not even recounting "real facts," even if we saw them with our own eyes. Only "official sources" can dispense "real facts," not regular people. That is not just weak. That is outright capitulation.

I wish more people would understand that we all can report facts as long as we can perceive and communicate. All facts are "real" as long as we believe them. And we do not have to be news agencies to deserve belief.


nothingprofound said...

Interesting question: What constitutes a "fact"? You make some interesting points here, but then how does one distinguish fact from fiction? Or maybe one shouldn't bother, since the two may just be different terms for the same thing.

Balthazar said...

Nice to see you, Profound!

My definition for "fact" is "any act, event or condition that is objectively verifiable and perceptible by the human senses." There are two classes of people consider in this "fact" analysis. First, there are the relatively few people who are present to directly perceive an act, event or condition. For everyone else, recorded memories, stories and other second-hand reports must suffice. This "collateral" class does not call something a fact because it KNOWS it by perception: Rather, it DECIDES whether something is a "fact" by awarding it with "belief."

It's easy enough to define "fiction" as an "imaginary fact," namely, some "act, event or condition" that no one ever perceived. But the trouble arises with second-hand reports about "fiction." For those who don't know no one ever perceived the reported act, event or condition, there is always a chance they will believe the fanciful reports and consider them "fact." So "fiction" is "fiction" only to the extent that a person knows that no one ever perceived the described act, event or condition. For everyone else, "fiction" just might be "fact," as long as the author sells it well it enough to win credibility for his story.

This is a substantial problem with human sense and belief: It is easy to manipulate. So in the end, "what really happened" is not the right measure for the word "fact." Belief is. That is pretty scary if you think about it, especially when you consider that many people only believe reports from certain sources. What if those sources dispensed FICTION?