Facts (The)

These little items are trouble.   Let me state right off that I have not always been on entirely friendly terms with “the facts.”  We have had a long and, at times, uneasy relation.   Things took a bad turn early.  I was prepared to be French—to deduce (and occasionally refute) large aspects of the world without ever having to leave the Latin Quarter. Instead I had to become an American.  Pragmatic.  Fact-focused.  (I don’t want to talk about it.)

But let me explain about the facts.  First, notice, that the most factish of facts (apologies to Latour) are actually factoids—trivial data bits shorn of any actual narrative.  CNN had it down cold: “America has had five presidents who ate fish for breakfast.”  What, I ask you, could you possibly do with that qua fact?

Still, Americans like facts.  It was Joe Friday on Dragnet who first said, “all we want are the facts, ma’am.”

Just the Facts, Ma'Am: The Authorized Biography of Jack Webb

Really? That’s all?   I don’t think so.  He was on a mission.   He wanted facts on a mission. And we, the viewers, did too.

So I have to say, as a preliminary matter, things already don’t look too good for the facts. Indeed, the possibility that in their most prototypical factishisness, facts are nearly useless while in their most desirable state they are on a mission—well, that’s not an auspicious start.  For a fact.

Things get worse.  In law and social science (that’s my domain limit here—I feel really cramped) facts generally function as poseurs.  The facts, are nearly always posing as the truth about “what-is-actually-going-on.”  Facts are frequently presented as “the-real-story” or  “the bottom line.”    One is no doubt supposed to conclude from this that “facts are facts”—that they are the veritable bedrock of truth.  But notice that this doesn’t make any sense.    Notice that the “bottom line” is an accounting metaphor.   Consider that, “the real story” is an oxymoron deliberately composed of both truth and fiction.   Note that “what-is-actually-going-on” is a problematic state hanging precariously on the ungrounded and notoriously unreliable  reality/appearance pair.   All of this is to say, that the appeal of “getting down to the facts,” (or some such thing) often rests on situating the facts in some initially alluring rhetorical space (e.g. “the real story” “the bottom line”) that turns out, upon further inspection, to be constructed of images, metaphors or fictions of questionable philosophical countenance.  (See, Nietzsche, On Lies and Truth in a Non-Moral Sense)    Now, it’s not that these metaphors, images or fictions turn facts into non-facts.   But still, I ask you: what could be more humbling to a fact then to learn that it has been selected for our attention by a metaphor, an image, or a fiction?

Not only do facts frequently function as poseurs, but, when they are at their most factish, they’re often not all that interesting.   Factish facts don’t really tell you much of anything you want to know.  Imagine a party.  Here are some exemplary factish facts: There were 19 people at the party.   9 were women.  10 were men.   While the party was happening, gravity exercised a constant force of 32 feet per second/per second.  Everyone standing stayed connected to the ground.    Not the greatest narrative is it?  And notice here that if you stick strictly to the facts (if you admit only of truly factish facts) adding more of these little items will not markedly improve your story line.  (For you editors of university press books and law review articles, please pay special attention here.)

The only time facts are really interesting (remember law and social science is the domain limit)  is when they’re something more than just the facts.  Go back to the party.   Here’s another fact:  Jill left the party with Tom.   This fact is more interesting.   Well, mildly so.  With this sort of fact, you can start imagining possible implications (amorous, murderous, whathaveyou).  But note that now we’re no longer talking about “just the facts.”   We’re talking about facts with implications, facts with attitude.

Why then are facts ever interesting?    Well, ironically  it’s because they’re not functioning as “just facts,” but something more.  And that something more (call it a narrative?) is very often not terribly factish.

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One Response to Facts (The)

  1. Zach says:

    I was just thinking yesterday about how statistical information (even when produced using reliable methodology) is not very useful. Because it never “tells the whole story.” In order to tell “the story,” which is always what people are interested in, you really need to tell a story.

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