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The problems with facts

This article appears in the issue April 2012 [Volume 21, Issue 4]

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Let me start with some strong, clear statements that by the end of this column you may think I don't actually believe. But I do. I promise. Here goes: It is vitally important that we become more of a fact-based culture. Not all things that claim to be facts are facts. Some statements about the world are false. What's true and false is not up to us. Facts matter.

Nevertheless, the concept of facts is muddled and rightly under challenge.

The metaphor that keeps showing up when we think about facts is "bricks." That's how Bernard Forscher talked about them in an extended analogy published in Science magazine in 1963 called "Chaos in the Brickyard," and it's how Thomas Kuhn referred to our traditional idea of them in his seminal The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. Facts look like bricks to us for three reasons, each of which has become problematic.

First, we've thought of facts as being the primitives of knowledge, the simple atoms out of which all knowledge is constructed: The atomic weight of helium is 4.003. Albany is the capital of New York state. Those are facts and they could not get simpler. But they're really not much like bricks or atoms. You can't make sense of these facts without understanding an entire world around them. Atomic weight is (according to Wikipedia) "the ratio of the average mass of atoms of an element (from a given source) to 1/12 of the mass of an atom of carbon-12." The number 4.003 means nothing without knowing about the formula it is derived from. Likewise, the fact that Albany is New York's capital only makes sense within a complex set of geopolitical relationships. Facts are decidedly not like standalone atoms or bricks.

Second, we've thought that facts are independent of our awareness of them. In some important sense, that's true: Firmly believing that you can fly won't keep you airborne. But facts still have an element of social construction to them. For example, as questions posed at Hunch.com will remind you, it is a fact that you have (or have not) ever dug a posthole for a fence. It is a fact that you have (or have not) flown in a biplane. It is a fact that you have (or have not) ever tasted crocodile meat. If those are facts, so are an infinite number of other statements. Indeed, the number of factual statements about things that you have (or have not) tasted could include every molecule possible. They're all facts, but they're totally irrelevant facts, and can even come close to fantasy: I have never tasted purple moss hanging from a flying hippo. Such facts have little to do with how the world is and everything to do with our imagination. But facts aren't supposed to be like that. They're supposed to be the stuff of the world. They're not. They're a way that we apprehend and understand the world based upon our backgrounds and our interests.

Third, facts are supposed to be content, like the idea that Albany is the capital of New York. But as facts enter the Web, they're turning into links. That's what the Linked Data format does to them. According to this standard, each element of a simple fact should, ideally, be expressed as a link to an online authority. For example, "Albany" could be a link to an official gazetteer, and "is the capital of" could be linked to a standard vocabulary of geopolitical terms. The advantage is that when computers troll through clouds of linked data, they can make associations among facts that are pointing to the same sources.

There is one other problem with the traditional concept of facts, and it is perhaps the most troubling. We have used facts as the foundation of knowledge. That's a big reason why the brick metaphor is so appealing. We ascertain a fact, add it to the structure of knowledge, and now we can build further on that strong foundation. But as facts are recognized as not so atomic, not so independent of us, and as linked, the foundation becomes less like a stopping point and more like a web. Now, webs have strengths of their own, just as brick foundations do. For example, they're resilient and robust, properties that come from the interconnection of all the pieces, not from the firm finality of each piece.

Facts have their place. Facts remain vitally important. But they are only a beginning of what we need to know, and are never an ending spot of inquiry.  

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