Fact: There Are No FactsApril 1st, 2008

A fact is a piece of language, a statement about reality. It’s a very particular kind of statement. “I wonder who’s kissing her now,” isn’t a fact, and neither is “I want you to do me a favor.” Although there’s nothing tangible about a fact, it often refers to something tangible.

Roses are red. Is that a fact? Depends on how we interpret the language. It’s a fact that some roses are red, but it’s also a fact that some roses aren’t red. We’ll go along with a child who tells us that roses are red, and maybe let the child know that roses come in other colors, too, but we woudn’t take the statement as fact from a grown-up.

We make judgments when people tell us things that aren’t facts. If we know that the statement is untrue, we might deduce that the teller doesn’t know what he’s talking about or has constructed her own personal reality, or we might notice that it’s April 1. If we don’t know whether the statement is a fact or not, our judgment of the person might lead us to believe what we’re told, or to disbelieve it.

News is factual. By definition, if it’s not factual, it’s not news. When we hear a report from someone we recognize as a reporter of news, we take it for fact. But is it a fact that news is factual? Let’s test a typical news report for truth or falsity. This is from the CBS News website today:

“A U.S. helicopter fired a Hellfire missile at gunmen attacking ground forces early Tuesday, killing six militants in Baghdad’s Shiite stronghold of Sadr City. However, Iraqi police said three unarmed men were killed and six people wounded, including two children.”

Notice that the first statement, about the firing of the missile on “gunmen,” killing “militants,” is said with no attribution, but the second statement, that unarmed men were killed and children were wounded, is attibuted to Iraqi police. What sort of editorial decisions could have produced such a sentence? Did the reporter actually see the attack, but only hear about the casualties? That’s the implication, unlikely as it is, and the construction of the sentence seems to accord the first statement greater credibility than the second one. Is it really more factual?

The reporter doesn’t tell us the source of the first statement, and so we have no way of assessing it for truth or falsity. If the information came from whoever ordered the helicopter to fire, it is self-serving, and the lack of attribution makes the statement incomplete and not factual. And yet we are meant to believe it. We are meant to believe that the targets were “gunmen” and the victims were “militants”–epithets with no precise meaning–and we are meant to be skeptical of the report that children were wounded and unarmed men were killed.

The editorial decisions that produced this non-factual sentence were corrupt and intended to deceive rather than to inform. And yet it comes to us as news and we take it as news, except for one thing: we don’t believe it. In a poll released a couple of months ago by Sacred Heart University (and reported almost nowhere), only one in five Americans believe all or most of what’s reported in the news, and almost one in four believe little or none of it.

So it’s news, but we we’re not sure it’s fact. Since news is, by definition, fact, we seem to be left with this: consumers of news no longer believe in facts or even in truth or falsity. We’re content with self-serving statements–at least CBS News thinks we are–without regard to truth. We would like to believe that our soldiers fired at militants, thinks the CBS editor, so he allows us to, but we don’t want to believe that our soldiers are killing children, so the editor raises doubt, even when there is none. And that’s supposed to make us happier and, really, better off.

The day may come when we’ll need a fact or two. Unfortunately, because of the destruction of facts by our embedded mass media, we won’t know facts when we see them. We’ll be slogging through disinformation like the innocuous-looking CBS report, trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not, while our republic collapses around us.