Facts, Evidence, and Fake News

By Paul Heinlein | Dec 8, 2019 (updated Jan 16, 2020 )

People scream “Fake news!” today with annoying consistency. Originally an attempt to identify published stories that ignored or wildly stretched the truth, the phrase has become a cynical way to dismiss stories we dislike.

I say “cynical” because it's so closely tied to political tribalism. No one makes accusations of “fake news” against the sports pages, movie reviews, or even local politics. It only happens when big-picture national political themes or actors are involved.

The number of recent essays analyzing, decrying, praising, or puzzling over “fake news” and the nature of facts is truly astounding. Kurt Andersen's How America Lost Its Mind is a long (you've been warned) introduction to the issue that seeks to put it in the larger context of American history.

My small contribution to this discussion is to remind us all of the difference between facts and evidence.

Facts Becoming a Story

Human thinking is complex. Stories engage us, lists of facts do not. Good (non-fiction) stories are built on facts, but the real art is choosing which facts to include, which to ignore, which to emphasize, and how to order them.

The most compelling facts become evidence that support the story, rooting it in the world we know and giving us reason to believe the storyteller. Other facts fall by the wayside, dismissed as irrelevent.

Facts become evidence only in the presence of higher-level thinking of the sort we call a theory or a point of view. Without a theory or point of view, there is no story, there is no evidence, there are only meaningless bits of memory.

Facts

Facts are assertions about past or present reality. We make these assertions with varying degrees of confidence and often base them in cultural biases.

“It was cold today.” Most of us would consider that a fact, but it is full of cultural and environmental biases. People in Phoenix, AZ and Nome, AK have very different understandings of “cold” than I do here in Portland, OR. Even in my own locale, a “cold” day in July would be astoundingly “warm” in January.

Still, I'm pretty sure that within Portland and the Willamette Valley, most people share similar understandings of “warm” and “cold” such that you could call it a fact that today was cold. It just pays to remember all the social construction that lies underneath that “fact.”

Higher up the confidence chain are observations that are repeatable. It would be more factual would be to offer the evidence (temperature) rather than the assessment (cold). “The high temperature in Portland today was only 29ยบ F., which is about 20 degrees colder than the normal high temperature.”

Even here, however, there are social constructs at work. We trust, or refuse to trust, that those who make the instruments that measure temperature and those who maintain historical by-date temperature data. In this case, however, I suspect that nearly all Americans who cared to research the point would come agreement on the issue.

Furthest up the chain of confidence are facts so widely observed that they scarcely bear notice: gravity, the necessity of breath for mammals, the warmth of a flame.

Evidence

Evidence is a fact identified as important by a theory or point of view to make an assessment of reality.

When we tell stories, we need more than facts; we need evidence. Let's imaging two different stories, one about a difficult person and one about health-care policy.

The Difficult Person

Consider the following opinion: “He is a very difficult person.” Let's assume that over 85% of the people who know him share this opinion.

Now consider the following facts. Assume that all these facts are true and agreed upon:

Which of those facts would you intially use as evidence to explain the man's social difficulties? People informed by Zodiac theory might emphasize that he's a Scorpio. Birth-order believers might point to his being a middle child. Family-systems practitioners might emphasize the alcoholism or economic deprivation. Others might emphasize his religious upbringing or difficulties fitting in with schoolyard play.

Even if everyone agrees on the facts, not everyone will agree on their significance. In other words, your evidence might be an inconsequential fact to me.

The Health Policy Story

Now assign yourself to write a political news story about, say, proposed changes the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). What is the most important story you can tell? What are the most important questions you want to answer?

The story you want to tell and the questions you choose to answer will allow you to categorize some facts as significant, others as insignificant.

I'll repeat my note that all those different stories can emerge even when there's full agreement on the facts at hand. The facts become evidence only when used to tell a specific story. Each of those stories may be completely true to the underlying facts while coming to different conclusions about the wisdom of the Affordable Care Act.

Two Observations

The distinction I'm drawing between facts and evidence lead me to two different observations.

“Fake News” Claims Mostly Deal with Facts, not Evidence

The burden of the one who cries “fake news” is to convince the overwhelming percentage of listeners that the facts in question are contrived or that the story in question ignores significant facts, likely facts that contradict the story being told.

Obviously, some people willfully disbelieve any facts that contradict their own point of view. Such people are not the target of fact checking; getting through to them is as much about psychology as about proof.

“Fake News” Claims May Be a Question of Evidence, not Fact

Each of us makes choices about the range of concerns, social theories, and political points of view that we're willing to accept as helpful or viable.

I, for instance, give no credence whatsoever to Zodiac signs. If a group of people proposed giving certain jobs only to people who are Aquarius or Pisces, I'd scoff at their proposal. I'd consider any politician who took up such a proposal fit for recall or impeachment. In the end, the sincerity of their beliefs wouldn't matter to me at all; I just wouldn't give them the time of day.

The earlier thought experiment about writing a news story about health-care policy shows that sometimes people of good will may disagree about which facts are important and relevant. If I tell a story about market intrusion and you tell a story about impact on retirees, and we tell those stories honestly using agreed-upon facts – well, that's where we have to act like adults and make decisions as to our priorities.

Real Debate

The important distinction is between someone earnestly telling a story with different evidence – like in the health-care example above – and someone who ignores important but inconvenient facts and/or bases their conclusions on debunked or unproven theories.

Real debate only happens when all sides involved make a good-faith effort to assess the verity of the facts being employed (or ignored) as evidence. After that, the theories or points of view used to turn facts into evidence can be assessed.

Better is a debate where each side fully acknowledges the questions the other sides deems important. Then the debate can go to where it really needs to be: asking what are the most important issues at stake in the debate.

Even in the best case, differences may be irreconcilable, but the more agreement there is on the underlying facts and evidence, the greater the chance the participants can remain respectful and applaud the other side's search for the truth.