We Have Always Been In a “Post Fact” World

The Atlantic recently published a piece decrying that ‘There’s No Such Thing Anymore, Unfortunately, as Facts’.  This is of course utter nonsense. What we have instead is people are confuse what the data is and what we infer to be true because of the data.  Furthermore people lacking the language and training to see through these things (primarily because are taught to think oppositely in school).  Let me give you an example.

In the morning on December 1, 2016, Peter Woerner fed his dogs.  This is a “fact”.  That is, this is a statement that is either true or false. Moreover whether it is true or false does not depend on who is saying it (As opposed to I like apples more than oranges). Now let us say you wants to determine whether or not this statement is true or false.

Now what is the data?  For me, since I am Peter Woerner, the data is that I remember going downstairs putting the food in bowls and giving it to the dogs.  For you, however, the data is completely different.  You went to a website, peterwoerner.wordpress.com and read someone who claims to be Peter Woerner say that he fed his dogs this morning.

Because we have different data, we will have a different degree of certainty about whether or not I fed the dogs. I am very certain I fed the dogs, because it was not very long ago and I trust my memory relatively well. I can also see the bowls that they ate from.  You, dear reader, should have a very different degree of certainty.  For instance, you could very reasonably doubt that I am Peter Woerner or privy to information about his life, at which point you would no longer have any clue as to the validity of the statement.  If I am not Peter Woerner, then it is significantly less likely that the statement is true than if I am.  Second, you could doubt whether I am truthful.  For instance you might believe that I am something of a practical joker, so you might think there is a chance that my wife fed the dogs instead of me this morning or that I don’t have any dogs.

Here’s the point: your degree of certainty about a factual statement is dependent of both your data (what you see and hear) and the assumptions you use (is X trustworthy) to make conclusions about your data. This has never changed.  The Trump presidency and campaign doesn’t change it.  What has changed is that we can access more data.

So, lets pretend there is another website which is devoted to stalking me.  This website reported (a few months ago) that I don’t have any dogs. Now your data has changed significantly.  Moreover if you believe my web stalker is a trustworthy source of information, then you might conclude that the statement is false and  that I am a liar and not trustworthy.  If however, you believe me, that I did feed my dogs, then you are naturally going to conclude that my web stalker is less trustworthy.  At this point you and your buddy are very likely to rationally disagree on the “fact” (that I fed my dogs this morning) despite getting your news from the same sources.  The disagreement is even further if you get your news from different sources e.g. you read my site and not the stalker site and your friend reads only the stalker site

Of course, since you are smart, you are thinking to yourself I really don’t care whether Peter fed his dogs this morning or not.  I am just going to trust him on this one because it doesn’t matter to me.  However there are issues you might care about, like Russia is manipulating the U.S. elections.  If you let Muslims into your country, they will try to kill you or your friends. Or diversity + proximity = war.  And we will rationally disagree because we have different biases and different data.

Ultimately we should be talking about a more important question, how do people decide what is true in light of incomplete information. Because this will actually shed light on issues as opposed to the false debate of “fake news” which further obfuscates everything.

We Have Always Been In a “Post Fact” World