Political Facts and Falsehoods: Constructing a Future We Can Live In

Political Facts and Falsehoods: Constructing a Future We Can Live In

Several conversations over the weekend reinforced a central challenge of this present era: the struggle to identify facts.

That sounds weird to someone with scientific training. It also sounds weird to most folks without such training.

Facts are givens, meaning that the world gives them to us. We don’t create facts; we don’t imagine facts; we don’t invent facts. We can talk about conducting studies that may create knowledge of facts, speculative exercises that may lead us to discover facts we hadn’t known before, and lies that, in their peculiar way, may lead us closer to facts. But in each of these cases, the facts just “are”; the rest is just the scope of what we know or don’t know about them and the methods we use for finding them.

This way of thinking is open to challenge on a couple of fronts. Today, I’m interested in focusing on the idea of construction.

According to a constructivist approach, what we know about something hinges in important part on how we imagine what it is that we are seeking to know. Even our most basic factual analysis of even a simple object is rooted in a complex framework for understanding things that we have generated through our interactions with the world, with other human beings, with the educational system and with a host of other influences.

Many of our mistakes reflect this apparent reality. There was the little girl who came up to me after Mass (while I was wearing liturgical vestments) and asked why I was wearing a dress. Despite several attempts to explain that I was wearing a set of robes, not a dress, she remained convinced that she had correctly categorized the clothing.

Some may remember the hilarious conversation between the most evil of the characters in the Smithsonian’s displays and the powerful Ahkmenrah in Night at the Museum 2: The Battle for the Smithsonian, in which the tough guys query the ancient pharaoh about his dress (“It’s a tunic!” says Ahkmenrah, with rising irritation).

Were this little girl and these agents of evil wrong?

Yes . . . if we accept that there can be objects of clothing that, in many ways, are the same as what are typically called dresses, but are not dresses because they perform a somewhat different social function.

But if a dress is simply something that goes over the top part of the body and has a single open hem at the bottom, then maybe they were right.

Of course, whether I was wearing a dalmatic or a dress matters little (except perhaps to my pride).

The facts over which we are fighting now, in so many political and policy contexts, matter greatly. And our constructive efforts to determine the facts are remarkably powerful.

One of my daughters offered an instructive account of this experience this weekend. She spoke of a story a friend had posted to Facebook about a candidate. My daughter doubted the story and did some simple but careful online research. The resulting collection of information confirmed her suspicions and rebutted the claim. She shared all of this with the friend . . . who still insisted that the story was true, rejecting all the contrary “facts” as false.

How did she sustain her belief?

Perhaps this particular story, like many others in this cycle, is both supported by and supports a particular narrative about a candidate. Furthermore, one guesses that the individual is strongly vested in the narrative; it matters a great deal that she believes what she believes about this. So, even as the evidence accumulates that the facts do not support the conviction, she will cling to it, reinterpreting or rejecting the “facts,” constructing them as simply wrong, or part of a conspiracy to lead voters or citizens down the path to destruction. One person’s fact becomes another person’s falsehood, simply by constructing it so.

If this story isn’t a familiar one to you, you are living a charmed life.

For the rest of us, the pressing question is, what to do?

Someday soon, when winners are declared (using fact-based methods that, nonetheless, may be interpreted as false) and new leaders sworn in, I hope that we can begin the serious work of discovering common ground, of coming to shared constructions about who we are as a nation and where we want to go. I’m not idealistic or naïve enough to hope we can all come to agree about the full picture. I’ll settle for a Venn diagram with about 20 percent overlap.

To get there, we won’t be able simply to deploy the facts as we know them; those are deeply in dispute.

Instead, I think we’ll need to set everything behind us and ask, Who do we want to be? We’ll need to listen to the answer to that question from people who were disappointed by the election outcomes as well as by those who were pleased (or at least relieved). And we’ll need to allow each voice to contribute something to the construction of the America that will be our future . . . or we won’t have any future to live in.