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Can You Tell Fact from Fiction? The 7 Levels of "Truthiness"

The notion that facts are facts is a popular one. But what on Earth is a fact?

In the 1950s television series Dragnet, Jack Webb in the role of Los Angeles police detective Joe Friday often uttered the now iconic words "All we want are the facts, ma’am.”

During a press interview, President Donald Trump's spokesperson Kellyanne Conway defended the false claim that attendance at Trump's inauguration on January 21, 2017 had been the largest in history by saying it was based on "alternative facts."

The notion that facts are facts, plain and simple (or alternative), is a popular one. But as I have asked before in this series, what on Earth is an actual fact?

Is "Truthiness" in the eye of the beholder?

 Greg Williams via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Greg Williams via Wikimedia Commons

Although the word truthiness evidently has early nineteenth-century roots, its modern usage is the brain-child of the American comedian Stephen Colbert. He first used this word in the debut episode of his political satire program The Colbert Report on October 17, 2005. His definition? "We're not talking about truth, we're talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist."

The 7 levels of "Truthiness"

As a humorist, Stephen Colbert may define "truthiness" in any way he feels may win him a laugh. On more somber reflection, however, I think he's defining this word too narrowly. He seems to be suggesting that opting for truthiness rather than the truth is a willful choice. That may sometimes be the case. But not always.

As I have been saying in The Human Animal, we live in two worlds at the same time. One is the world outside our heads; the other is the world within our skulls which is still a poorly known domain despite what experts in neuroscience may be saying nowadays.

Philosophers may like to ponder the old question What is truth? I have long felt, however, the real issues are how and how much can we know about that world beyond ourselves? From this latter perspective on the truth, I want to suggest to you that there are seven levels of truthiness.

 Original imagery by John Terrell
Source: Original imagery by John Terrell

The Three P's of Wisdom — Private, Personal, and Public

Our knowledge of the world around us begins with what we are finding out about the world privately often without our even being consciously aware of what we are learning. Why not? Because what we are discovering comes to us simply as part of our own everyday and often quite routine experiences. The upper-most of the seven levels, in marked contrast, is the public arena of widely shared opinions, beliefs, and what many anthropologists would call "cultural knowledge," but which I like to talk about instead as "general knowledge."

Private facts — As I have said previously, although it is popular nowadays to say the human brain is like a computer, perhaps even a supercomputer, it is more on target to say our brains are biologically-constructed tools — specifically, pattern recognition devices (Level 1) — that help us handle life's challenges and opportunities. Furthermore, when our brains repeatedly (2) encounter more or less the same patterning in the outside world, they mentally store away observations of such "sameness" as working — as categorical (3) — memories. In other words, a brain — and this is so for many other animal species, too — is basically a categorical thinking machine.

Personal facts — Although much of our knowledge of the world may not be accessible to our conscious minds, when we become aware of how things and events seem patterned, we may sooner or later try to understand why such patterning apparently exists. When we come up with interpretations (4) that seem both plausible and likely, our explanations may even become some of our most strongly held personal convictions (5).

Public facts — For reasons too numerous to list here, when we come up with interpretations and explanations, we may then work (6) to get others to accept the wisdom, logic, and implications of our insights, arguments, and deductions. What started off as personal convictions (5) may end up becoming widely shared beliefs (7).

So what is a fact?

I am not asking you to accept that there actually are seven levels of truthiness, or that these levels — some might call then steps — can be divided up into three separate categories. This is just my way of trying to answer the question What is a fact?

Dictionaries bounce around a lot when they try to answer this fundamental question. One says: "a thing that is known or proved to be true." Another offers: "something that has actual existence." Yet another: "something that is known to have happened or to exist, especially something for which proof exists, or about which there is information."

One common thread in all of these definitions is the claim that a fact is somehow a thing. From the perspective of the seven levels, however, facts are not "things" but observed (or at any rate, suspected) patterning in the world around us. If so, then keeping with my liking for numbering the observations I offer you, I suggest facts are our impressions of what the world is like that come in three forms or degrees of remove from "actual existence," whatever one takes that phrase to mean. Facts are . . .

  1. What we know about the world firsthand (our "private facts") — Note carefully that even such down-to-earth facts are three levels removed from "what actually exists." As illustrated below, what we know "for sure" this way adds up to an incredibly small window on the world we live in.
  2. What we think we know (our "personal facts") — Facts that are our own interpretations and explanations for what we are seeing as patterning in the world around us.
  3. What we believe we know ("public facts" or "general knowledge") — Facts that may be seven steps removed from what may actually exist.

Given what I have just suggested, is there any reason to wonder why it is often so difficult to agree on what to say when someone tells us: "All we want are the facts, ma’am”?

Let's face it, most of what we know about the world is just hearsay, after all.

 Montage by John Terrell using image from creazilla and by marucha from Pixabay
Source: Montage by John Terrell using image from creazilla and by marucha from Pixabay

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