|The Tooth fairy is real … Fact or Fiction? Facts used to be something unquestionably true. Of late, “facts” have been front and center and distorted. Without defending or supporting politics or the media, I started to think more about facts and if facts can be true to some and false to others yet all parties can be correct. At first this sounded ridiculous, but as I looked into this more, perhaps not as ridiculous as it sounds, and important in business, our personal lives and yes, politics.
Consider the following “facts”
There is no tooth fairy; the current unemployment rate (in the U.S) is 4.8%; the earth revolves around the sun; and something cannot be in two different places at the same time.
In critical thinking, we define facts as truth, undeniable, no need to have a conversation, and everyone would agree on the accuracy. I decided to challenge the definition of truth and facts and came up with something different; A fact is a knowledge bit, true only within a reference system. If the reference system changes, the fact may no longer be true.
1+1=2. Who would possibly question this? But in the computer world of binary, 1+1=10 (pronounced “one zero”). There is no “2” in binary. So 1+1=2 is true only when qualified by the “base 3 or above” reference system.
The earth revolves around the sun … Fact? Just one thousand years ago, the “fact” was that the earth was the center of the universe and the sun revolved around it. Copernicus was almost executed because he questioned this “Fact”.
Something cannot be in two different places at the same time … ask a quantum physicists if they would agree.
Consider an indigenous species that has never had contact with the technology world. What do you think their facts are with respect to being able to talk with someone miles away over a handheld device run by a thing called a battery?
The discovery here is that Facts are always made up of two components. The “fact” AND the reference system that the “fact” exists within.
The unemployment rate (in the U.S.) is 4.8%. How can people claim that the unemployment rate is high? What’s missing here is the reference system. The U3 unemployment rate is 4.8%. That is true. But U6 unemployment rate is 9.4% and the U1 unemployment rate is 1.9%. The fact of the unemployment rate can only be true or false if the reference system is also communicated. Without this, claims that it is high and low are both true and both false.
The Critical Factor: Facts are always accompanied by a reference system. We generally don’t state the reference system when we communicate facts, and when the reference system isn’t communicated people apply the reference system of their choice. This is the root of many issues, because we assume that people are all using the same reference system (ours), and while often the case, this isn’t always the case.
The meeting is scheduled to start at 10:00. This is only true for those in the same time zone as you. For those on a conference call in a different time zone, it will start at a different time. So to clarify, we say, the meeting is scheduled to start at 10:00 EST (Eastern Standard Time). We specify the reference system, in this case the time zone, so the fact is true for all.
OK, I can’t resist. Politics. Facts are thrown around and in many cases are true only within a very narrow reference system, and the reference system isn’t communicated. As a result, people apply the reference system of their choice, Republicans use theirs, Democrats use theirs, people in Iowa, South Carolina, Spain and Canada use theirs, people of all races, religions, etc., use theirs, and as a result, things that are said are true for some and false for others.
So what is an Untruth (aka false fact, fake fact, or whatever you wish to call it)? When someone says something they claim to be true (a fact), but there isn’t a single known relevant reference system that would allow that to be true, then it is not true.
What is a Lie? When someone states something they know is Untrue, but states it as if it was true (a fact), then we call that a lie.
People knowingly and unknowingly state untruths, and lie all the time. Critical Thinkers weed through this by asking a few questions;
- What is the reference system being used?
- Is that reference system relevant in the current situation?
- Within that reference system, how do you know that is true?
Ahh … The truth about the Tooth Fairy. Ask a 9 year old who has been rewarded by the tooth fairy for half their life, to respond to the following, “True or False; The Tooth fairy is real”. In the reference system of a child living with Disney and fantasy and make-believe, the tooth fairy is a fact. In the reference system of paying mortgages, taxes, buying food, clothing, going to work every day, the tooth fairy fact is untrue.
The Takeaway: Facts have two components; The Fact itself AND the reference system that the fact belongs to. Without communicating the reference system, you leave it up to others to apply whatever reference system they choose … so sometimes facts can be true and false at the same time. Make sure you are clear on the reference system before you judge true or false. When the reference system is different, or changes, the fact can move from true to false or visa versa.