My Facts and the Right to be Wrong

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” Until recently I thought that these words came from the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, and they did, but it looks like he lifted them from someone else. Well, I shouldn’t be surprised. As John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things,” even finding out who was the first person to coin a memorable phrase.

Last summer I read an article about facts. According to a recent study, people who mistakenly believe something don’t necessarily change their minds when presented with the facts. To the contrary, they often become more sure they’re right, even though they’re wrong

Here’s a good example. A Pakistani scholar who lives near the Afghan border knows for a “fact” that Jewish Americans helped destroy the World Trade Center so that the United States could invade Afghanistan. It wouldn’t matter how much contrary information you gave this man. In his mind, facts are facts, even if they’re his facts, and contrary evidence is beside the point. Here’s another. A friend of mine recently told me that unemployed people don’t want to work. “It’s a fact,” he explained. I suppose that’s one of those “facts” that you can’t prove one way or the other. I’ve noticed that oftentimes facts are really just opinions expressed with total certainty. I asked my friend whether he knows any employed person who is eager to become unemployed in order to enjoy the benefits of joblessness. Then we returned to our usual topic – the Red Sox.

It used to be that yesterday’s newspaper wrapped today’s fish. Fish consumption keeps going up, but newspaper reading keeps going down. In the Internet era, something gets published online, you can’t use it to wrap anything, and it lasts forever. How many of you have received emails forwarded by friends (or strangers) stating as a fact something from the Internet that is completely untrue? I got one stating that a few years ago 84 members of Congress were stopped for driving drunk, and 14 have been arrested for drug offenses. I suppose those could be “facts,” but they’re not – they are completely bogus.

I grew up in an opinionated family on my mother’s side. Somehow, they knew what was true. I used to wonder out loud, “How do you know that?” My mother would answer, “That’s what people say.” “What people?” I would ask. Her answer was always the same. “People who know.”

As for me, I’ve got the opposite problem. Maybe I get that from my father. “I love to be wrong,” I told my kids when they were young. Since that was often the case, it was a useful way for me to feel. “Why?” they would ask. “Because that’s how you learn things,” I told them. Maybe the recent study that I read about doesn’t apply to me.

Or maybe it does. When I was four, my mother and grandmother took me to New York. We went to the Empire State Building, and my mother said, “Joey, that’s the tallest building in the world.” “No, it’s not,” I said. “I’ve seen a bigger building.” “Where?” asked my mother. “In Claremont,” I told her. And that’s a fact.

2017-05-19T20:27:49+00:00By |