the tricky facts

Thoughts From Steven: An Example of “Reporting the Facts”

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Facts are a tricky thing. People treat them as if they have the power to settle an argument, that they reveal the truth about something, that are indisputable. People who rely on science for their understanding of origins often do these things. They make statements such as, “It is a fact that the earth is millions of years old” or “The theory of evolution should be elevated to a fact rather than simply a theory.” Rather than go into all of the nuances about facts right now, I want to illustrate how facts are subjective. They are subjective to interpretation and by how they are presented to an observer. I encountered an interesting example of this while listening to the radio on the way to work.

I listen to a morning news show on the way to work that reports on local events. Like most news shows, they give “teasers” a few minutes before they report on the story. One such teaser said, “A shooting in Wichita involving a concealed carry gun. News on that, coming up.”

My initial reaction to that was, “Oh no. Someone who had a concealed carry gun got trigger happy and shot someone in a dispute. Now those opposed to concealed carry laws will claim, ‘See! Concealed carry doesn’t protect anyone, it only encourages the use of guns to settle disputes.’” Granted, I reached this conclusion because of a particular bias. Part of my bias was the knowledge that a few years back when concealed carry laws were a state-wide issue, those in the opposition made the arguments that there would be shootouts in the streets because people would think of themselves as John Wayne, settling scores with their guns rather than with reason.

While my first impression was biased, looking back on the initial teaser rationally, it is worth noting that the only detail given about the shooting was that it involved a concealed gun. While there is still a range of possibilities based on that information, it does suggest that the fact that the gun was concealed played an important role in the shooting. The most obvious role would be that the suspect has a gun on hand, no one was aware that he had a gun, and that facilitated the shooting. That is a reasonable conclusion based on the teaser.

When the story was actually reported, the details surprised me. What had happened was that two men got into a dispute over a concealed carry firearm. Apparently, the suspect didn’t like it that the victim had a concealed carry. During the dispute, the suspect disarmed the victim and ended up shooting him in the leg. The report was surprising because the concealed nature of the gun did not influence its use in the shooting. Rather, that was the point of contention, and in an ironic twist, it was the one opposed to the concealed gun who did the shooting. The actual report was basically the complete opposite of what one would have guessed from the teaser.

Now, putting aside the issue of concealed carry, just think about the teaser and the report in terms of the facts that they presented. The teaser presented true facts. Nothing it said was incorrect. However, many significant details were not mentioned in the teaser, making it very easy to draw the wrong conclusion about the shooting.

Such is the way with all facts. Facts can be presented without context, and those hearing the facts will reach a wrong conclusion. People can hear facts and interpret that according to a particular bias and, again, reach the wrong conclusion. That was what I did when I first heard the report. The truth is that facts do not stand on their own. Facts are filtered and interpreted by human minds. As such, they never speak for themselves. Rather, they speak according to their context and according to a person’s bias.

There are obvious implications about the shortcomings of facts in the origins debate. I want to use a particular example of such shortcomings using transitional forms. That will be discussed in the next post.

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