Truth or consequences, USA

Recently the NYT maga­zine inter­viewed Carla Hayden, the head librarian at the Library of Congress. The inter­viewer noted that the Library is “of Congress” because it was orig­i­nally estab­lished to provide members of Congress with what Ms. Hayden calls “unbi­ased, nonpar­tisan infor­ma­tion.”

So they could, you know, make better deci­sions.

How quaint.

Apho­risms like “you’re enti­tled to your own opin­ions; not your own facts” (attrib­uted to Daniel Moynihan) or “facts are stub­born things” (attrib­uted to John Adams) obscure an incon­ve­nient truth: many of the things we call facts are actu­ally opin­ions. Not just any opin­ions, we hope. Rather, they’re opin­ions supported by a crit­ical mass of evidence (i.e., quan­tity) that’s been offered by cred­ible people (i.e., quality). And even if stub­born, facts can—and some­times should—be dislodged.

Science is premised on this idea. A scien­tific fact—e.g., natural selec­tion or quantum mechanics—is not some immov­able mono­lith rising from the sand. It’s just what­ever idea is left over after research has elim­i­nated the other possi­bil­i­ties. But these facts retain a degree of uncer­tainty. If tomorrow, a melting Arctic iceberg revealed a fossil of a caveman riding a dinosaur—we’d have to recon­sider some things.

That doesn’t excuse denialism, which holds that the uncer­tainty inherent in any scien­tific fact can negate the under­lying evidence. Wrong, obvi­ously: to over­come evidence, you have to offer better evidence.

This idea is also core to our legal system. The law of evidence repre­sents a set of find­ings, evolved over centuries of legal proceed­ings, about which kinds of infor­ma­tion are trust­worthy and which are not. It balances consid­er­a­tions of fair­ness, effi­ciency, and human nature. (I loved evidence class in law school—though despite being the only topic that touches every aspect of legal prac­tice, it’s not manda­tory.) Central to evidence law is the idea that every unit of evidence rests on a plat­form of cred­i­bility: do we trust the source?

Against that back­drop, it’s inter­esting that evidence is the part of the legal system that relies most heavily on nonlawyers. When you serve on a jury, your job is to deter­mine facts. How? By weighing the evidence. The notion of “weighing” implies that multiple opin­ions—for instance, witnesses with conflicting recol­lec­tions—will compete to be accepted as fact.

In our polit­ical system, this is consid­ered a bug. But in jury trials, it’s a feature. In Cali­fornia, when deciding which witness to believe, jurors are instructed to consider not only the substance of the testi­mony, but also “How did the witness look, act, and speak while testi­fying?” (As a typog­ra­pher, I mention this to lawyers who insist—without evidence—that substance always over­rides presen­ta­tion.)

One of my favorite maga­zines, Mother Jones, was recently named maga­zine of the year by the Amer­ican Society of Maga­zine Editors. Some pigeon­hole it as a lefty mouth­piece. Maybe some­times. But more often, they do the exca­va­tion and invite you to consider the evidence unearthed. For instance, when they sent a reporter to work under­cover in a private prison for four months. I pay $600 a year for my subscrip­tion (though you can pay $12) because these people are serious about the tradi­tion of inves­tiga­tive jour­nalism: follow the evidence. And they don’t take shit from anyone. Good prin­ci­ples for those who want to know more truth.