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.
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.