What are facts? The facts? All facts? Any facts?By: Stephen Marsh
In dealing with historical “facts” we need to get several foundation principles before we can start trying to make “facts” into “knowledge.” [Yes, this is part of the post I was going to try to get Nick to write, and goes over some of the things he brings up when he talks about how the historical "facts" people seem to think they know are a lot less "fact" and a lot more "story."]
First, words vs. meaning. There are are lots of words we think we know, that don’t mean what people commonly think they mean. For example, ask yourself how many men does a centurion command and how many are in a century? Seems pretty simple right. Of course you answered 40 to 60 men, right? 40 if the empire was doing very poorly, often 60, 100 if everything was perfect. But usually 60. Or, if a unit is “destroyed” what percentage casualties did it take? Lets say a classic Greek vs. Greek phalanx fight where they enemy is routed and “slaughtered.” That would be 18%. [Different percentages for different types of units in different types of combat, btw. Generally "destroyed" = lost unit cohesion; sometimes "slaughtered" means ran away and dropped their armor; occasionally the same word is used for losses ranging from 18% to 100%.]
Second, context. For example, on the FLDS compound there was some statutory rape going on. No question. However, the rate was lower than the rate for the inner city area of Dallas or Austin. Lower than the rate for the foster care system of the State of Texas. So, were the children in greater or lesser danger being taken out of their homes and into foster care? Context can matter a great deal. In several historical periods the rate of divorce might have been a good deal lower than our current one, but the average duration of a marriage was about the same (they just ended by death or abandonment, mostly death, rather than divorce).
Third, facts vs. interpretation. Interpretations are generally stories or narratives. Some make more sense than others, some pass in and out of fashion. Take Fanny Alger who was somewhere between 14 and 19 when she worked as a mother’s helper for Emma Smith. “There are no first-hand accounts of their relationship (from Joseph or Fanny), nor are there second-hand accounts (from Emma or Fanny’s family). All that we do have is third hand accounts, most of them recorded many years after the events.” The accounts consist of Eliza R. Snow’s comments, two letters written by excommunicated Latter-day Saint apostle William E. McLellin years after the events, and a number of rumors that circulated at the time (either that she had made a pass at Joseph or that he had a relationship with her).
For the most part, people jump past the possibility that she was adopted into Joseph and Emma’s family (or other possibilities) and latch on to the rumors. From those have spun a number of narratives, “More than anything else, one’s attitude toward Joseph will affect how the fragmentary evidence is interpreted” — and taking a “side” (which, of course is often done with less than a complete set of facts) generally results in thinking poorly of one or more of the individuals involved. (I’ve had some fun by quoting from http://en.fairmormon.org/ for things that are obviously cursory conclusions — and linked to an essay that disagrees with the notes I’ve made). It is possible that all or none of the stories that have circulated are correct. That everyone involved was a villain or that no one was. The truth is that there are really not enough data points to be certain.
I’ve used that example (Ms. Alger’s realtionship) because talking about it leads to the real problem. The real problem is that we often jump from a few data points to an interpretation too fast. Interpretation creates conclusions. Once we have conclusions we forget that we have merely a few data points which we hope are facts. In general, at that point we quit looking for more facts, more data, and start reinforcing the conclusions we have drawn. Of course the conclusions we reach may be correct. We are hard wired to jump to conclusions on the “better safe than sorry” theory of biological design.
But in searching for facts, no matter if we are talking “the” or “all” or “any” or the “real” facts, perhaps it would help to do a little more looking and a little less jumping.
And, on a related topic, sometimes it helps to know just what the facts are referring to. For example, when someone talks about the tax rate being 18% or 20% — do they mean per capita (thus including and averaging in all the children?); do they count social security (and if they do, do they count the matching payments made by employers) as well as medicare/etc. charges; and do they calculate it as %tage of gross income or of taxable income or some other measurement of income?