What Is Truth… And How Do We Know?
May 22, 2020
May 22, 2020
Photo: En Cas de Feu ©2014 David Bethune
When I talk about Mimix as a fact-checking or fact verification tool, the most common question I hear is, “But how does Mimix know what constitutes a fact?” I imagine the other person is visualizing the man behind the green curtain from The Wizard of Oz – someone pulling the levers and deciding what is truth. This is definitely not how Mimix works, so to dispel this notion, let’s look at another way to determine facts… the way people already do it in their own heads.
Facts Are Not Opinions
Whenever the idea of asserting the truth comes around, people worry their own truths might be stomped on: their feelings about culture, politics, religion, and morality just to name a few. While these feelings are justifiably important and, in fact, they define many aspects of our lives and personalities, they are not actually facts. A contemporary example will serve to illustrate. Today, I saw the headline, “Michigan AG tells Trump to wear mask while visiting Ford plant: It’s ‘the law.’” This certainly sounds like a factual statement, but it is an expression of opinion. Neither the headline, nor the article, nor its quoted sources provide any factual backing as to why this would or wouldn’t be law. In fact, the actual text of the article does not say that the President must wear a mask to visit the Ford plant, despite that implication in the headline. Therefore this cannot be a story about the facts of the matter. An honest evaluation, to be performed by the reader, would require access to all the underlying facts on both sides of the opinion.
While all of our interesting discussions and documents contain opinions like this, an enormous amount of our everyday communications consists of things which are real and largely indisputable facts, such as the boiling temperature of water at sea level, the price of our mobile phone plan, the name of that gas station on the corner (or how much they charge for gas), or the atomic number of plutonium. Our speech and writing serve to communicate our thoughts and feelings, but those are peppered with real, verifiable facts. In this story, Trump, the Attorney General of Michigan, the laws of that State, and the laws of the United States are either verifiable sources of facts that can be quoted – or they are not.
Recasting a Narrative as Facts
With enough research into original sources, it’s possible to re-frame a narrative as a list of the facts it’s asserting. To continue with the previous example, a journalist or legal researcher might consult many documents from different sources and see what court decisions, opinions, or precedents they represent. Much of this information is locked up in proprietary databases and not easy to find on Google. It’s certainly not readily available in the article itself.
However, it is possible to combine the narrative text from the article just as the author wrote it with the factual sources used to support his assertions. Taken to the extreme, every sentence could be backed by some source of information. Even a statement like, “The sun rose at 6:58 this morning,” could be backed by a source which the reader could access from the sentence itself.
It’s also possible to make a table of all the facts which are stated in a paper, a website, or a book. It’s just a list of every assertion made in the text. Researching something like the Kennedy assassination would produce tables of facts from different authors which contradict each other, even on basic things like the timeline of events in Dealey Plaza.
Facts Depend on Whom You Ask
Now, wait a second. I just finished saying facts are supposed to be indisputable, like the sunrise. And now I’m saying different people turn up with different facts. And both of those things are true. Science tells us that the observer cannot be separated from the event. Crime scene interviewers will tell you different people report widely different information from their observations of (what can only be) a single set of facts.
Science, engineering, medicine, law, and business rely on accurate, repeated metrics from their observations. Scientific progress depends on repeatable, shared observations. Academia, too, relies on accurate recordings of others who have gone before.
Not only the source we are reading but also all of that person’s sources and their repeatability become factors in determining the truthfulness of a narrative. Some facts show up repeatedly and others are outliers, buried underneath noise or lost among more popular reportage. In the Dealey Plaza narrative, only a single set of events can, by the laws of physics, actually have taken place. The differences in observations by the participants and writers (and the parts they chose to leave out) serve as one “universe of truth” contained inside a single document or passage.
Facts Depend on When You Ask
Not only whom you ask but also when is a factor in determining truth. For many, many things, truth changes over time. On a quotidian scale, the sun rises at a different time every day. So the truth of “What time did the sun rise?” is different everyday (and everyplace). On a more cosmic scale, the Earth’s environment and the continents themselves are in constant shift. So even simple questions like “Where is North?” or “What are dinosaurs?” require updated information in order to be correct. With complex questions like, “How does climate affect life on earth?,” the stakes are even higher.
Legal and financial truths are also under constant revision. Was this person accused of something and later acquitted? Then the facts of his or her legal status have changed. Were the company’s financials improperly reported and then later revised? The facts of their accounting have changed.
In the medical field, facts shift from day-to-day and, in critical care, from minute-to-minute. What drugs has a person been given? What was their physiological response? In nuclear and physics processes, experiments produce huge amounts of data and analysis that must be connected with existing data in order to be useful. In biomedical research, new test results continually add to a list of known facts which can be difficult to relate across papers and publications, and are therefore frequently outdated.
Many industrial accidents occur because critical safety and systems information was not properly communicated to crews or staff – or was overlooked during the research process. Famous disasters in this category include the Space Shuttle Challenger, the Chernobyl nuclear accident, and the recent 737 MAX debacle. All of these were multibillion-dollar economic catastrophes and all caused by faulty written documents.
So in order to have any chance at finding out the truth, we have to know both who was quoted and when. A system for managing facts across the enterprise would also make it easy to effect bulk changes across documents when facts do, necessarily change.
Deciding What Is True
So who makes the final determination about what is true? You do! And this is the process we also use in real life. Over time, we learn to trust and rely on certain sources as truthful, largely based on how much we know (or think) that person has done their homework. If I were writing about a painting in the Louvre, for example, I could reasonably assume that their information is correct. There’s no need for me to go and verify a date or fact elsewhere because I’m unlikely to find out they’re wrong. If my writing references theirs in a way my readers can see, then they can trust me, too – at least on those few facts.
Our personal picture of truth is never exactly the same as anyone else’s – and we wouldn’t want it to be. If we all thought the same, innovation would come to a halt and liberty would be extinct. Better to give people the tools they need to find out where facts came from and when. That way, individual readers and writers can, themselves, decide what is factual.
Fact-Based Writing Will Change Society
Just a sprinkling of veracity in our everyday communications would be enormously helpful. A true fact-based form of writing has the potential to change every area of society. This is what we are building at Mimix. Our MSL language enables identifying and marking up the facts inside narrative text. And our Hybrid Database technology tracks changes in those facts over time and lets you analyze them, correct them, and incorporate them into your own work with your sources included. All of this happens inside your machine, using your organization’s documents and the sources you choose.
To learn more about our vision, I invite you to download the whitepaper. And if you’re interested in experimenting with our technology, please explore the MSL Specifications and our new open source framework, Nebula.