Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Stuff I Wish I Had Written About Facts And Philosphy

Political debates often get heated.  One reason is that people believe facts speak for themselves.  Writing at Front Porch Republic, John Medaille writes,
The problem, however, is that there are no such things as “naked facts,” only details. “Facts” are the details we select because we believe they will be useful for some purpose, such as constructing a theory. We might compare the construction of a theory to the making of a map. Any map of necessity leaves out more than it includes, but the details selected as “facts” depend entirely on the purpose of the map. That is, a road map will have one set of facts, while a political map another set and a topological map a third, and only the selected details will count as “facts” for the purpose of the map; everything else will be irrelevant detail, to be excluded.

In the same way, the creation of theories involves a selection of details that one believes will be useful in constructing the theory. Further, this process must be, by definition, pre-theoretical; that is, the researcher starts with his own beliefs, his values, in selecting the details that will count as facts. For example, a statement like, “Unemployment stands at 8.9%,” certainly sounds “scientific” in the “value-neutral” sense, but it turns out that it involves value judgments at every step of the process: what is to count as “unemployement,” how it is to be counted, who will be included in the count, what will be considered the final terms, etc., are all value-laden—and political—decisions.

In other words, we must have some purpose in mind before we decide which details will count as facts; the facts do not create the theory, the theory creates the facts. As in the case of the map, it is the theory that discriminates between “facts” and “irrelevant details.”
Medaille's last paragraph points out why Republicans and Democrats, or tea partiers and progressives, or policy debaters and Lincoln-Douglas debaters can't get along.  They don't share the same theories, so they can't agree on what facts are relevant.

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