Do you remember the TV series Dragnet that featured Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday? Many people associate the Los Angeles cop with his famous opening line, “My name is Friday, — I carry a badge.” Others may associate him with the celebrated catchphrase, “Just the facts, ma’am.” As much as it has been repeated, copied, and even parodied, it in fact was never actually uttered by Joe Friday. The closest lines were, “All we want are the facts, ma’am,” and “All we know are the facts, ma’am.”
So much for facts! I would bet good money that if you asked people who know the show what phase they associate with Dragnet, more often than not you would get “Just the facts, ma’am” as the answer. I would argue that the experiment demonstrates what we already understand: we know what we believe and what we believe are the facts!
Just what are facts? Derived from the Latin factum, the dictionary tells us that facts have the quality of being actual, that they are something that have actual existence, they are an actual occurrence, and facts are a piece of information presented as having objective reality. Then why do we have so many people offering different versions of the facts?
Just watch TV, listen to radio, or read printed media. Each are replete with examples of people in the political sphere at all levels claiming that their statements are factually correct and the other person is bending the truth, not being honest, or even just flat lying! Even at the local level, we had a case at a recent Town Council meeting where a citizen made a statement where he presented what he claimed were “the fact,” only to have the Town Attorney reply that the citizen had his facts wrong. Who had the “right” facts? How are we to know?
So without personal expertise, what are we to do? I’ve even noticed that when one of the fact-check sites or newspaper columns provides evidence that a politician’s statement was not factual, it doesn’t deter them in the least; they keep making the statement. Maybe they do that because they understand something really important about us: we aren’t really that interested in contesting the facts we hear because we tend to want to accept the facts we like and those uttered by “our” guy or gal.
Will we ever come to a point where we demand more from those courting our support and actually hold them accountable for their statements? Will we demand that their statements of facts include supporting data to prove their validity? I don’t think so. I think we will continue as we have in the past. When we are faced with two sets of contradictory facts, we will choose the one we like and the one uttered by the person we like!
Too cynical? No, not cynical, just stating the facts! What do your facts lead you to believe?