Facts, Evidence, Wisdom, And Gossip

JackWebbI’m not sure why, as a child, the TV show Dragnet captured my attention and imagination. Perhaps it was the theme song with its beat and blaring horns or perhaps it was the staccato, film-noir dialogue or the claim that the episodes were based on actual cases from the files of the Los Angeles police department. On television, even in black and white, the streets of Los Angeles seemed clean, sunny (unlike my town, there was never any snow in the streets of Dragnet), open (strangely devoid of cars), and adorned with art deco. The show first began on radio in the 1940s and moved to television in the early 50s. Jack Webb played the lead detective, Sgt. Joe Friday. His partners changed over the years but Harry Morgan as Detective Bill Gannon was the most memorable. Sgt. Friday’s most famous line was often spoken to a rattled or ratting witness: “Just the facts.” In the search for the perpetrators, officers Friday and Gannon needed the facts in order to discover who and done what to whom, to catch the criminal, and to deliver him to justice.

Contrary to rumors that began in France in the 1960s, which began to circulate widely in North America in the 1980s, facts still matter but, as D. C. McAllister argues in an essay in the Federalist today, there is more to discovering truth than accumulating what is sometimes called “raw data.” Of course there is no such thing really as “raw data” or uninterpreted, “brute facts.” Michael Polanyi (1889–1976)) showed that, in every science experiment, sometime must select the data to be studied and someone must do the studying from some framework. There is an unavoidably personal, subjective element in all-knowing. Readers and students of Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987) have long known that there are and can be no “brute” facts because God has already interpreted everything. He has assigned a significance to everything. As creatures made in his image our responsibility is to interpret reality according to God’s self-disclosure (revelation), to think analogically, to think God’s thoughts after him, as it were.

This does not mean that there are no facts whatever but it does mean that we must be honest in acknowledging and accounting for the subjective element in the accumulation and interpretation of facts and evidence. For example, when beginning an investigation, a historian cannot decide ahead of time (a priori) how a story must out. He must do his best to assemble and assess the facts honestly and fairly. He should be committed to telling the truth—which, of course, assumes that there is truth to be told—as best he can. To say that there is no truth is not a statement of fact. It’s a theological claim and it is a theological claim to say that there is truth. These are unavoidably fundamental, first order, religious claims about the nature of things. These claims arise from a web of convictions, a worldview (a theology really), with which and in which we all work and through which we determine the ultimate significance of any fact. That web of convictions, however, is not incorrigible. It does change as mine did. Once I interpreted things through the lens or in the web of convictions about ultimate things that said nothing had any particular significance because the world is essentially random and chaotic. Sometimes I considered that there was probably a god of some sort that was generally overseeing things but not such that he (or it) was actively involved in the world and certainly not in a way that would mean that I was not autonomous relative to all other wills (even God’s). I was an Enlightened, modern person. I assumed that I was the measure of all things and that the world was what I said it was.

When, however, I discovered that I was not the measure of all things, that there was a transcendent, fixed, absolute, objective moral law to which I was accountable and when I discovered that there is a Law giver, a righteous, holy, just God who was not as pleased with me as I had hitherto been with myself everything changed. Suddenly I became very small. We have that experience occasionally. In Southern California even the most successful go-go business person knows how small she is when the cliff supporting her home high above the Malibu beach crumbles and her once-grand home washes into a much grander ocean. When the a big earthquake hits Southern California and freeways and mighty buildings begin to sway or a massive tornado sweeps through Nebraska then we realize that it is true: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Christians know (or should know) that we try to make sense of God’s world, through the lens of God’s self-revelation in holy Scripture and that process of making sense of things requires that we use the intellect God gave us. After all, we must read Scripture. We must, with the help of God’s Spirit, by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, come to a true understanding of what Scripture says and necessarily implies.

My worldview changed. There is an interplay between perception, facts, and the web of convictions in which everyone makes sense of things. My perception of the world changed when, by the Spirit of God, I was changed. I understood things I had not heretofore understood or began to understand them in a way I had not. In a sense, then, I was given new evidence, new facts (reality) to consider and a new perception of things simultaneously. McAllister argues that, as we seek to make sense of things, we should not be naive about evidence and facts and that there’s more to knowing than assembling data. Data, she says, cannot think for you. We must think. She reminds us of a film in which a just man is accused of a heinous crime. A boy whom he’s tutoring says, “just tell me you didn’t do it and I’ll believe you.” The tutor won’t let him off the hook. He insists that the boy use his mind, his ability to reason, that he draw upon his experience of and with the tutor to make his own judgment. Did his experience suggest to him that the accusations were likely true or false.

McLeod wasn’t going to let Norstadt cheat on the test of life, because it was only through using his own mind, factoring in all that he had personally observed, reading between the lines, if you will, that he would know the truth. Norstadt wanted to take the easy route. He didn’t want to think. McLeod wasn’t going to let him get away with that, even when his own reputation was on the line.

There is more to knowing the truth than assembling facts. We use intuitions (things we know before we can articulate them fully) that are formed by experience and (sense) impressions. As Polanyi showed there is real knowledge that cannot be quantified. A luthier cannot quantify what makes this tree a better source of wood for an instrument. He cannot quantify or tell an apprentice how to form that wood into an instrument, but he can show him. That’s why the trades require an apprenticeship after formal education. There are some important things that cannot be taught in a lab or a classroom.

Nevertheless there are such things as facts, even if they aren’t “brute.” Frequently I hear the sentence, “he got his facts wrong.” That sentence does not make much sense. By definition a fact is true. A fact is what is. Our noun fact comes from the Latin verb facere, “to do.” A fact is something that has been done, that exists, that is. If a claim is false (e.g., “the economy is improving”), it is not a fact. Sometimes the facts may be in dispute and even after we know the facts, they must be interpreted, still we may not become skeptical about the possibility of knowing the facts. We can see something and say something.

We should adhere to the conviction that there is objective, genuine, truth, that there are facts. The ninth commandment assumes the existence of truth and facts. When we say, with God’s Word, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” we are saying that there is truth, that there are facts and some things are contrary to truth and facts. This is why gossip is so pernicious. It is often repeated and accepted as if it were truth even though it is not factual, even though it is not true. Gossip has the form of truth but not its substance. It might be true. It’s plausible. After all, we’re all sinners and so it’s not difficult to imagine that someone did what is being alleged of her, even when it contradicts our own experience. Have we ever known her to act in the way alleged? Do we have any direct or even reliable evidence that she did say or do what is alleged? Absent these things, why are so often prepared to hear the worst about others, even those we know, even when what is being reported is contrary to our own experience? We accept substitutes for truth and we even act on them because we are fallen and fallible.

There’s more to knowing than “just the facts ma’am” but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t facts. McAllister makes and important point. The internet gives us a false impression about knowledge. People can harvest data and claim things that seem plausible. There are online parody magazines that are increasingly difficult to distinguish from ostensibly serious news publications such that they get cited by professional journalists. Silly stuff that once circulated via photocopies (Xeroxes) now shows up on social media suggesting that there’s a lot of internet-fueled credulity out there. It should not be so among Christians. We should be people of truth, facts, evidence, and most of all wisdom and discernment.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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