Occasionally I’ve had an exchange with someone who presented a fact or a series of facts while either declaring or implying that they speak for themselves. During such moments I am often reminded of an instance when Ronald Reagan misquoted John Adams by saying, “Facts are stupid things,” instead of, “Facts are stubborn things.” I became aware of this misquote in a critical thinking class where the professor used it to help us understand the nature of facts and the workings of the human mind. For this professor, Reagan’s misquote was an unintentional source of profound insight, which was that facts are not intelligent entities that can tell us how they are to be interpreted or understood. Rather, they are inert realities that are reliant upon human minds to make connections within a context in order to derive or substantiate their significance. In utilizing Reagan’s quote, the professor was not intending to be dismissive of facts. Instead, he was encouraging us to become critical of facts, particularly by helping us understand how the mind can manage and mismanage information in the process of interpretation.
To give an example from this campaign season, in an attempt to build a case for Obama’s lack of patriotism, much was made over the fact that while refurbishing and personalizing the plane to be used for his campaign the controversial senator removed a picture of an American flag from its tail. In its place was put the symbol for Obama’s campaign, which some read as a clear sign of his egoism, or of his placing self interests above American interests. Given this discrete bit of information, I can see how his actions can be interpreted in this manner, but the deal is this bit of information needs to be put into a larger context and connected to other facts.
The plane Obama refurbished, once he became the official candidate for his party, was a part of North American’s fleet of planes and as such it bore the commercial markings of this company, among which was a stylized American flag on the tail. It was this commercial symbol that Obama removed, a symbol that at best expresses that North American is an American company, and at worst could be seen as North American’s attempt to cash in on patriotic sentiments for commercial profit. Either way, it was a copyrighted symbol that was not intended to be used by whoever wants to as an expression of personal patriotism. Putting all of these facts together, in the context of how campaign vehicles are traditionally decorated, and it looks like his actions are better read as an expression of his taking ownership of the plane for its new, non-commercial purpose. This reading of the facts seems even more accurate when one compares his plane to McCain’s, which also doesn’t have an American flag on it, and is clearly decorated with the purpose of promoting McCain’s candidacy.
Another example from this campaign season comes from the attempt to besmirch McCain’s military service by circulating a confession that he made on the television show “60 Minutes,” back in 1997. In this confession, it is a fact that McCain said, “I am a war criminal… I bombed innocent women and children.” In order to understand this apparently plainspoken statement, however, it must be put into the context. In short, McCain was expressing his sorrow over the fact that after beatings, torture, and other forms of severe pressure he finally capitulated to his captors who forced him into making this confession. Clearly, in this context it is seen that those words on McCain’s lips were not a genuine confession of guilt, but rather an expression of the underhanded and heinous techniques that opponents in a war will use to gain a psychological advantage.
Why am I giving this lesson on critical thinking and facts? First, because I want it to be known that I am not generally impressed by the idea that facts speak for themselves. If my family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances are going to present facts to me, they need to know that what I’m going to look at is how one makes connections between those facts. Moreover, I am generally going to suspend judgment on the belief that further information is needed in order for me to make an informed interpretation or conclusion. I realize that there are some instances where conclusions have to be quickly drawn, where one cannot indefinitely wait for further information, but my impression is that rashness and not paralysis is the prevailing vice of our political climate.
My second reason for this lesson is really more about attitude than thinking, although, in my experience the two are connected. Regarding attitude, I am generally disappointed with how my Christian brothers and sisters conduct themselves during election seasons. Moving beyond my fear that many of them have allowed their theology to be enmeshed in the culture wars, I am disappointed with how often I have heard people I know and admire say things about political candidates that goes against an ethic of respect, which I think is the younger brother of love. More than any others, I think we Christians should be zealous to uphold the dignity and respect of all people, now matter how flawed they may be, for we believe that all humans are created in God’s image. Moreover, I imagine that if all Christians acted zealously for the dignity of all, instead of zealously for political gain, they would affect the kind of change they hope for when they seek political advantage. This is not to say that politics doesn’t matter, it does. However, in all things, whether politics, business, education, or whatever, we need to conduct ourselves in such a way that we reveal the hope we have beyond the the limited hopes that these things offer.