In dealing with historical “facts” we need to get several foundation principles before we can start trying to make “facts” into “knowledge.” [Yes, this is part of the post I was going to try to get Nick to write, and goes over some of the things he brings up when he talks about how the historical “facts” people seem to think they know are a lot less “fact” and a lot more “story.”]
First, words vs. meaning. There are are lots of words we think we know, that don’t mean what people commonly think they mean. For example, ask yourself how many men does a centurion command and how many are in a century? Seems pretty simple right. Of course you answered 40 to 60 men, right? 40 if the empire was doing very poorly, often 60, 100 if everything was perfect. But usually 60. Or, if a unit is “destroyed” what percentage casualties did it take? Lets say a classic Greek vs. Greek phalanx fight where they enemy is routed and “slaughtered.” That would be 18%. [Different percentages for different types of units in different types of combat, btw. Generally “destroyed” = lost unit cohesion; sometimes “slaughtered” means ran away and dropped their armor; occasionally the same word is used for losses ranging from 18% to 100%.]
Second, context. For example, on the FLDS compound there was some statutory rape going on. No question. However, the rate was lower than the rate for the inner city area of Dallas or Austin. Lower than the rate for the foster care system of the State of Texas. So, were the children in greater or lesser danger being taken out of their homes and into foster care? Context can matter a great deal. In several historical periods the rate of divorce might have been a good deal lower than our current one, but the average duration of a marriage was about the same (they just ended by death or abandonment, mostly death, rather than divorce).
Third, facts vs. interpretation. Interpretations are generally stories or narratives. Some make more sense than others, some pass in and out of fashion. Take Fanny Alger who was somewhere between 14 and 19 when she worked as a mother’s helper for Emma Smith. “There are no first-hand accounts of their relationship (from Joseph or Fanny), nor are there second-hand accounts (from Emma or Fanny’s family). All that we do have is third hand accounts, most of them recorded many years after the events.” The accounts consist of Eliza R. Snow’s comments, two letters written by excommunicated Latter-day Saint apostle William E. McLellin years after the events, and a number of rumors that circulated at the time (either that she had made a pass at Joseph or that he had a relationship with her).
For the most part, people jump past the possibility that she was adopted into Joseph and Emma’s family (or other possibilities) and latch on to the rumors. From those have spun a number of narratives, “More than anything else, one’s attitude toward Joseph will affect how the fragmentary evidence is interpreted” — and taking a “side” (which, of course is often done with less than a complete set of facts) generally results in thinking poorly of one or more of the individuals involved. (I’ve had some fun by quoting from http://en.fairmormon.org/ for things that are obviously cursory conclusions — and linked to an essay that disagrees with the notes I’ve made). It is possible that all or none of the stories that have circulated are correct. That everyone involved was a villain or that no one was. The truth is that there are really not enough data points to be certain.
I’ve used that example (Ms. Alger’s realtionship) because talking about it leads to the real problem. The real problem is that we often jump from a few data points to an interpretation too fast. Interpretation creates conclusions. Once we have conclusions we forget that we have merely a few data points which we hope are facts. In general, at that point we quit looking for more facts, more data, and start reinforcing the conclusions we have drawn. Of course the conclusions we reach may be correct. We are hard wired to jump to conclusions on the “better safe than sorry” theory of biological design.
But in searching for facts, no matter if we are talking “the” or “all” or “any” or the “real” facts, perhaps it would help to do a little more looking and a little less jumping.
And, on a related topic, sometimes it helps to know just what the facts are referring to. For example, when someone talks about the tax rate being 18% or 20% — do they mean per capita (thus including and averaging in all the children?); do they count social security (and if they do, do they count the matching payments made by employers) as well as medicare/etc. charges; and do they calculate it as %tage of gross income or of taxable income or some other measurement of income?
this has made it hard for me to get a handle on mormonism. according to president Hinckley, if the first vision didn’t happen, we are engaged in a massive fraud. and like you said, facts are hard to pin down. i just don’t know if the first vision happened, or how it happened, or how i will ever know.
If the first vision was a fact, many people would respond to it for reasons other than belief/conversion; perhaps regarding membership like obtaining insurance. They don’t agree with it or like the cost, but view it as necessary.
In the end, people tend to believe what they want to believe, even experts. So interpretation can be slanted toward that. That is precisely why a single present event can get differing explanations. So when it comes to history, you have both interpretation and extrapolation. Oh, and speculation.
Excellent thoughts, Stephen. I especially liked:
“But in searching for facts, no matter if we are talking “the” or “all” or “any” or the “real” facts, perhaps it would help to do a little more looking and a little less jumping.”
One of the quotes I read decades ago that has stuck with me is pretty simple:
“We don’t believe what we see; we see what we believe.”
Nice post, Stephen.
Ray, nice quote. Of course what *I* see is most important… 😉
dragon — that is part of prayer and faith, and why they are important, in a world where “facts” are not as clear as they might be.
The entire encounter between Christ and Thomas resonates with all of these issues.
More later, I had to come back early from vacation and have to go in to work.
Paul, Jeff, Mike and Ray — thanks for keeping this an adult conversation.
One of my favorite songs has this verse:
A man’s called a traitor or liberator,
a rich man’s a thief or philanthropist,
is one a crusader or ruthless invader?
it all depends on which label is able to persist.
There are precious few at ease with simple ambiguities and so we act as though they don’t exist…
Bonus points if you already knew that was the ‘wonderful’ wizard from Wicked. But OH so true when you look at history. I once took a world history class taught by a professor who was French. COMPLETELY different than any other world history class I’d ever had because the perspective was different. So cool.
“For the most part, people jump past the possibility that she was adopted into Joseph and Emma’s family (or other possibilities) and latch on to the rumors.”
Your point about how to interpret “facts” is well-taken. Both sides of church debates have been guilty of using less-than reliable sources. However, your conjecture about Fanny Alger possibly not being married to Joseph Smith doesn’t help your point much. Yes, there are no first-hand accounts about them being married (or having an affair). But I think an objective reader would conclude that the majority of evidence strongly points to a marriage relationship. And when the church comes down on one side, it’s clear to me that the argument is close to being settled, if not already:
#2: “If the first vision was a fact…” Do you mean a verifiable fact? Certainly Joseph reported it as a fact.
As Stephen suggests (in the OP and comment #6), the way one comes to accept that fact is the interesting discussion.
In matters of faith, believers often speak in terms of facts for which there is no emperical evidence (and I don’t limit myself to the LDS “I know” issue — my Christian friends also “know” Jesus lives and loves them).
In matters of non-faith (eg, secular history), the same issues of knowledge v. belief exist, depending on how one views the provider of the facts.
So, what is our definition of a fact for this discussion?
Paul: nicely said in #9.
Heber13: for this discussion a fact can be either a data point (the denoted fact) or the meaning of a data point (the connoted fact).
Or, it can be something that someone has chosen to believe as fact.
It’s also interesting how some things morph from their original explanation and become significantly different “facts” over time.
For example, the description of the First Vision over time is interesting – and the insistence by many members now that it absolutely, unequivocally was a personal visitation through which Joseph realized that the Father and the Son have physical bodies just isn’t supported by Joseph’s actual accounts. ***I’m NOT saying it proves that they don’t have such bodies*** – but it certainly doesn’t prove they do.
It was presented as (and still is titled as) a “vision” – not a visitation. There was NO physical contact recorded of any kind that would “prove” they had such bodies. It was only years later that Joseph began to teach of the physical nature of their bodies – not right away. It appears that this aspect of their exstence was not “proven” to Joseph and others until resurrected beings laid hands on their heads – and when Joseph had taken the time to study the Bible and wonder about the passages that appear to teach that belief.
This is an important point in a discussion like this about ascertaining “facts” – since, all too often, people separated by (even relatively) large periods of time end up seeing the same event in factually different ways. If the same event can morph from one “fact” to a different “fact” even among those who accept and revere the event, is it any wonder that people who disagree about the event don’t accept it as “fact” in any way?
Ah, Ray, you are getting to the difference between necessary to a “fact” and possible to a “fact” — and that people often confound those points.
It gets fun when you look at “ten thousand” in the Book of Mormon. Is that ten thousand men or is it a military unit called a “ten thousand” (like a legion, perhaps). Similar military units could get as small as five hundred men in some circumstances.
When some one is slain with their “ten thousand” does that mean that ten thousand men and the leader ended up dead on the field? Or does it mean that the leader died and the men fled with 15% to 18% casualties in a unit that might have had less than two thousand men (or about 400 dead)?
That is an example of “words” and meaning not necessarily being clear.
Or Ray’s example of “a “vision” – not a visitation.” “No man has seen God and lived” — does that mean that Stephen, the martyr, did not see God, or does dying from being stoned count, or are visions some sort of exception?
Here is a fact:
There is a coffee flavored PEZ candy.
I don’t know who determines what coffee flavor is or is not, but the fact is they make it (do kids break the Word of Wisdom if they eat it?).
As humans, we take facts (and PEZ) and then put stories and meanings to them (I like this PEZ or I don’t, it does taste like coffee or it doesn’t, and these are my favorite flavors, not the same as yours). That is often where we jumble the facts from meanings or experiences.
Fact is, Joseph had a vision. Ray has pointed out some interesting thoughts around that fact.
I love Pez! Never had coffee flavor, though.
Re #13 Ray-
Very well said. Brilliant!
I like this post. I find the social construction of facts and the sociology of knowledge a fascinating topic. I find it interesting that a fact is something that is marked as significant and worth knowing, and is different to information.
“There are are lots of words we think we know, that don’t mean what people commonly think they mean.”
Here I would beg to differ, most words if not all do not have a definitive, universal definition. Such a concept of language where a word has a fixed meaning that is correlated to the word is an antiquated notion of language. Ludvig WIttgenstein refuted this notion saying that meaning is constructed by how people commonly use the word. As long as people agree on the rules as to how the word can be used then that creates its meaning. In essence a dictionary is just a record of the socially constructed ways in which we agree a word can be used, but words can always change meaning over time. So if how people commonly understand and use the word now is different to how it was used in the past then that just shows the evolution of language not that people misunderstand what the word means.
Meaning to words like facts are the products of society and interpretation.