Truth and/or Facts?

Nia Peters responds to the question: To what extent do you agree with the claim that “there’s a world of difference between truth and facts” (Maya Angelou)?

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Is there a difference between truth and facts?

Nia Peters, Grade 12 ToK

Truth and facts are often treated synonymously, this claim suggests that the two things are vastly different and that the notion that they are equivalent is preposterous. ‘Truth’ refers to something which is absolutely the case. ‘Facts’ are things which exist and manifest themselves in tangible ways. Truth differs from facts in that it is far more personal and contextualised. It is the somewhat idealistic culmination of various pieces of information and encompasses emotions, faith, intuition, and several other aspects from which facts are isolated. Facts are far less complex than truth and are more isolated and objective. Unlike truth which has deep moral and ethical connotations, facts possess a more utilitarian undertone. Facts often lack the depth of truth and are somewhat mechanical in the sense that they are devoid of human interpretation and emotion.

I disagree with the claim that “there’s a world of difference between truth and facts” because though I concede that the two things are not the same, I do not agree that there are no similarities between them. Truth and facts are interconnected and have many areas of overlap which can make it difficult to make a clear distinction between them. Although truth transcends facts, facts are often used to find truth. They are essential tools in the production of truth.

In history, facts are the various pieces of evidence or sources to which historians have access. Truth is the result of the evaluation of sources and their interpretation by historians. On the other hand, in the natural sciences, facts are the observations scientists make from the world around them, and truth refers to the bigger scientific laws and ideas scientists draw from those observations. In both history and the natural sciences truth and facts are comparable but also have their individual nuances.

In history, I agree to a substantial extent that “there’s a world of difference between truth and facts.” The two things are different in that facts often show a basic and limited perspective of a historical event, whilst truth provides the explanation and detail which make history more personal and relevant to us as individuals. Throughout the DP History course, we tend to approach historical truths as being things which are malleable and vary depending on culture and perspective. When writing essays, we often answer “To what extent” questions and we are tasked with explaining and giving reasons for how far we agree with a given historical truth. The fact that we complete these questions when examining historical events proves that truth in history accounts for perspective and is not always objective. Thus, it is a world of difference away from facts.

An example of this difference is shown by the Lost Cause narrative. Following the end of the US Civil War in which the Southern Confederacy lost to the Northern Union, this narrative was perpetuated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), an American women’s patriotic society.1 The narrative romanticizes Southern history by glorifying the Confederacy, and the system of slavery, it puts forth the idea that the US Civil War was not fought because of slavery. The facts or historical evidence show that the war was fought over slavery, the Confederacy did support slavery and slavery was a malicious and inhumane system which was detrimental to black people. The UDC perpetuated this narrative because it was their truth. Depending on which side of the Civil War you stand, the truth can look completely different. The metaphysical and personal nature of truth meant that regardless of the facts, the South’s vested interest of needing to vindicate themselves following their defeat dictated their truth. In this instance, the adage that “There are three sides to the story – yours, mine and the truth” becomes all the more accurate.

The discrepancy between truth and facts is further evidenced when we look at the outcomes of different wars throughout history. For example, when looking at the outcome of the Second World War, we often hear about how “The Allied Powers won the war.” This historical truth may correlate with the facts, as the facts demonstrate the Allied Powers succeeded in their goal to prevent Hitler’s Germany and the other Axis powers from expanding further. However, on the other hand, one could disagree and claim the truth was that The Allied Powers did not win as their goal was achieved at the expense of many soldiers’ lives, excessive amounts of money and a great deal of political, social, and economic stress. In this instance it is evident that “there’s a world of difference between truth and facts.”

However, it could also be argued that there is not “a world of difference between truth and facts” when we consider that in history the truths of experts are valued over the truths of individuals. Regardless of whether one person’s truth is that The Allied powers lost the war, The truth of most expert historians asserts that The Allied Powers did in fact win. Because historians’ truths do correlate with the facts, it could be said that there is not a “world of difference” between truth and facts.

In the natural sciences there is not “a world of difference between truth and facts” Facts in the natural sciences are different from truth yet the two are still very alike, thus are sometimes used interchangeably. Facts in the natural sciences are empirical, we derive them from the scientific method, once we observe something enough times, we decide it is a fact. Truth in the natural sciences is the product of various scientific inferences made by scientific experts. While we cannot argue that truth in the natural sciences is absolute because of the dynamic nature of this AOK, we can say that it is closer to facts than in other disciplines. The main variable is time and scientific discovery but at any given point, we are closer to the truth in the natural sciences because of its reliance on facts than we would be in history for example.

In the natural sciences if something exists in the natural world, it is automatically true. For example, in physics class we conducted an experiment in which we shone a beam of light through prisms of different materials like Perspex and glass. Each time we shone the beam through, it would change direction and bend as it passed from the less dense air into the denser solid and out into the air again. The facts in this instance were the observable phenomenon that when light crosses a boundary it refracts. Because of this empirical evidence, Snell’s Law, a scientific truth which explains that light refracts and that there is always a ratio between the angle of incidence and angle of reflection, is true.

Contrastingly, truth and facts in the natural sciences could be considered as having “a world of difference” between them when scientists are examining phenomena which no longer exist in our natural world. In these cases, scientists conduct historical research and must rely on past knowledge or facts more than current facts and experiments and must use variables which are not re-produceable. For example, when examining the origins of life on earth facts and truth differ. Based on facts like fossil records, scientists believe the truth is that all living creatures have evolved from ancient creatures through natural selection. However, some Christians disagree with this truth as their truth is a combination of the scientific facts as well as their faith in God. Their truth is that God was the creator of all life on earth and created humans in his image. This truth is not universal, but given that evolution took place many years ago, the truth is accepted by many, because people disagree that scientists can truly know something that they cannot see and observe. Here, individual truth and personal interpretation can be more important than the truth of experts.

In conclusion, while I agree that truth and facts are different and should be treated separately, I disagree that “there’s a world of difference” between them. Angelou’s claim implies that when we are presented with facts, we should always investigate further to find the truth or vice-versa, when told a truth we should not assume it is factual. I would argue that such an approach is useful because while there is not always a world of difference between truth and fact, we should never assume that they are the same thing. History and the natural sciences each contrast with one another in that whilst history examines past events, the natural sciences study the physical world as we are currently living it. In both areas of knowledge truth and facts can be intricately linked, often truth is achieved through facts and the validity of a fact can be assessed by how well it corresponds to the truth. In my opinion neither truth nor facts should be treated as absolute and objective pieces of knowledge as each of them can be manipulated. When looking at facts I think we should acknowledge that what we are being shown is what society is presenting to us as facts and when looking at truth, we should consider whose truth it may be.

 

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