The Drams Reliquary
An Experiment in Elemental Maturity
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Harvesting Fact from the Realm of Opinion
It was asked, "What was the most important thing that happened in history?"

The question was answered and the answer was sheer opinion.

It was then asked, "What was the most important thing to happen in the history of history?"

Again the question was answered, this time to a few raised eyebrows, and again the answer was clearly an opinion.

There was silence, the panel stumped. It seemed that having asked these questions to a sample group of 5,000 people was getting them nowhere. They didn't expect anything other than opinions when they'd set out in search of a factual importance, but by now they thought they would have at least been surprised with a revelation or two somewhere in those 10,000 answers. It seemed time to give up.

Brady was not the most educated among them. He didn't have a gaggle of extra letters bending his signature over the end of the page, but he was the most mature thinker among them, open to learning during the process even if the process took them to an unexpected goal. It was Brady who broke the silence, not with a "eureka!" or a "j'accuse!" but with a simple comment.

Said Brady, "The fact is that the two answers have to be different."


The Explanation

In life’s archaic arena, fact-mongers rumble with opinion-mongers to the figurative death. Better rounded humans have become a rarer breed, neither found on the arena floor nor in the audience. It tries the nerves.

While I prefer matters of fact myself, I feel compelled to remind my fellow facts enthusiasts that some full-fledged facts are not arrived at through the rigors of scientific method nor crisply via mathematical proof. Einstein, for example, while illustrating most of his “discoveries” using math, took math to a place outside of then established proofing and he additionally could not yet harness the massive, needed energies to “test” his own theories on gravity and time, practically. Some of his “facts,” facts that now hold true today and after testing, were then, for want of a simpler description, identified by layering one complex idea onto another.

Leave test tubes and Pythagoras aside for the moment. Fact can come from a comparison of pure idea to pure idea, if treated critically, and that is a living hell for the factual, data-driven, examples-rich debater. Why? Because among ideas there are opinions, and that means that while we stand there and cry foul over a “lesser” arguer asserting opinion as if on equal forensic par with fact, to remain the superior or the matured debater, we must at least acknowledge this “opiniondom-to-fact” possibility, however remote.

Deriving fact from the opinion domain can be illustrated, in part, by posing two strenuously similar questions that are both matters of opinion, and drawing out from their answers a concerted result.

My example is thus. If I were to ask, “What was the most important thing to happen in history?” answers would vary. Answers to this question are clearly a matter of opinion. If I were to instead ask, “What was the most important thing to happen in the history of history?” the answers would similarly vary. The second question is also clearly within the realm of opinion-only responses.

The mature examiner, however, can make the short leap to fact from there. There is fact that can be extracted by comparing the two answers. The easy leap gets stated, “It is a fact that both those answers MUST be opinions.” Children can make that leap. The more difficult leap is the realization that those two answers, while yielded from highly similar queries, MUST be different answers. This is a FACT.

History is the period of time from when humankind started recording events to a time in the future when they would stop doing so. Though used loosely in common speech, the word “history” does not include the Big Bang, the beginning of life on Earth, dinosaurs, or Pangaea. Those are prehistoric, pre-history, before history. History itself is basically the timeline of “stuff” written down. It is the collection of every event captured since writing began. Therefore, the “history of history” is, by contrast, a collection of only the events that impacted the recording process.

So, while a person’s opinion might be that the most important thing to have happened in history was, say, FDR getting elected President of The United States, that same person’s opinion on the most important thing to have happened in the history of history would be more like alphabets or the printing press or television. Despite the similarity in the questions and despite the very loose and overlapping usage of the term “history” in both questions, the answers MUST be different. Must equals fact, and facts can be built upon in furtherance of the discussion.


Common Rebuttals and the Points that Address Them

A quick, gut reaction might find you thinking, “The example is poor. Any two different questions will have different answers. That ‘fact’ is not such a leap.”
  • Well, first of all, unlike the example, this knee-jerk reaction doesn’t always hold true. Very different questions can have the exact same answers sometimes, especially when left open to the boundless realm of human opinion. “What is your favorite color?” can have the same answer as “What color should the city paint the bridge?” two far more disparate questions than those in the “history” example. Questions that do not even share a single key word can possibly lead to the same answer. “What does this department need to do to win the company’s Best Practice Award?” will likely not, but CAN have the exact same answer as, “How should middle-management innovate to increase the profit margin?” The point is, almost any two diverse questions can have the same answer and can have different answers. There is no MUST that can be applied throughout and therefore no fact to the assertion that “any two questions will have different answers.” The gut reaction is an uninformed one that fails to see the importance of when a MUST is present.

  • The second pitfall to the assertion, besides its fervent untruth, is the asserter’s failure to understand the importance of how infinitely similar the questions must be for the sake of the example, the experiment. A person would be hard pressed to create two different opinionated questions on history that are closer in meaning than the two cited in the example. Yes, they are, in essence different questions, but they are different questions chosen to be as similar as they can possibly be. Their difference in both language and meaning is but a scintilla of derision. These sample questions are not proximal in expression merely because they repeat words, but because of how the implied meaning of the repeated word so slightly changes the intent of the sentence. The example could have alternately used “the timing of time” or “the burden of burden” or even the pop culture mainstay “I like him, but I don’t like him, like him” to illustrate. Selecting words purposefully to create an implied overlap, as would a poet, is a device that draws the perceived similarity between two sentences closer than they would be perceived through repetition alone. We really couldn’t say that a sentence like “My dog is tired,” is closer in meaning to “My dog’s dog is tired” than “history” is to the “history of history.” Two dogs are completely separate entities while the two timelines can and do overlap. The point is that there is something to be learned when two such close questions in sound and in meaning MUST yield different answers.

It has also been argued that the example’s conclusion is false, that the two answers need not necessarily prove different. Think of a person, say, a learned professional historian specializing in periods captured mostly by the printing press. Could s/he have the same answer to both questions? After all, while the printing press captures history in the form of written text distributed en masse, its creation and first time use was an “event” in history too. Could a single person be of the opinion that the greatest thing to happen in history was the printing press and also be of the opinion that the greatest thing to happen in the history of history was the printing press?

  • While free thinkers tend to dislike statements that would quash positivism, the answer is no. If a person claims to be of this opinion, they have misunderstood the depth of the sample questions. S/he has given an incorrect response. The answerer has offered an answer without the critical examination necessary for a mature interchange. The system or mechanism that records an event can never be as important as or more important than the event that it records. Such would defy reason. The recording system is subsequent to the event being recorded. The event has to be important enough for people to make the effort to commit that event to posterity. The effort, while frequently important in and of itself, cannot be as important as the event(s) that drove the effort into being. If so, we would be perfectly happy to laud the invention of printing presses that never printed anything. We don’t do that. Both logic and common sense concur that unused invention is akin to failure, not to importance. So, while a recording system like broadcast television might ostensibly be more important than just some of the things we record on it, like a dog food commercial, it could not be the MOST important thing in history because, at the very least, it would still be subsequent to the one most important event it had ever delivered into people’s homes.

Critics have also claimed that the example is unfinished. Some agree that this is an illustration of fact from the field of opinions, but contend that its avowal is not founded. The example portends that a FACT like this can be built upon, yet it fails to profess just how to build.

  • This is a separate issue. The example illustrates how fact can be derived from an inherently opinion-driven exercise. The idea that all facts or that only facts can be built upon to reach valid conclusions is a separate proof. Yet, if the citing of further examples might help to better illustrate the “history” example, I offer the following builds as a start.

  1. I can build on the FACT that these two answers MUST be different by dropping them into logical modifiers. IF a person’s two answers MUST be different, AND they are NOT, THEN the conclusion(s) that person will draw on that subject will be INCORRECTLY reached.
  2. I can build on the FACT that these two answers must be different by allowing the content to better inform my other opinions or to show better proofs of other facts.
  3. I can build on the FACT that the two answers must be different by gaining a properly vetted statistic on how many people answer the question incorrectly and I can use that statistic to further an argument in, say, a court of law.
  4. I can even build on the FACT that these two answers must be different as a philosophical illustration of human limitation, compared to say, postulating the existence of deity who might otherwise state, “I am that I am.” The two human answers MUST be different while the god’s or perceived god’s answers CAN be “magically,” but understandably, free from that FACTUAL limitation.

Another critique of the relationship between the two sample answers states that I make a falsely phrased allegation. The criticism notes that the FACT asserted is not taken directly from an actual opinion which might read, “The Golden Age of Greece was the most important thing to have ever happened in history.” This criticism highlights the notion that if one does not draw her/his factual conclusion from THE OPINIONATED ANSWERS, then one cannot claim, in this way, that facts can be drawn from opinions at all.

I appreciate this rebuttal. It points out that while the answers MUST be different and while the answers MUST be opinions, the formulation of these resulting MUSTS comes instead from the greater logical construct of the example, a sequence of ideas that is already structured and therefore already a practical, working, formulaic model. The rebuttal is metacognitive. In short, the retort claims that I am actually making facts from facts and not from opinions. I’ve two counters to consider, however.

  • First, you’ll please note that nowhere herein is it stated that facts are harvested from opinions, but rather from the realm of opinion. Of course that sounds like splitting hairs until one considers that this infinitesimal difference in phrasing is the only minor adjustment necessary to include the entire argument in the otherwise powerfully exclusive arena of fact. Like the adjoining “history of history,” the curious “opinion and realm of opinion” intractably overlap, whilst implying just enough contrast to validly launch opinions into discourses that need otherwise dismiss them. No rational person is going to look at a question like, “What’s the most important thing in history,” and pretend to not understand exactly how the phrase relates to opinion. While the construct of comparison is formulaic, there remains an inherent link to pure opinion when the comparison is made over content strategically chosen to reach opiniondom.

  • My second counter to this rebuttal is that if one could prove that I was deceptively “making facts from facts” and therefore asserting myself poorly when I include the word “opinion," that person would have proved my point for me. It is a widely held belief that fact CANNOT come from the realm of opinion. I wish to show that it can. If one’s rebuttal starts by assuming there are first place facts from which I draw my second place facts, then, on inherently opinionated content, your first place facts show this for me. I need not make my argument. The history of history never comes into play. If you look at two such opinion-driven questions and claim that I am starting with facts, then you have just practiced the cognitive journey that I claim you can. You’ve just done what I said you could do, nullifying your case for stating it cannot be done that way.



My case for the facts that can be harvested from the realm of opinion is not, of course, license for everyone with an opinion to view their idea as automatically and equally comparable to established facts. One of my favorite quotes by Dr. Carl Sagan illustrates why this cannot be done. “The well-meaning contention that all ideas have equal merit seems to me little different from the disastrous contention that no ideas have any merit.” Should you prefer more common terminology, Sagan’s quote is very similar to an idea expressed in Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles which contends “If everybody is SUPER, then nobody is.” No, opinions themselves, by their very nature, stand to be ruled out by facts during verbal conflict. I give opinions no such license.

Rather, as so frequently seems the case, drawing fact from opiniondom creates more work for the thinkers in the debate. It means that to retain the mature status through which a thinking debater or arguer hopes to communicate, an acknowledgement of this opiniondom-to-fact possibility must be ever-present. It means a debater seasoned with this understanding might be doing the mental work for both of the speakers, looking out for a conflux of opinionated statements uttered by one's counterpart which could, even accidentally, yield a mitigating fact. In essence, to be mature, while you lay out the process of how two plus two equals four to your listener, you must simultaneously be receiving how they make ten plus six equal four, even if you have to silently do the math for them (the math in this case being hours on a standard clock, a numbers system all its own). It is not enough to “win” or to reach agreement while standing in the face of a “lesser” arguer. It only approaches “enough” when “winning” or reaching agreement after having stood instead in the face of every related and findable fact, not just the few that another, single person was equipped to offer.

Opening one’s self up to facts garnered from the realm of opinion is the more mature path in that it acknowledges the discourse as a journey, a journey through which further learning can happen. Alternatively, a discourse in which neither party budges from an original standpoint illustrates a mental lock or cognitive lock indicative of immaturity. By definition, the person learning is more mature than the person not learning. That means fact-based thinkers are beholden to this possible concurrence, even at the expense of doing all the fair work for both arguers. Just as it has been postulated that three monkeys banging away on typewriters, if given until infinity, would eventually write Hamlet (by accident), so too does the collectively infinitive realm of human opinion yield entire crops of useful facts (sometimes by accident). The mature debater is the one who leaves the conflict wiser. The wiser person is the one who seeks out all ways to disprove the self.

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