For twelve years, I had a violin teacher who also happened to be a Scientologist. He was an excellent violinist and a very good teacher. He mostly focused on teaching me violin, but every once in a while a repeated mistake in my playing would be too good to ignore. He would pounce on it and insist we discover what the problem was.
He was convinced there were exactly three barriers to learning. These barriers were: a “misunderstood word”, a “lack of mass”, or “too steep a gradient.” 1
In terms of my musical malpractices, it frequently emerged that the symbol I had confidently denoted a B-flat was, in fact, a C-sharp. (Or some such error. My ability to read music was and is…limited.)
This, I was told, was the musician’s equivalent of a “misunderstood word” – a word which one uses frequently, but (in a twist on illiteracy) fails to understand.
The idea of “misunderstood word” stuck with me. It is a useful expression of an observable phenomenon: people often fail to understand the definitions of a word even after using it many times. They simply absorb what “everyone knows” through a sort of cultural osmosis, until one day they come across a use of the word that doesn’t match up with what they imagined “everyone knew” – and in that instant, their ability to understand things they’ve built on that word comes crashing down.
Where am I going with this? To find a dictionary…haha. Um. Lest you wander off, let me tell you where I am going with this. Are you familiar with the term “alternative facts”?
Great. How about “fake news”?
Let’s set aside the issue of “wilful ignorance and manipulation” for a moment, because I’m still not sure I understand that concept. Let’s just look at the idea of “fact.”
It’s a word we are exposed to from the moment we enter school (if not before). We are exposed to it in the context of the scholastic: “Children, you must learn your math facts. 2+2=4.” We are exposed to it conversationally: “I am furious at him, and that’s a fact!” We are exposed to it persuasively: “The facts are on my side.”
As a matter of fact – the amount of “fact” we are exposed to far exceeds the amount of information anyone in their right mind is ready to examine and verify.
I don’t think all of those people are trying to mislead. (Well, not all of them. Probably. By the way, did you see where I put my tinfoil hat?) I think they just use the word “fact” in a way that is a little…non-factual. The word “fact” is a wonderful example of a “misunderstood word” magnified to the societal level.
Now, what do I mean by that?
People typically use the word “fact” when discussing one of five different things.
Fact: a claim that can be checked, verified, replicated; a claim for which overwhelmingly conclusive evidence exists.
Claim: A theory for which either no conclusive evidence has been produced, or for which evidence has yet to be evaluated and verified.
Value: An socially-validated experience of “truth” which may not be demonstrably true.
Experience: the subjective understanding of a factual event or series of events.
Opinion: A subjective expression of a mix of claims, values, experiences, and social influences.
When you say, “Person A killed Person B,” that is a claim, until conclusive evidence is presented and evaluated.
(A “claim” can be true, false, or unproven; a “fact” is, as a condition of fact-hood, always and necessarily true. If new evidence later disproves the fact, it ceases to be a fact.)
When you say, “The act of killing produces death,” that is a fact2. It can be medically verified.
When you say, “It is wrong to kill,” you are not stating a fact. You are stating a value3.
When you say, “This event is a terrible tragedy,” you are sharing your experience of the event.
And when I say “People typically use the word ‘fact’ to mean one of five things,” I am expressing an opinion.
I mention this because most news stories are a mix of all five of the above. The problem is that they are sometimes not clearly differentiated. They are sometimes presented as all “fact,” or at least not clearly presented as claim, value, experience, and/or opinion. Any of the four are worthy of discussion, but they must be understood for what they are and they must not be confused with fact.
This lack of differentiation creates the opportunity for ideas like “fake news” and “alternative facts” to gain traction – because these ideas contain a very small grain of truth. They give voice to the latent recognition that what is presented under the label of “fact” is sometimes not a fact. The problem is not with the presentation of verified facts; the problem is with the incorrect labeling of things which are not facts as facts.
Now, I am very late to this party. A lot of other people have already discussed the implications of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” These discussions are usually conducted along ideological, moral, or logical lines. Today, I am simply interested in exploring them as symptomatic of a “misunderstood word” problem surrounding “fact.
The first issue is that – by leaving the definition of “fact” up for grabs – we allow the implication that evidence is completely arbitrary. And arbitrary evidence is antithetical to justice. The institution of law (upon which the legitimacy of most democratic governments at least claims to exist) requires an evidence-based, fact-based justice system. You cannot have both arbitrary “facts” and a legitimate claim to govern in a democracy. A true democracy must be based on fact.
The second problem is that these labels devalue actual discussions of complexity. They devalue, as a knee-jerk response, the critical re-examination and clarification of the information that is regularly presented to us. If you have criticism of a news source, you are yourself suspect of laundering “alternative facts.” But the act of re-examining positions in light of new evidence (key word: evidence) is an excellent response.
It is crucial to an intelligent society – and a democracy (whichever comes first). The key is that this re-examination has reasonable grounds for its existence; that it seeks to evaluate facts based on genuine evidence; that it is transparent about its methods, assumptions, and logic; and that it does not attempt to disingenuously steer the social narrative prior to reaching a conclusion.
While we’re on the topic – because today’s “news” is so often linked to the events of “yesterday:” the above five definitions are also critical in understanding and discussing history.
There is a factual history. It is a singular, verifiable narrative, because – in this universe, as far as we know – only one reality can exist at any given time, and it’s opportunity cost is all the other possible realities.
There are also experiential histories. These are narratives of personal or group experience of the outcomes or effects of the factual history.
Both are crucial to our understanding of past actions and present choices. Neither should be devalued in favor of the other. Both must be acknowledged for what they are. And their distinctions must be clearly appreciated.
To illustrate – let’s consider World War II. The war is a fact; it has verifiable dates, events, and actors. These dates, events, and actors were the same regardless of what faction you represented.
However, the events of World War II were experienced in widely divergent ways by different groups or factions. In an experiential sense, a farm girl in Illinois and a Japanese naval officer did not experience the same war.
They were affected by the same factual events, to varying degrees and distances. But they felt the impact of those events from different contexts. Their responses arose from their subjective experience of an objective reality. And in order to effectively understand how individuals and societies interacted with each other in the decades following the war, we must take into account both fact and experience.
Finally, there are claims and opinions. A historian can have an opinion, and based on that opinion can make a claim that a war was fought in this or that place, for this or that reason. It is, however, not a fact until contemporary evidence supports the claim. Sometimes the phrase “generally accepted” will be used – and this indicates a claim that has no contradictory evidence and seems very likely, based on the body of contextual knowledge – but also does not (and may never) have any specifically conclusive evidence.
Well, this is a lot to sum up. If any of you brave readers are still around, you’re made of strong stuff indeed.
In recognition of your bravery, I’ll end quickly. We live in a complex society. In order to support this society, our language must support nuance. We must actively use our language to support nuance and complexity.
I’d say “that’s a fact” – but in fact – that’s an… opinion.
1 It is not my purpose to delve into the workings of his system of belief. Neither am i endorsing or marketing any of the aspects of Scientology, or its many for- or non-profit affiliates.
2 There are facts for which specifications of time or place are necessary. These specifications must always be clearly and consistently acknowledged. For example: it is true to say that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president of the United States in 1945 – but it is not factual. A strictly factual statement would be that he was president until his death on April 12th, 1945. In this way, you prevent the listener’s assumption – based upon a true statement, remember! – that FDR was president in October of 1945.
3 You are stating a strongly-held belief that the act of killing is a negative moral position. Your value may be based on logic – “killing leads to breakdown of the relationships necessary for social functions and thus to unstable societies” – but there is no piece of evidence that can definitively prove “wrong.” You can’t prove the morality of an action, you can only evaluate the action based on agreed-upon conventions or, perhaps, upon your personal understanding of empathy.
4 thoughts on “Misunderstood Words”
Today -I can’t not comment (double negative and that’s a fact) Facts check: A phrase my kids use against me all the time. Very often they are wrong – HA! I’m almost always right but now I know that’s an opinion. I love your push toward and desire for clarity on this.
I have known for quite some time now how life is nothing but an entire misunderstanding. Language itself has a life of it’s own, words actually change meaning and they do it often. In other words, Words are alive? Curious. But I think yes. Like how the word ‘literally’ has changed to sometimes mean figuratively for some younger people. It’s quite crazy. I’m literally blowing my mind right now! 🙂 (uh no, Beck, you’re not.)
At any rate I am constantly consulting the dictionary of Google (although maybe that’s dangerous – after all, we were warned about this in George Orwell’s 1984) It drives my kids crazy because I’m a stickler for accurate definitions and even though most of the time I’m spot on – there are these subtle nuances that I’ve imposed on certain words that aren’t even there.
Thanks again for the thought provoking post! I always enjoy them.
P.S. I’ve got your tin hat right here. Thanks for letting me borrow it! Hahaha
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Hello there, sorry for the delay! Life happened yesterday. You’re right, one of the really interesting things about language is to see how words change over time. Some languages are a bit more…open to change; I understand the French have an academic body that decides what words are allowed into the language. I grew up in a house with a dictionary from 1964, which meant some words simply weren’t in it – or their meanings had expanded or their first usage had changed over time – it’s a lot more difficult to update a printed dictionary than a virtual one! I think it’s a lot easier for words’ meanings to change now that the Internet has accelerated the rate at which information is exchanged – and I don’t see that as a bad thing, as long as people are careful to clarify and don’t purposely invent or misrepresent existing usages. Linguistics is definitely one of those “if I had a whole extra lifetime” fields of study! And tell your kids if they’re going to fact check, they have to start provide MLA-formatted citations for their own claims, too…:D
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I bought the Great Course “Secret Life of Words” (I’m a nerd – I continue to study even though I’m not getting any credit for it – lol) It was fascinating – there is an academic body that decides on the English words to include and take out of the dictionary as well. Words have a lifespan? Why, yes they do. I had never known about that and thought it was just incredible. And yes – “if I had a whole extra lifetime” sums it up for me and just about everything. So much to discover – so little time.
MLA-formatted citations – got it! They won’t know what hit them!!
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Ooh, that course looks interesting! I might have to take a look at it myself. Thanks for the recommendation!
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