Just the facts?

In the wake of the appalling mass shootings last weekend, Neil DeGrasse Tyson (the pre-eminent scientist/communicator in the US) tweeted some facts that were, let’s just say, not well received (and for which he kind of apologised). At least one of the facts he tweeted about was incorrect (deaths by medical errors are far smaller). However, even if it had been correct, the overall response would have been the same, because the reaction was not driven by the specifics of what was said, but rather by the implied message of the context in which it was said. This is a key feature (or bug) of communications in a politicized environment, and one that continues to trip up people who are experienced enough to know better.

Why bring this up here? Two reasons: First, I still come across scientists active in public communications in the climate realm that insist that their role is simply to give ‘just the facts’ and that they do so in a completely objective manner. Second, I often see people using ‘facts’ rhetorically to distract, diminish and devalue arguments with which they disagree without ever engaging with the arguments substantively. Thus it’s worth picking apart what is happened to Tyson with an eye to improving self-awareness on how ‘facts’ are received by the public and to help recognize, and maybe defang, the rhetorical use of irrelevant ‘facts’ as distractions. It should go without saying that, of course, I support basing discussions on truth, but any real discourse is far more than a mere recitation of facts.

Why isn’t a recitation of facts objective? The ‘fact’ is, that there are far more facts that can be brought up at any one time than there is time or energy to do so. Thus any intervention in a public discussion that is nominally fact-based has already been filtered – choices have been made in what is being presented, when it is being presented, how and why. All of these choices are subjective, and are affected by one’s own values and assessment of whether any intervention will be effective with respect to your goals. No facts really stand alone, all of them require explicit or implicit context to be made sense of.

For instance, “CO<sub>2</sub> concentrations have exceeded 410ppm” is a fact but for the importance of this to be clear, the reader might need to know that CO2 is a gas, in the Earth’s atmosphere, and that historical levels were much lower but now are rising fast, and that it affects long-wave absorption of radiation in the atmosphere and that this is a big part of what maintains the Earth’s climate, and that the last time CO2 was so high was perhaps in the Pliocene (3 million years ago) when temperatures were perhaps 3ºC warmer and sea level was ~25 meters higher than now. That’s a lot of implicit context for a simple ‘fact’.

If readers have a different context, an equivalently factual statement such as “CO2 concentrations have reached 0.041% of the atmosphere”, might have quite a different (intended) implication. And indeed, I see this one used all the time, with the implicit context that 0.041% is more obviously a small number, and that (implicitly) small concentrations can’t possibly have an impact (notwithstanding all the times when they do), and thus discussion of human-related causes of the CO2 rise is a waste of time.

I recall an episode when Joe Bastardi, trying to diminish the importance of rising CO2 for climate, described it as a ‘colorless, odourless, and tasteless gas’. These statements are correct, albeit that they are totally orthogonal to concerns about it’s increasing radiative effect. When I criticized his subsequent conclusions, he responded by claiming I actually agreed with him on most of his statements!

The implicit context of statements of fact has been extensively discussed in the philosophy of argumentation (notably by Toulmin), and is described as the ‘warrant’ for any conclusion. In the two examples above, a different ‘warrant’ is being appealed to. (Read Walsh (2017) for a good discussion on this topic in a climate context). Since warrants are frequently not spelled out, they are both a source of implicit bias and confusion. Different audiences can perceive different warrants, or none, and, especially on social media, can often assume the worst.

Claims, then, of pure fact telling, are thus correctly suspect. And worse, tit-for-tat exchanges of facts, each with differing implied warrants are almost totally pointless since the tacit (and conflicting) contexts are not being addressed.

At best, interventions like Tyson’s are ‘tone deaf’, since the implied warrant (‘people die all the time, so don’t worry about these’) goes directly counter to the more widespread value of empathy for the victims, and concerns that nothing is being done about these kinds of events. Any intervention that doesn’t acknowledge the reasons why people care (that acknowledges and shares their values) is going to be controversial (at best).

To conclude, facts don’t just stand on their own, and purveyors of facts are actually relying on implicit warrants that are values-based. If the goal is to generate more light than heat, these warrants need to be explicitly acknowledged and discussed (and that goes beyond mere facts). Conversely, if people are tossing out irrelevant facts, countering with other facts isn’t going to be productive. Either examine the implicit warrants and values, or just move on.


  1. L. Walsh, “Understanding the rhetoric of climate science debates”, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, vol. 8, pp. e452, 2016.

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