"facts are true whether you believe them or not" - Adam Savage (from the Reason Rally)
sadly, it is possible that Mr. Savage was wrong. sure, on the face of it a statement like that is a no-brainer. however, in today's world we are seeing a strange phenomena where facts are only as useful as a person wants them to be. facts are now up for debate. facts depend on the source from which you acquire them. lastly, facts are no longer facts if someone chooses not to believe them.
how have i come to this conclusion? just look at some recent events and you begin to see how facts are ignored, misrepresented, or outright denied in favor of the exact opposite position. by it's very definition, something that is a fact shouldn't have an opposite position. the opposite of a fact is a falsehood. yet it seems that in today's world the falsehood is given equal footing by those who simply choose to believe in the falsehood as fact.
want some examples?
i'll start off with an easy one. it is a Scientific fact that you cannot choose your sexual orientation. one would think that this issue was put to bed decades ago. i give you Conservapedia:
and the ministers are not alone. we hear the same rhetoric from prominent Republican politicians all the time. the fact that homosexuality is a choice is being ignored in favor of a deeply held Religious belief.
another easy example are two i'll lump together - Evolution and Climate Change. without going into great detail, we still have nearly 40% of the American public not believing in the fact of Evolution. with Climate Change, we have deniers who claim that it is a Scientific fact that more CO2 in the atmosphere is a good thing, b/c CO2 is plant food. this has been debunked by actual Scientists over and over, yet deniers continue to argue that their information is accurate. additionally, we have demonstrable proof that the Earth is warming (whether it's man-made is an entirely different issue), yet i see time and time again deniers claiming that the data is wrong and being manipulated. why? they claim it's a big Communist scam. never mind that those providing the deniers with their information are not credentialed Climate Scientists, for deniers they are a trusted source who provides them with pseudo-facts to help them fight those with real facts from actual Scientists. here, we see facts being denied through intentional misinformation which is accepted by those who wish it to be true.
moving on, it is a fact that the USA was founded as a secular nation. a quick read of the amazing secular Constitution makes this crystal clear. well, not so, say many on the Religious Right. they adamantly claim that America is a Christian Nation. without getting into this too deeply, i will point out this brief article which does a nice job of debunking the myth of our Founding Father's intentions:
revisionist historians continue to claim that Jefferson was highly religious, and that the founders credited Christianity for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. so while it is a fact that America's secular status is the genius of our Nation, there are those who simply choose to believe that is not the case because they can mine quotes that support their belief.
here's a slightly different one that recently came to me. i keep hearing from GOP strategists and politicians that only 50% of Americans pay income taxes. they make this claim to show that poor people are not pulling their weight, and that the rich already pay more than they should. on the face of it, this sounds like an interesting "fact". except for one little thing - 24% of the population is under 18 years old, 13% are over 65 years old, another 4% are currently in college, and about 10% are unemployed. add those up and you get 51%. so of course, only about half of the population pays income taxes - only about half of the people work! in this case, the facts are being distorted to further an agenda. so while this may be a fact, it's a garbage fact that is passed off as important information.
i can list many more examples. Obama Birthers claim it's a fact that he is a Kenyan Muslim. Allen West says it's a fact that there are 80 communists in Congress. Religious people discuss God's existence as fact without evidence. anti-abortionists claim that life begins at conception. Religious leaders continue to say that birth-control causes cancer. feel free to add on to this list in the comments.
i believe the reason for the extreme distortion of what constitutes a fact is the internet. i love the internet, and give it credit for the rise of Atheism and the Arab Spring. however, through it, you can find information supporting almost any position you may want to take. if i woke up one day thinking that oxygen may be bad for the human body, it is likely that i could find something online confirming my intuition. the internet has become a powerful tool for confirmation bias. that is, if you believe something to be true you will likely be able to find others who agree with you, and might even present their own version of factual evidence.
2 decades ago, there were only a few ways to gather "evidence" to support your position. you could go to the library, hope to find something on TV that provides insight, or speak with other people. if you happened to have some bizarre notion, it would be difficult to find something to back it up. not any more, and that is a scary problem that the Information Superhighway has given us. articles on Right Wing blogs are given equal footing as those from legitimate Scientific publications in the eyes of the internet. the internet doesn't discriminate. it doesn't tell you what is legit and what isn't. the burden lays on the user to determine which they should trust, and all too often the populace is poorly prepared to make such decisions.
i don't have a solution, but i think it's important to discuss the problem. and i fear it will only get worse and lead to increased polarization in America.