Published 07/16/2021

Andrew Jacobs is a student at University of Utah studying Philosophy and Cognitive Science. He focuses his philosophical mind powers on cats and good movies.

Facts Care Do About Feelings

Science has always been fascinating to the general public; however, it wasn't until COVID-19 abruptly shifted how we go about our lives that science played a front-and-center role in day-to-day decision-making processes. Previously, scientific advancements usually collided with the general public in the form of new technologies—new electric cars, new reusable rockets, new computer graphics cards, new cell phones, new laptops, and 5G. There were times where discoveries in science affected us apart from tech, but for the most part, science—at least the active perception of it—was a thing for researchers, academics, and middle school projects.

Then, COVID-19 disrupted that ecosystem.

Rather than gifting us better systems and ways of life, science was delivering some pretty bad news: canceled haircuts, canceled holidays, canceled hangouts, and canceled happiness. Canceled 2020. Naturally, many of us were shell-shocked. Science?? How could you do this to us? Some people were reasonably apprehensive of these new life-ordering guidelines. The trust in science that led us to let cars drive on autopilot was shaken. That fragile trust all but completely eroded for some people as the CDC seemingly ran in circles issuing public health guidance.

But, so what if people don't trust scientists, science communicators, or even scientists? (Scientific) Facts don't care about your feelings, right? On the contrary, the feeling of trust is essential to the successful establishment of science and facts.

According to philosophers Kyle Powys Whyte and Robert P. Creasetrust is a key component of our ability to know and act in accordance with scientific data. "We cannot be fully informed about everything—even in our own fields of specialization," they explain. How could we know everything? The hubris required to believe that one could never make a mistake or learn all that is available to be learned is of astronomical proportions. Navigating the world in this state of partial mental blindness requires trusting the epistemic authorities present in our lives; trusting the relevant experts.

This sentiment goes beyond just facts of the scientific brand. Almost any factual statement relies on trusting other people's experiences. Imagine, for a moment, that everyone is lying to you about their personal experiences. Your friend burns their hand on a hot stove. They say their experience is that the sensation of a hot stove burns and hurts, but how do you know they are telling the truth? Couldn't they be dishonest about that? What if everyone everywhere is lying to you about hot stoves burning and hurting? It seems silly to follow this line of Cartesian-level skepticism; however, it illuminates an important aspect of factual statements about reality, that seemingly objective facts about the world are constructed on the assumption that everyone isn't lying about their world experience. Objectivity is built on trust in other people's proclaimed perceptions. Facts external to our own experience require a personal feeling of others' honesty, consistency, and goodwill.

Trust and credibility aren't virtues frivolously handed out, though. Just as we shouldn't trust every charlatan walking down the street proclaiming they've unlocked the true experience of reality, we likewise shouldn't trust every scientist on YouTube proclaiming essential oils heal cancer. Determining who we should and should not trust is the main project behind establishing facts as factual. What is the true experience of reality? Do essential oils really cure cancer? The answers are found in establishing who to trust concerning whether those sentiments are factual because doing the rigorous testing to prove or disprove either is beyond any single individual. Even if you think that some simple test could be derived to determine the factual status of these statements, the problem becomes exponentially more difficult in the realm of science. Understanding the impacts of COVID-19 on the body, for example, requires trusting that the individual tests on particular aspects of human physiology were done with the scientific rigor that provides consistency and accuracy. Consequently, Powys Whyte and Crease argue that "if science is to fulfill its role in society, that is, of providing the public benefits of objective results on various matters, then it will have to be both trustworthy and credible." Scientists need to be able to trust each other, and the general public needs to be able to trust scientists, in the process of establishing accepted scientific facts.

Preserving this facilitating virtue in the process of fact-formation should be one of our primary goals in maintaining our shared epistemological framework. Actions or people who undermine trust in our epistemic authorities should be expelled from the position in fact-formation they occupy—they should quickly lose our trust and the titles that would indicate trustworthiness. Scientists that intentionally falsify their data should no longer be allowed to contribute to the scientific community. Reporters that promulgate intentionally fabricated events to further their own goals should no longer be allowed to contribute to public media. Public figures that engender distrust in epistemic authorities should be considered epistemic terrorists as they tear down the infrastructure of fact-formation.

Contrary to the popular quip, facts do care about our feelings. We require the feeling of trust to establish any fact beyond our own experience, and we should valiantly defend our epistemic faculties against anyone who would tell us otherwise.

The Weekly Phil is a publication exploring social, political, and individual issues through the lens of applied philosophy.

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