Faced Facts

If one wishes to realize the distance which may lie between “facts” and the meaning of facts, let one go to the field of social discussion. Many persons seem to suppose that facts carry their meaning along with themselves on their face. Accumulate enough of them, and their interpretation stares out at you. The development of physical science is thought to confirm the idea. But the power of physical facts to coerce belief does not reside in the bare phenomena. It proceeds from method, from the technique of research and calculation. No one is ever forced by just collection of facts to accept a particular theory of their meaning, so long as one retains intact some other doctrine by which he can marshal them. Only when the facts are allowed free play for the suggestion of new points of view is any significant conversion of conviction as to meaning possible. Take away from physical science its laboratory apparatus and its mathematical technique, and the human imagination might run wild in its theories of interpretation even if we suppose the brute facts to remain the same. (5)

John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems

I’m fascinated by the way that John Dewey phrases his discussion of “the public” and “the state” in the opening lecture. I’ve seen the same strategies in a lot of other books (perhaps under his influence, perhaps not) but the phrasing here seems easy to “run wild” with.

In this paragraph, useful facts play freely and meanings are read differently from new points of view. This freedom is contingent on apparatus and technique. When new doctrine is available, then there can be significant conversion of conviction. Advances, then, are contingent less on physical facts than on new methods of interpretation. It seems that as early as 1927, the storehouse of facts seemed full (rather than expanding) and method, research, and calculation are king—this sounds amazingly close to contemporary approaches to information design. The call for “social software” seems little different from Dewey’s focus on “the field of social discussion.” Facts don’t have faces; people do.