Leebron: Facts aren’t what they used to be

Rice President David Leebron lectures an audience at McMurtry Auditorium on the history and evolution of facts. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Rice President David Leebron lectures an audience at McMurtry Auditorium on the history and evolution of facts. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Rice president puts the evolving complexity of ‘fact’ in historical context at Scientia lecture

“This is clearly the largest attendance at any Scientia lecture,” Rice President David Leebron said. “It is the largest attendance at any lecture ever, here or around the world. I just wanted to get that factual observation out of the way.”

With that riff on the current White House’s inaugural alternative fact, Leebron kicked off the second in a semesterlong series of Scientia lectures on facts, what makes them and why they have been the subject of such controversy.

Leebron’s whimsically titled “What’s a Fact Anyway? Insights From a Journalist, a Scientist, a Lawyer and a Sheep,” delivered Jan. 23 in McMurtry Auditorium, addressed the history and current status of what society considers fact.

He offered his perspective as a lawyer about standards of evidence and from his undergraduate education in chemistry about how science itself is threatened when opinion, speculation and prediction rather than observable results are presented as “facts.”

“I want to talk about just how complicated, slippery (and) hard to categorize and define what a fact is,” Leebron said. He addressed the similarities and differences in the way legal and scientific processes approach the establishment of facts.

About that provocative title: Leebron told a joke involving a journalist, a scientist and a lawyer in Scotland who observe a lone gray sheep across a field and interpret its presence. To the journalist, it meant all sheep in Scotland are gray. To the scientist, it meant that one sheep is gray. To the lawyer, it meant the visible side of that sheep is gray, but not necessarily the other side.

Facts are increasingly seen as being in the eye of the beholder, and that introduces complications, Leebron said. “What drove us beyond those simple ideas about what’s true, what’s not true?” he asked. “Why did this become contestable and complex for us?”

David Leebron on facts: "What drove us beyond those simple ideas about what's true, what's not true?" Photo by Jeff Fitlow

David Leebron on facts: “What drove us beyond those simple ideas about what’s true, what’s not true?” Photo by Jeff Fitlow

The former Columbia Law School dean moved through a quick history of how the definition of “fact” has evolved — or degraded — over time. He noted that the core concept of a fact as observed data from the past that was “generally believed to be true” has come to incorporate observations, opinions, assertions and predictions.

For example, he said, “We’re moving from the original notion of past observation into what we could call predictive facts. ‘The fact is that it’s going to rain tomorrow.’ We think our predictions are reliable. We treat those things as facts.

“Of course, in astronomy, it becomes pretty easy. We can tell you … what time the sun is going to rise and what time it’s going to set. Those are facts … but the fact they are in the future creates more potential for controversy.”

He said facts became contestable and complex when they moved beyond simple truths accepted by single communities to a wider audience that did not receive them with the same context.

“Now we’re at the extreme end of that with internet communications,” he said. “This notion of a fact which is supposed to bring commonality is not part of a shared community experience at all.”

That’s important to a scientific community establishing facts that lose their context when spread to a general populace. Leebron pointed to 19th-century chemists’ determinations of molecular structures that could not be observed or easily explained to nonscientists — or even some scientists. These included his thesis subject, organic chemist Hermann Kolbe, who rejected theories about structural chemistry that relied on empirical evidence. “I chose the loser in all this,” Leebron quipped.

“What came out of it was the assertion … that we have knowledge of the physical arrangement of things that we cannot see,” he said. “A lot of science up to that point was direct observation. … There was no way for them to directly observe how atoms were linked to each other.

“I think that laid the entire groundwork for science after that — the acceptance of truths of things we cannot see.”

That’s controversial even today, he concluded, alluding to climate change deniers and even “flat Earthers.”

“It turned out that people who thought that Earth was flat were wrong, and the people who thought that Earth was spherical were also wrong,” he said, paraphrasing science fiction author Isaac Asimov. “But if you think those are the same kinds of wrong, you are wronger than all of those people. Asimov’s point, which I think is very relevant here, is it’s a relative rightness and relative wrongness.

“In the end, that’s part of the complexity of the world,” he said. “Once we get into that relativeness as opposed to absoluteness, things become more controversial and more contestable. If we can’t start distinguishing which things are wronger and righter, it’s an attack on every fact, that the fact has weakness, or it’s an attack on every scientific theory that’s not perfect, and we treat those as all equal.

“This is Asimov’s point,” he said. “We have given up the capacity for truth and progress. And we ought not to do that.”

Leebron’s lecture will appear online at the Scientia website: https://scientia.rice.edu/content/2018-spring-lecture-schedule-facts

The series will conclude with two lectures:

Feb. 20, 4 p.m. in McMurtry Auditorium: Neal Lane, “Giving Science Advice to the President Is Getting Harder — Do Facts Really Matter Much?” Lane is former science and technology adviser to President Bill Clinton, the senior fellow in science and technology policy at the Baker Institute and Malcolm Gillis University Professor Emeritus at Rice.

March 20, 4 p.m. in the Kyle Morrow Room, Fondren Library: Johanna Dunaway, “The Questionable Relevance of Facts: Information, Beliefs and Identity.” Dunaway is an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University.


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.