Just the Facts (or Peeling the Onion)

“Just the facts, ma’am.” Sergeant Joe Friday popularized this expression on the 1950s detective show Dragnet. Friday’s smug assertion as a detective is a good reminder for serious truth seekers today. The only problem is that an objective look at the facts is harder to come by then was ever considered in the thirty minutes of ‘problem meets resolution’ police sagas originally televised by the National Broadcasting Company.

Facts are funny things. Perhaps that’s why some people don’t care about them. “I know what I believe. Don’t bother me with the facts,” is popular as a bumper sticker message and all too often as an ideology.  Anyone who wants his or her view of reality to be taken seriously has to come to terms with understanding the facts related to any given conversation.

Thus, the problem is resolved. Just give me the facts and we can be on our way.

Herein lies the problem. Most discussions about facts are actually debates about metanarratives.

I have given this a great deal of thought due to my own involvement on a regular basis with those holding differing views than my own. It is always easy to say to someone, “Just look at the facts and you will be convinced.” Another ploy is to always suggest that anyone who holds a contrary position doesn’t “understand the facts.”

Facts can indeed be quite elusive. Nonetheless, facts are important. Christians have always believed this to be true.

I firmly believe that facts do exist. I believe the universe is rational, and as rational beings we can discover and understand a great deal of the laws of nature. Such priorities are based on a biblically informed understanding of reality. After all, it was such convictions that gave birth to modern science.

Herein, I am tempted to use the term “Truth” to refer to facts. The problem with such terminology is that most facts are too small to provide a view of Truth. We look at various facts, shape theories, test hypotheses, refine our views and establish a working outlook and definition of the world we live in.

Thus, the quest to uncover just the facts” is a difficult one. One’s view of the facts is often informed by and based upon prior commitments.  I would like to propose a few layers that we have to peel off before we can get to the core of what is often referred to as facts.


#4: Metanarratives: The conclusions we draw about the universe we live in based on our theories, which are informed by our interpretations of observable data.

#3: Theories: The theories we shape about the data we observe. (Data is plural referring to multiple pieces of information).

#2: Interpretation: What we conclude or resolve or believe about specific datum. (Datum is the term used for a single piece of information)

#1:  Facts: Empirically observable datum.

Most conversations about the facts are never really about the facts. They are frequently #2 concerns dealing with interpretation of datum.  Much of the time they are hitting at level #3 by challenging a given theory.  Often, they are really conversations related to particular worldviews, or larger conclusions about the world we live, which I refer to here as metanarratives.

“Just give me the facts” is an interesting proposition. Christians are often relegated to the sidelines of intellectual discussions because they allegedly “refuse” to acknowledge the facts.  Herein we find that it is not the “facts” Christians are denying, but rather the broader system being used to interpret and synthesize the data.

Can two people be equally serious about facts, yet hold different interpretations, theories and therefore even fundamentally different metanarratives?

In short, I would say yes.

My longer answer would be to point you to the Human Genome Project, considered to be “one of the great feats of exploration in history.” The project was initially led by Nobel Prize winning James D. Watson, who is an ardent atheist. Following Watson, the project was then led to completion by Francis Collins who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science for his contributions.  Collins is a devout Christian.

How can two men demonstrate such different worldviews? Does one better understand the data than the other? My answer is that both men understand the data. They have different interpretations, which shape their theories, which form their metanarratives. They have both taken their interpretations of the data for support of their overarching explanation of reality. This is not to say that everything they believe is based on empirically tested data, but rather, that the data available has been found to support their broader worldviews.

Just give me the facts! It seems that both men understand the facts. They just have very different conclusions. The real question is, “Which one is right?”

That, my friend, is a question related to worldview.