Right-wing troll Ben Shapiro has a cliché he deploys whenever he’s confronted by someone who disagrees with his particular brand of snarky malevolence: “facts don’t care about your feelings.” Of course, what Ben means is that his feelings don’t care about your facts. If Ben feels you’re wrong, then you’re wrong regardless of the evidence you provide, and if Ben feels he’s right (he usually feels he’s right) then he doesn’t need to provide any evidence at all.
I think a related, but far more productive, distinction is that between falsifiable and non-falsifiable claims.
A falsifiable claim is not a fact, but it’s fact-curious
There are lots of kinds of falsifiable claims, but what they have in common is that there is some piece of information that you can more or less objectively determine in advance would make the claim false:
- If you had only ever seen trees that lose their leaves in the winter, you might claim “all trees lose their leaves in the winter.” This is falsifiable because discovering a tree that does not lose its leaves in the winter would make the claim false. After encountering a pine tree, you might adapt your claim to “all leafy trees lose their leaves in the winter.” After encountering a palm tree, you might adapt it further to “some leafy trees lose their leaves in the winter; others do not.” Even if you never encounter an evergreen tree, however, you can acknowledge that the existence of an evergreen tree would disprove your initial claim. The falsifiability is an intrinsic feature of the claim, separate from its truth value.
- Famously, the claim that “all swans are white” is falsifiable because you know in advance that the existence of a black swan will render the claim false — whether or not you ever find out black swans exist.
- The claim that immigrants to the United States are violent criminals is falsifiable because you can collect data on the number of crimes committed by immigrants and see if that data shows immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans, or that communities with high populations of non-native-born residents have lower crime rates than communities with low populations of immigrants. Again, the falsifiability of the claim is not dependent on whether it is false or not, but rather that there is some piece of evidence that you can acknowledge, if it existed, would prove the claim false.
Non-falsifiable claims are the ones that really motivate people
Ben Shapiro’s formulation juxtaposing “facts” and “feelings” sounds reassuring, but there’s a fundamental problem: while falsifiable claims have a sturdy scientific logic to them, falsifiable claims don’t, in fact, motivate anyone’s actions. That’s because at the bottom of most falsifiable claims is a non-falsifiable claim that no evidence can cause a person to reject or modify. Global warming denialism follows this pattern:
- the Earth isn’t warming (falsifiable);
- the Earth is warming, but it’s not the result of human activity (falsifiable);
- the Earth is warming due to human activity, but it’s actually good (falsifiable);
- the Earth is warming due to human activity, it’s bad, but there’s nothing we can do to stop it (falsifiable);
- even if we could stop it, I don’t want to (non-falsifiable).
In this case it’s obvious that the more time is spent arguing over the details of #1 through #4, the less time is spent dealing with the core, non-falsifiable claim in #5.
Engaging non-falsifiable claims can lead to meaningful solutions
To come around full circle to our friend Ben Shapiro, a particular obsession of his is with the existence of “biological genders.” Now, people who study these things for a living will tell you that “biological gender” is an oxymoron, since gender, like race, is a social construct. Even worse, biological sex isn’t even binary!
But this is making a fundamental mistake, confusing falsifiable claims (“there are two biological sexes”) with the non-falsifiable claims that actually motivate Shapiro: “I feel threatened by the increasing visibility of non-cisgender-people.” This is illustrated in possibly one of the greatest Shapiro tweets of all time:
What’s going on here? Does Ben Shapiro understand how restrooms work? The idea of treating this as a falsifiable claim is making a basic category error. The grievance has nothing to do with bathroom logistics, it has to do with Shapiro’s fundamental insecurity in a world he doesn’t recognize or understand (I don’t mean this as a defense, Ben Shapiro isn’t even two years older than me and I’m not a transphobe so I don’t know what his excuse is).
Recognizing people’s claims as non-falsifiable is treated by ideologues like Shapiro as a way of dismissing them (“feelings”). Unfortunately, we often don’t have that luxury in a country we have to share with one another. Once you recognize that you don’t have to change people’s minds to reach compromise, however, you can sometimes identify solutions acceptable to everyone.
For example, the frenzy in certain conservative circles over restroom access for trans people can’t be resolved by convincing conservatives of the dignity of trans people. But (as any late bloomer can tell you) you’d find support among liberals and conservatives alike for replacing open changing rooms with private changing and showering cabins at American middle schools and high schools.
Likewise, equalizing federal treatment of highway and public transit funding doesn’t require convincing anyone to believe in anthropogenic global warming, but would do an enormous amount to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions.
This approach doesn’t require anyone to admit they were wrong, which of course is a drawback to conservatives who want to destroy human civilization in order to own the libs and to leftists who want conservatives to acknowledge the dignity of their fellow man. But it has the advantage of sidestepping the non-falsifiable claims each side holds dear.
People rightly put values above facts
You can disparage non-falsifiable claims as “feelings,” but it’s much more accurate to describe them as values. Values are the things that motivate us in the complete absence of evidence. Fox host John Stossel thought he had a pretty good stunt dressing up in a fake beard and begging for money on the street to prove that #actually panhandlers have it pretty good. And indeed, what does cause a person to give money to a panhandler without insisting on seeing audited tax returns for the previous 5 years?
Well, values do. And when values are really, fundamentally in conflict, we should have long, drawn-out, bitter battles over our values. If you think immigration causes crime, we can talk about the evidence. If you think immigration lowers wages, we can talk about the evidence. But if you think the United States is and ought to remain a white ethnostate, immigration is an issue we’ll never agree or compromise on.
I find this framework helpful, so I thought I’d pass it along. A lot of public disagreements take place at the superficial level of falsifiable claims: how many Pinocchios does this or that Trump tweet get? But people, rightly, mostly don’t care about the truth of their falsifiable claims. They care about the truth of their non-falsifiable claims — their values.
Shall we preserve the habitability of the Earth for future generations? Shall we spare immigrants the cruelty of family separation? Shall we honor Confederate as well as Union generals? Shall we privilege religious objections to non-discrimination laws above racist objections to non-discrimination laws?
These are not questions that have answers you can find if you just dig deep enough into the scientific literature. They’re questions about how a person should be. There are opportunities to finesse some of these controversies, while others must be engaged to the best of our ability, not in the interest of convincing those who don’t share our values, but for the sake of activating the consciences of those who do.