“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

—Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Fact: Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a U.S. senator from New York. Fact: the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908. Fact: coffee reduces the risk of liver cancer.

Or does it?

You might think so from scanning news articles on the coffee-cancer link—like this 2005 story from MSNBC.com on research out of the National Cancer Center in Tokyo. But read more carefully, and you’ll find qualifiers: words like may and phrases like can help reduce and cautions about reading too much into one study.

This may bring to mind the coffee-causes-cancer scare of the early 1980s. According to the article linked here, many people tried to wean themselves off coffee because they read the findings of this one study as fact. They might have acted differently if they’d understood a basic tenet of scientific inquiry: that, according to the article’s author, Elizabeth M. Whelan,

one study does not a conclusion make. Science is a process of exploration, requiring examination, reassessment, and replication. Only when there exists a large, consistent body of evidence demonstrating that some factor is linked to disease—whether it has a harmful or protective effect—can a credible association be established.

So what on earth does this have to do with dialogue? I hear several lessons; see what you think.

First: Facts are elusive. It is all too easy for us to confuse fact with opinion, or a provisional understanding pending more evidence, or the latest (unreplicated) research. None of us gets “the facts” right every time. So while the truth is important, the quest for truth is even more so. If we commit ourselves to that quest in dialogue, we are free to follow the dialogue wherever it goes in search of truth. We are free to encounter the flaws in our understanding, the biases in our vested interests, and let them go.

Second: This all takes time. As I implied earlier, careful reading and study yields a more complete, more nuanced, and therefore more accurate picture of the truth than a quick scan. Scan enough at the expense of reading, and we can easily end up with a simplistic view of an immensely complex world. Similarly, ferreting out the truth in dialogue often takes exploration of nuances, definition of terms, deep listening, etc. Quests don’t happen in the blink of an eye.

Here as in so many places, U.S. culture militates against the requirements for dialogue. Exercise the depth of thought required for truth questing, and we open ourselves to charges of “overthinking” or “intellectualizing” or “navel gazing.” And who has the time required to engage in thinking or dialogue these days?

All of which leads to the third lesson: dialogue requires intent. If we assume dialogue and thinking will take place naturally in our busy culture, we will be disappointed. If, however, we deliberately carve out space for both, we will find ourselves engaging in both—and, perhaps, connecting with like-minded questers in a critical mass that is much greater than the sum of its parts.