Thursday, July 15, 2010

"Just the Facts, Ma'am."

Perhaps you have missed the famous radio and television show, Dragnet, that ran intermittently from 1949 to 1970. Those who have seen it will recall one and probably only one line.

We see Sgt. Joe Friday interviewing the witness to a crime and becoming slightly annoyed with her beliefs and opinions. So, he tries to cut through her narrative by saying: "Just the facts, Ma'am."

We take it for granted that facts are essential to criminal investigation. After all, the great writers of detective fiction
, from Edgar Allan Poe to Arthur Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie to P.D. James almost always spin out a coherent narrative of how a crime might have happened, only to undermine it when the master detective explains what really did happen.

Still and all, philosophers have been wrestling with the problem of facts. They have wondered whether there really are objective facts, whether facts are of any importance, and whether facts have persuasive power.

Many philosophers and psychologists believe that life is but one grand narrative. But if your goal is to create a coherent narrative, you are very likely going to shade and distort the facts.

Let's examine the issue in everyday terms.

When you disagree with a decision that your manager has just made, is it be better for you to assert your opinion or to present the facts and let them speak for themselves?

Of course, it is better to let the facts speak for themselves. When a disagreement arises it is usually best not to turn it into a personal conflict.

If you let the facts do the talking, if you do not try to impose your belief or opinion on your manager, then you are allowing him the freedom to change his mind without having to feel that he is giving in to pressure or losing any more face than he has to.

If you make the disagreement personal, you will be saying that he will have to concede to you for having the right opinion. Most people would rather dig in their heels than to admit defeat.

But, many people are impervious to fact. Many of them are also impervious to reason.

Normally we call them zealots, fanatics, political partisans, and people who have been brainwashed or indoctrinated to within an inch of their rationality.

They adhere so fully to this or that cause; they have defined their existence in terms of this or that cause; that nothing is going to separate them from their convictions. Given that their convictions define their membership in a cult-like group, they will feel that they have to choose between the cult and social oblivion. They will invariably choose the cult.

Anyway, this point is raised with great cogency by Joe Keohane in an article entitled: "How Facts Backfire: Researchers Discover a Surprising Threat to Democracy, Our Brains." Link here.

In Keohane's words: "In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger."

If you follow the analogy, you would have to conclude that the cure for misinformation is a better and more powerful antibiotic.

Keohane is correct to say that some political partisans are not going to change their minds because they have bee presented with some new facts. From there, Keohane makes an unwarranted leap of faithlessness by saying that this research undermines the basis for democracy.

This tells me that he has allowed his own beliefs to color his interpretation of facts.

To allow him to speak for himself, here is his analysis: "This bodes ill for democracy, because most voters-- the people making decisions about how the country runs-- aren't blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently from the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper."

I hope Keohane is not saying that it would be better if everyone were completely uninformed. Given that this is very generous on my part, I will assume it to be true.

Clearly, it one thing to say that some people have deep and abiding convictions in a political point of view. Some are partisans, some are zealots, some do not believe in facts.

It is an altogether different thing to say that we are not all blank slates. Having an opinion is not the same as being a fanatic.

Keohane is also correct to say that people do not just change their minds every time they hear new information. As he notes, it would not be a very efficient or economical way to use our mental energy.

But no one ever said that democracy was perfect or even a reasonable facsimile of perfection. Perhaps we simply need a somewhat different model for the way that facts influence opinion.

As Abraham Lincoln so aptly said: "You may fool all the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time."

That's a nice way of presenting facts that contradict Keohane's beliefs. If people are so impervious to facts, if they are so unwilling to change their minds, then how could it be that so many people who voted for Barack Obama in the last election are no longer willing to vote for him or for candidates associated with him?

Many of these people voted for a mirage, for a fabricated image, for what they believed were their own wishes. Now, having seen Obama in action, and having a set of facts to use to evaluate their initial impression. they seem to have discovered that they were largely mistaken, even defrauded, to the point where they have changed their minds.

They have clearly been moved by facts. They have seen promises unfulfilled, they have seen their friends and neighbors chronically unemployed, and they have seen presidential ineptitude in action.

Having observed these facts, many of them have changed their minds.

Clearly, this should affirm our faith in democracy. Besides, if an academic study has caused you to lose your faith in democracy, what political system would you offer in its place?


Robert Pearson said...

This bodes ill for democracy, because most voters-- the people making decisions about how the country runs-- aren't blank slates.

When Mr. Keohane "speaks for himself" here, he undermines my belief that he knows what he's talking about. In the United States, voters (except for ballot propositions) don't make decisions, the people they elect with their votes do.

Stuart, you too use "democracy" in a similar way later, and through regular repetition since Woodrow Wilson (if not before) I suppose that this has become a standard usage. But I would argue that we don't have a democracy. A democracy is when 500 guys can vote that Socrates must die. We have (explicit in the Constitution) a "republican form of government" wherein the whims of the ignorant and uniformed are checked, modified and channeled. Where mature consideration reduces the influence of poor logic.

And as you point out, people do change their minds over time, based on reality, and the system we have, by any other name, works about as well as any system possibly could that tries to govern imperfect human beings and resolve and mediate their disputes and interests without bloodshed.

I am grateful for it. Russia, Germany, Cuba and North Korea have experienced some of the alternatives.

Anonymous said...

After all, the great writers of detective fiction, from Edgar Allan Poe to Arthur Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie to P.D. James almost always spin out a coherent narrative of how a crime might have happened, only to undermine it when the master detective explains what really did happen.

I know just what you mean, and I despise it; don't conceal the information: be a clever enough writer to conceal the "McGuffin" in plain sight!

Your accusation doesn't hold true for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I've read a lot of Sherlock Holmes. The clues are all there if you read closely enough. Sherlock Holmes mysteries are great primers for deductive thinking. I've advanced my career using his techniques:

o Notice everything. don't be noticed noticing!
o Understand the next level of motivations and personalities.
o Never betray a confidence.
o Be vigorous, improve the body, yet rest and think while you rest.
o Your mind is a weapon: give it some tobacco and scotch to fuel it.
o Passion is the enemy of reason. Yet passion for a solution is your motivation.
o Immerse yourself in a problem fully: don't flinch from the ugliest of human motivation.
o If a person is your problem, gain their confidence. Understand their motivations.
o Apply Occam's Razor early and often.
o Listen more. Talk less.
o Don't speculate. Make clear and declarative sentences one you have thought enough.
o Think enough!


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Certainly, Robert is correct to say that ours is a republican form of government. The founders did not intend to create a democracy.

I used the term because the article I was writing about used it. Or, should I say, misused.

Nowadays most people simply confuse democracy and republican government.

The point I was trying to make about detective fiction was that usually there is an alternative theory of the crime, or narrative, offered by the police, and that is refuted by the great detective.

In my admittedly hazy recollection there is usually a police foil in the Sherlock Holmes stories.