First of all: Happy New Year, and best wishes for 2017.
On to business… After a 50-year trek navigating from Nixon, to Reagan, through the Clintons and Bushes, and arriving finally at Trump, 2016 might have been the year when facts truly became irrelevant. Veracity, winded and gassed, may finally have been dropped as a participant in the US public policy arena.
I hope I am wrong about that, but let’s be realistic about the danger. If the President and other elected representatives can say whatever they want, without serious fear of penalty, can we believe that others won’t follow? If people follow the example of their leaders, we now have a serious civics, ethics, and communications problem, which only promises to become worse.
If we purport to live in an age of information, that age, including analytics, will be irrelevant when we reach the point where factual content can be freely ignored, sold to the highest bidder, or endorsed by mob action. After all, analytics is essentially the evaluation and understanding of facts. With no meaningful facts, there is no worthwhile analytics. It’s increasingly clear that the idea of a laissez faire information economy, like its conventional namesake, is an abject failure. Why? In part because that economy never existed – the playing field for different facts was never level. Also, because rational decisions about what facts to consume is impossible in a world flooded with trivialities, irrelevancies, or disinformation. In self-defense we tend to consume what we already know and believe.
But who, or what, could possibly regulate the information economy? You probably know what I’m going to say, but before I say a few words on how we can partially defend ourselves, let me turn to our friends in the press. The mainstream press offers some grounding in reality, but they are also fundamentally constrained. No matter how ludicrous the event or person, it is difficult to rage against something and simultaneously report on it objectively. Inherently, if unintentionally, the mainstream press normalizes even the most peculiar current events. Fringe press sites are often so biased, they make for difficult reading, unless you’ve already subscribed to their core premise, whatever that might be. Source material is increasingly available, for those who have the time and patience to sift through the rising tides of info-irrelevancy. But search sites are also very constrained: if you’re asking what others ask, you’re going to get the answers others have sought. If you’re asking something that few others ask, you’re in for a long haul, or may come away empty-handed. Time to head for the research library – if you can find one.
If that seems bleak, I do think we can turn this around. Really, we can. I believe the place to start is with something that is a small, simple bit of analytics, that each of us can do every day, and we can help our kids and friends do the same. It is simply to recognize a possible stand-alone fact. “Loosey goosey” statements that have no chance of being true, even before we get to fact checking and confirmation of sources, are something that we have the right, and civic duty, to reject. And when officials and news sources persist in issuing fact-free content, we have the right and civic duty to reject them, too. People can and will reach different conclusions based on statements with a claim to validity. But to argue national policy from statements that are prima facie invalid leads to discourse as content-free as the statements on which their based. We’re better and smarter than that.
When it comes to recognizing a possible “stand-alone” fact, we will each have a slightly different personal checker. The main thing is to have one, and only statements passing our tests are worthy of any additional consideration. I thought about what I do, which is essentially to watch for GAS –abuse of Generalization, Aggregation, and Similarity/Difference. (True, that’s not all it stands for.) Then, we can look at sources and evidence – thank goodness for fact-checking sites.
Here are a few examples, conveniently provided by recent events.
- Generalization. The human brain generalizes readily and creatively. But this process can be arbitrary, and when biases are tossed in, invalid. Sometimes we generalize from examples which are not representative. Sometimes we generalize from incomplete properties of a complex topic. Very simple statements about complex topics usually put me on the alert.
Those claiming that fission-based nuclear power should be stopped at all costs are focused on the issues of nuclear waste and possibly the attendant security risks. That’s not invalid, but also only one feature of this energy source in a mix of nuclear, carbon-based, and alternative sources, none of which offers complete answers at this time.
Obamacare is a disaster (or a success). The Affordable Care Act may be the poster-example for generalization statements. Statements based on particular aspects of the law, often in particular states, are generalized to assert to the entire law is good or bad. There is underlying bias in these generalizations: if the law is not a complete failure, the justification for simply scrapping it is removed.
- Aggregation. We often look at a group – anything from a country to a religion to an age demographic to a profession – and think all individuals in that group are equivalent. Almost any aggregation is ripe for abusively-invalid statements. Whenever I see a comparison or equivalence asserted between groups, my internal alarms go off.
The notion that Muslims are terrorists (and so should be excluded from the country) is classic GAS. Muslims are highly diverse, and most are peaceful. It can easily be confirmed that the vast majority of terrorist attacks are perpetrated by non-Muslims – go ahead, Google it.
When we hear a politician make a claim about “The American People” you can be pretty sure this is claiming a non-existent mandate. Those People are a pretty diverse and divided lot right now.
Our President-elect likes to say things about women that don’t apply to the group as a whole, or very likely even a tiny minotity of that group.
- Similarity/Difference. Things are often compared in a way that can be set aside from formulation alone.
We recently heard from the President-elect that General Mattis is the “nearest thing” we have to General George S. Patton, Jr. That could mean anything from a shared hyper-aggressiveness, or anger-control issues, or Mattis being the reincarnation of George C. Scott. Who knows? Regardless, it is not meaningful.
Numbers are no guarantee of valid comparisons. A recent New York Times article referenced scores of possible election fraud violations, comparing that with millions of votes. The problem is that the two numbers refer to different things, and cannot be directly compared.
Personally, I am wary of comparisons against predictions with unknown assumptions. Whether the prediction asserts that wind-farm technician is one of the hottest new fields, or that the national debt will grow by 20% in the next two years. Linear extrapolations – that something will keep going pretty much as it has been in recent times – are often just a guess with some numbers attached, and if you look hard enough you’ll find that linearity is one of the underlying assumptions.
We can certainly haggle over whether some statements stand alone as possible facts or not. That’s fine, and a more structured and constructive dialogue than arguing, for example, whether Muslims should be excluded from the US, which is to argue policy based on a premise that is dubious even prior to inquiry.
This might feel like we’re swimming upstream, and we are. But so far, we’ve allowed our so-called leaders to play us for suckers, and personally I can’t see a good reason for that. Politicians follow more than they lead, and calling out the obviously-unconsidered statement might just start to move them, and us, towards discourse based on at least the possibility of substance.