Are Facts Dead?

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Misrepresenting facts and actually lying have long been a part of politics. However, it has been claimed that this is the year facts died. The death blow, at least according to some, was April 18, 2012. On this day Representative Allen West of my state of Florida claimed that about 80 congressional democrats are members of the Communist Party. A little fact checking revealed that this is not the case. Interestingly enough, West decided to stand by his remarks rather than yield to the truth. While this might seem odd, West’s approach was probably the best policy politically.

In some cases, the abuse of facts is more subtle. For example, Obama has been attacked on the grounds that the average economic worth of the middle class in the United States plummeted on his watch. While this is truth-like, it does leave out some key information, namely that the plummet was well underway when Obama took office. To use an analogy, it would be like blaming a new pilot who took the stick halfway through a nose dive for that nose dive. Sure, he is at the stick and the plane was in a nose dive—but he did not put it there. As might be imagined, this approach of making truth-like claims is not limited to the right. For example, Romney is being bashed for the Massachusetts’ seemingly bad job creation numbers while he was governor. However, Romney’s situation was very much like Obama’s: he took the stick after someone else put the plane in a dive. Given that the situations are comparable, both men should be able to avail themselves of the same defense. Also, it is tempting to think that getting the relevant facts would defuse these attacks. That is, one might want to think that people would regard both attacks as flawed and essentially unfounded and this would be the ends of these attacks. But, one does not always get what one wants.

While this might come as something of a shock, people are often not very rational—especially when it comes to politics. While both of these attacks have been addressed in detail subject to rational examination, this did not spell their end. In fact, it has been found that when people get information that corrects a false claim, they will be even more likely to believe the false claim (provided that they claim matches their views).  For example, if Republicans and Democrats read an article that claims that one of Obama’s policies had a significant positive effect and then learn that the initial article was in error, the Democrats would  be more inclined to believe the original article despite the fact that it had been shown to be in error. The Republicans would be more inclined to reject the original article. In short, it seems that corrective information is generally only accepted when it corrects in a way favorable to a person’s ideology.  This has the rather unfortunate effect that correcting an error in an ideological context will only correct the error in the minds of those who already want to believe it is an error and will generally not change the mind of those who want to believe.

In addition to the obvious problem, this tendency also means that people who are wrong (intentionally or unintentionally) generally will not suffer any damage to their credibility among their own faction, provided that their errors match the ideology of said faction. As such, the consequences of saying things that are not true seem to be generally positive—at least from a pragmatic standpoint. After all, if the claim matches the proper ideology and is not called out, then it will be accepted. If it is called out and shown to be in error, the criticism will generally serve to incline those who agree with the claim to still believe it. As such, presenting an ideologically “correct” falsehood (which need not be a lie) seems to be generally a win-win situation.

Since I teach critical thinking, this rather worries me. After all, I devote considerable energy to trying to teach people that they should base their beliefs on evidence and rational argumentation rather than on whatever matches their ideology.  One stock response to my concern is that people are this way “by nature” and hence there is little point in trying to teach people to be critical thinkers. Trying to overcome this tendency and solve the problem of ideological irrationality would be as futile as trying to solve the problem of teen pregnancy by trying to teach abstinence (after all, people are fornicators by nature).

On my bad days, I tend to almost agree. After all, I have repeatedly seen people who are capable of being rational in non-ideological areas show that they lose this capacity when it comes to ideology. However, this is not true of everyone. After all, there are clearly and obviously people who can do a reasonably good job of objective analysis. While some of this might be disposition, much of it is clearly due to training. While everyone might not be trainable, most people could be trained to be critical thinkers. To use an analogy, just as natural tendencies can be overcome by other forms of training (such as military training), this allegedly natural tendency to just go with one’s ideology can also be overcome. I know this because I have seen it happen.

Of course, there is also an artificial barrier. Folks in politics and other areas benefit greatly from being able to (consciously or not) manipulate the poor thinking skills and emotional vulnerabilities of people. As such, they have a vested interest in learning techniques to do this and to ensure that people are left as defenseless as possible. As such, while critical thinking skills are in demand, the education system is actually largely designed to not create such skills. One rather glaring example is that the most basic critical thinking classes are generally taught in college and not earlier. While some educators wonder why students do so badly at critical thinking, this is obviously part of the answer. Imagine what the math skills of students would be like if they took their first actual math class as a college freshman. While it might be countered that critical thinking is too hard for kids, this is clearly not true—the basics could be taught as soon as kids were being taught the basics of math and probably even earlier. In short, I would say that much of what is attributed to human nature is actually the result of education—or the lack thereof.

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  1. Teaching critical reasoning seems like a good idea.

    I’ve never studied critical reasoning, but in secondary school I participated in a debating society.

    At times we had to argue for positions which we were not in agreement with.

    That is great training for learning arguing skills. What’s more, the competitive nature of debating gives an incentive to developing good arguments.

    Children could practice debating earlier than secondary school: debating can be fun and be seen as a sport or game.

    It is not necessary to debate about “life and death” issues; that is, children can argue about things which do not produce animosity between them.

  2. swallterstein: “At times we had to argue for positions which we were not in agreement with. That is great training for learning arguing skills. What’s more, the competitive nature of debating gives an incentive to developing good arguments.”

    I certainly agree, particularly on the point of arguing for positions you may not agree with. I used to have that as an activity in a subject I taught at university and students, although they didn’t much like public speaking, often said it was a valuable exercise.

  3. Mike: “While it might be countered that critical thinking is too hard for kids, this is clearly not true—the basics could be taught as soon as kids were being taught the basics of math and probably even earlier.”

    I agree. I teach experimental design and one thing I routinely do is hand brief media reports of studies (usually medical or psychological) to groups of students and get them to critique the methods and conclusions. Even in first year, students are usually very good at this once they are “primed” with a few concepts and — I think this is important — given a “licence” to actually be critical.

  4. Hello Keith:

    Having to argue against one’s own position might be a great exercise for us on this blog.

    It could not be on an issue or question of deep conviction like the existence or non-existence of God or of profound ethical commitment like whether the death penalty is justified.

    Nor on an issue which requires lots of reading or technical knowledge, since no one is going to read up for hours on a position which one does not agree with.

    However, there are certain political positions
    which people might be able to argue both sides of.

    Not the U.S. elections please, since I cannot stand Romney, but for example, the drones.

    I am officially against U.S. use of drones to assassinate alleged or suspected terrorists (I say “alleged or suspected” because there is no trial), but I could argue in favor of them.

    Only an example.

  5. As a student of critical thinking, I see that the rules of logic evolved with our brains to deal with what challenged us in nature for our survival. The rules worked well, Aristotle codified them, and now schools teach them.

    The rules in our society today (in politics, the professions, and the arts) work the same way and they evolve, but differently. What we call a political falsehood is actually a truth when it insures the politician’s survival in politics.

  6. One must first be taught to believe critical thinking is a rational ideology for a human being.

    Can that be done without a delusion trade-off?…

  7. Dennis Sceviour

    The Republic outlined different methods for propaganda. Socrates had suggested that leaders must falsify. There is nothing new to find here. Critical thinking is good stuff, but it is not enough. Truth and falsehood can help classify facts about how things are, but not how things ought to be. Are there any new suggestions what to do about the problem?

  8. Mike,

    I agree with this post in its entirety, especially your conclusion.

    I would add, though, that there is a third position between those inclined to either agree or disagree with a given claim: it seems that you could also be concerned only with truth, in which case your inclination to agree or disagree is not a function of bias but of evidence.

    Perhaps, though, that’s what you mean to create by emphasizing critical thinking.



    You are, of course, referring to the “noble lie”. However, Plato argues that this is necessary only when the masses adequately capable of critical thinking. It is a way of compensating for that.

    Hence, if they could think critically, it would not only be good stuff, but it would indeed be enough.



    In the spirit of making sure that facts are not, in fact, dead, it’s actually the case that Aristotle did not codify the rules of logic.

    He describes how deduction is done in the Prior Analytics, but he does so through examples and–very notably–not through codifying rules as such.

    We owe that codification to the medieval logicians. Many of the elements now familiar in syllogistic logic are due to their efforts (e.g., the concept of distribution of the middle term, the subaltern relation, four figures rather than three).

  9. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: Asur, June 20, 2012 at 10:14 pm
    No. The noble lie was about a Phoenician dream of a stratified society with three classes – gold, silver and brass and iron. I am referring to Socrates claim that leaders must lie to people for their own good, like a physician.

    The point of view that if people could be educated to think critically, it would solve all problems, is akin to some of Aristotle’s claims. It has been tried, and it is not enough to stop political dishonesty. I was looking for new suggestions.

  10. The noble lie is told exactly for that reason–it’s for the people’s own good, because they lack the ability to recognize that good for themselves. It doesn’t seem a stretch to say that what they’re lacking is the ability to think critically.

    If you had a different part in mind making the same point…cool.

    For the 2nd, what conditions need to be met for political dishonesty to occur? There seem to be two, either of which is sufficient: 1) relevant information is not available, and 2) the relevant information is available but the ability to process it is not.

    So, there’s your solution: 1) make sure the relevant information is available, 2) make sure people can think critically.

    What else is could there be?

  11. Ah yes Tail Gunner Joe all over again but with an interesting twist. West is African-American and like the Kenyan-American president has that electric fence of racism surrounding him which insulates against criticism to a certain extent. I mean that the charge of racism can be used as a diversion if either of them are criticised. Add to that West’s military record and you have Iron Man invulnerability. I wonder if Denzel Washington studied him for his role in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate. There’s a resemblance isn’t there, not that they all look the same to me, it seems to be really there. I’m looking at his photo on the Wikipedia article.

    Mike LaB’s political affiliations require no psychic powers to divine. He’s obviously a member of the Trotskyite fraction of the Democrat Party. Would he care to deny that he knows Russian and even if he does the fact that I’ve said it surely stands for something. More pressing concerns forbid me from going into my evidence at this time.

  12. I agree with the original post.

    Here’s a recent article I came across, and my reaction to it (which, in itself is a case of non-acceptance of potentially corrective information). Tell me what you think!

  13. Chris Mooney does a great job of teasing out the personality-based and environmental causes of denying facts in his book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality. Turns out that conservatives, by their very nature as measured on the Big Five personality inventory and their empirically researched moral foundations (Jonathan Haidt), are a good deal worse than liberals when it comes to believing and propagating untruths.

  14. Didn’t Haidt say, on the Colbert report recently, that he had now come to believe that conservatives have a better grasp (than liberals) of reality?

  15. Swallerstein,

    Like you, I did debate in school-it probably helped shape my decision to become a philosopher. After all, it is about arguing and using evidence. Plus, as you note, it is common to have to argue different positions (when I did debate, we could be called on to argue for a position or against it). This, as you aid, does help develop an ability to see how arguments and evidence work as well as getting the notion that there are often multiple possible positions that can be defended.

    In my ethics class, I require the students to include an objection section in the paper-they need to make a case against their own view and then refute it. This seems to help a bit.

  16. Keith,

    Good points-especially about the “license.” I suspect that students often think that they are just supposed to receive information rather than be critical about it-I do see this trait even at the college level (and beyond).

  17. Basil,

    Interestingly some folks have argued that we evolved to be illogical and this is an advantage. I’ve argued against this idea, but it is interesting.

    I’d say that the falsehood is still not a truth, but merely a useful lie for the politician. But people differ about the nature of truth and some even take it to be roughly equivalent to being useful.

  18. Michael,

    I think it can-I’ve been “selling” critical thinking for years on pragmatic grounds (learn this and you will be better off).

  19. Dennis,

    There is never anything new under the sun. 🙂

    That said, there has been am effort to boost critical thinking in the US, mainly at the college level. Unfortunately, this has been infested with the stock problems of what becomes of educational “fads”: buzz words, administrative bloat, money-focused “expert” consultants, ineffective committee meetings and so on. These problems are not unbeatable, but they are tough to overcome.

  20. Dennis,

    You are right that critical thinking is not a cure all. A person could be very good at critical thinking and still be evil or weak willed (and so on). But more critical thinking would be better than less. Naturally, we also need ethical thinking-which is much tougher.

  21. Michael Reidy,

    I do deny that I know Russian. I’m an American, so I speak English and bad English.

    I am a Democrat, but mainly because we only have three options here and only two let a person vote in the primaries. As far as being a Trotskyite, I’m not sure what that even means. I don’t intend to get an ice-pick to the head, if that is what you mean.

  22. Bjorn,

    Interestingly enough, he did.

  23. Bjorn:

    “Didn’t Haidt say, on the Colbert report recently, that he had now come to believe that conservatives have a better grasp (than liberals) of reality?”

    If Haidt said that, presumably he’s got the evidence to back it up, but if so it would be in flat contradiction to all the data Mooney presents.

  24. Mike,

    What do you mean by “ethical thinking”?

    Critical thinking seems to operate something like this: Given X rules and Y facts, Z follows.

    Where does ethical thinking fit into that? Determining X? Surely that’s also in the domain of critical thinking…

    The very first X’s would seem to have to be abstractions from Y’s and thus outside of critical thinking per se, but again, that doesn’t strike me as something you can mean by ethical thinking.

    Or is it?

  25. Dennis Sceviour

    Thank you for believing that I am right, although I may only be correct. Some facts may be correct, but I am not sure if they are right.

  26. What is the difference between ‘correct’ and ‘right’?

  27. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: Asur, June 21, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    What is the difference between ‘correct’ and ‘right’?

    This is well know in philosophy as the is/ought problem. Facts are true or false; ethical judgements are right or wrong.

  28. Interesting.

    If you can’t derive an ought from an is, where do your oughts come from?

    What is is everything that is, right? No room seems left for an ought, certainly not one to be held by an is like you or me.

  29. It is for this precise reason that the press- now, media- was born. Jefferson once said- and I paraphrase here- there can be no government without the press and therr can be no press without government.

    Unfortunately, the media has decided to put profits/viewership and style over substance.

  30. My view on how poor critical thinking works comes from my experience teaching drawing. Few human experiences so starkly teach the nature of prejudice than watching the stubbornness with which human beings cling to false beliefs in the face of the clear failure of those beliefs in drawing. People will sit before a simple object with the charge only to report what they see. They almost universally can’t perform that task.

    Why is this? It is because people carry with them conceptual baggage telling them what they must report as true. A cup is round. It sits on a flat table. The water in the cup should be symbolically represented with a given set of lines. These an countless other commands of a social/linguistic conceptual system overwhelm what is obvious in virtually all humans and it is exceedingly difficult to supplant these concepts with what people see right in front of their eyes.

    We are social creatures. Under normal circumstances it is far more important that we hew to the perceived reality of our social troupe than it is that we see the obvious in a way that may be corrosive to social structure. Sadly, our modern technological mastery makes this sort of social blindness very dangerous.

  31. Asur,

    Aristotle and Aquinas took the view that morality could be inferred from what is. Roughly put, we could understand human beings (and other things) and determine their function, thus also determining their good (the proper function).

    Hume came along and said “you can’t get an ought from an is”, but did not do much to argue for this. But it did catch on. Kant countered by his “Copernican” revolution: we put our moral concepts onto the world from our minds. That is, morality is in our rationality and not out in what is. Roughly put, of course.

    Other folks have gone back to an approach somewhat like Aristotle, only using tales of evolution rather than teleology. Interesting, getting ethics from evolution seems to often involve an attempt to get an ought from an is.

  32. Jill,

    The media gives is what we want, so we have to take some of the blame. 🙂

  33. The mention here of competitive debate being good training didn’t say training for what. It is indeed good training for courtroom lawyering.
    There’s another kind of debate increasingly being taught in American secondary schools: legislative debate. or congressional debate. It develops skills in the kind of debate done in legislative bodies. It’s more cooperative than the above, and debaters may change their minds. For more info, google it. (Or bing it, or whatever.)

  34. Is this a US specific issue, or is it tied up in how our brains work?

    As an aside, I’d say a misanthropy and general scepticism would reduce the ideological bias of a person and their likelihood to suffer this terrible affliction.

    So sayeth the misanthropic sceptic.

  35. Healthy human minds hide information about themselves from themselves all the time. A lot of that is normal operation- the subconscious. Some of it is things people just don’t want to know about themselves. Another part, though, is things for which we don’t have a place. This would be concepts people have never heard of or poorly understand, and ideas our minds find bizarre or frightening. In a polarized political environment one side may find nearly anything the other side says bizarre or frightening- and they would seek to suppress it.

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