April 04, 2006

Are Facts Obsolete?

I know some if not all of you reading will look at this title and relate to the topic while simultaneously proceeding with trepidation as you await to discover what "facts" in particular I am choosing to declare worthless. Well, you can relax, as my motives for writing this post lie elsewhere.

Before proceeding, read over Are Facts Obsolete? by Thomas Sowell. If you are short on time, this quote summarizes the article nicely:

What is more frightening than any particular policy or ideology is the widespread habit of disregarding facts. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey put it this way: "Demagoguery beats data."

No doubt there is a measure of truth to those words, but if you ask me, they grossly oversimplify the situation. The larger problem is not the disregarding of facts, it is our collective inability to reasonably sift through a mountainous heap of them to attain anything resembling truth.

Representatives for opposing viewpoints are eager to debunk data presented by the other side, but only rarely do they succeed fully. The truth of the matter is that most of the time, the data is in fact factual within the context created by the method and purpose of its collection. Consider, if you will, gun control. Pro-gun control advocates can cite cases where violent crime is higher in neighborhoods with a higher proportion of guns to citizens, while those who support gun ownership can do much the same in reverse, rolling out examples of high crime rates existing in regions with tight gun restrictions. The thing is, they're both right!

Unfortunately and perhaps unfairly, it falls to us to determine the context of each data set. How many factors were considered when constructing a particular study? What region of the country received closest attention? Over how much time was a study completed? Rarely will two studies match identically, or even match closely enough to be considered a fair comparision. In truth, we may not even possess the means to complete a completely "fair" study that factors in every conceivable contributing factor to whatever is being examined.

I feel perfectly justified in arguing that our supposedly impartial media owes us as much of that context as is possible to acquire. When citing a study, a reporter should be required to give the audience a sense of the purpose of, and target group examined with that study. When referencing a poll, a journalist should be obligated to list at a reasonable sample of the questions asked by the pollsters, and to supply information regarding the demographic(s) to which the poll was administered. This is the data the public needs to find something closer to actual truth.

Sometimes the news does list a few key poll questions in its coverage of an issue, and ya know what? Almost every time, I find myself saying, "well, of course that's the answer they were going to get with that question." A great many polls are overly direct, presumably in order to save time (or occasionally to skew results.) Perhaps others are better constructed, but the bottom line is that the public needs as much information as possible to make this determination.

If we hope to understand an increasingly complex world, we must be willing to ask increasingly complex questions. Regardless of divided national opinions, truth is waiting to be found if we know where and how to look, or in many cases, demand the best from those who do.

Posted by Andy at April 4, 2006 02:23 PM to the Politics category

See a great example of this complexity in the real world.

Posted by: Andy at April 7, 2006 07:15 PM
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