Friday, August 31, 2012

The Relentless, Fruitless Search for Facts

In my younger days, I was something of a know-it-all. (I can hear my wife now, saying, "are you counting yesterday as your 'younger days'?) In school, or talking with my family, I couldn't resist lobbing in the facts of whatever was being discussed. From which, of course, I learned that you shouldn't do that if you want people to stay in the same room as you. To be honest, though, what I eventually learned is that much of what I thought of as facts, or more accurately as truth, didn't deserve that lofty title.

I was led to think about this yesterday when I had a brief chat with a respected colleague about the Republican convention, and in particular Paul Ryan. He liked Ryan, overall, but said (the following quote, being from memory, is not a fact), "I'm really disappointed that he lied about that GM factory closing. I don't know why he had to do that." Having seen Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz condemn him as a liar the night before, I told him that I thought the timeline was not as black and white as some were saying, and that Ryan hadn't played with the facts. 

But I had a further thought after we parted: we have created a political (and really a social) culture where opinions are valued, as my dad used to say, "like assholes...everyone's got one, and they usually stink." Contrasted to opinions are facts, which we say are the only things that really matter. So people on both sides of any debate work incredibly hard to have their beliefs, theories and explanations enshrined as facts, and the other side's declared mere opinion, or (in the case of Paul Ryan) smeared as mere falsehood.

Let's go back to the Paul Ryan speech to see what I mean. (The link has an interesting analysis of competing truth claims from NPR). He said

"President Barack Obama came to office during an economic crisis, as he has reminded us a time or two. Those were very tough days, and any fair measure of his record has to take that into account. My home state voted for President Obama. When he talked about change, many people liked the sound of it, especially in Janesville, [Wis.], where we were about to lose a major factory.
"A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: 'I believe that if our government is there to support you ... this plant will be here for another hundred years.' That's what he said in 2008.
"Well, as it turned out, that plant didn't last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that's how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight." (emphasis from source article)
So if we wanted to map it out a bit, we could say that Ryan, first, acknowledged that we have to acknowledge the President didn't have it easy, noted that the factory was imperiled, stated that then-candidate Obama offered a (somewhat conditional) pledge to save that factory, and then noted that the factory was soon closed for good. If you read NPR's analysis, or any other, I don't think you will find that anyone is saying those statements were, in the basic sense of the word, false.

The dispute, such as it is, can be found in this passage from the Washington Post's Fact Check

In his acceptance speech, GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan appeared to suggest that President Obama was responsible for the closing of a GM plant in Ryan’s home town of Janesville, Wis.
Obama gave his speech in February 2008, and he did say those words. But Ryan’s phrasing, referring to the fact the plant did not last another year, certainly suggests it was shut down in 2009, when Obama was president.
Ryan, in fact, issued a news release in June 2008, urging GM to keep the plant open after the automaker announced it would close it.
The plant was largely closed in December 2008 when production of General Motors SUVs ceased — before Obama was sworn in. A small crew of about 100 workers completed a contract for production of medium-duty trucks for Isuzu Motors, a contract that ended in April 2009.
To break it down, again, the writer claims that Ryan, "appeared to suggest" Obama's responsibility, then acknowledges Obama was accurately quoted by Ryan, then again says Ryan's phrasing "suggests" the plant was shut down in 2009, points out the plant was planned to be closed before then, finds that the plant was "largely closed" at the end of 2008, and acknowledges in fact 100 people were working in 2009. 

The first thing you might observe is that the "fact check" is longer and more ambiguous than the speech it attempts to clarify. The second is that most of the facts on offer are in fact opinions about what Ryan meant, or Clintonesque convolutions about what the word "closed" might mean. 

But what you might miss, in all of this, is that by the time we can all agree that there was no flagrant, intentional violation of established facts on Ryan's part (and if I haven't convinced you of that, please give up on me now) we have completely forgotten about the point he was trying to make. If I was inclined to be cynical, I'd say maybe that was the desired result: distract us from the ideas being discussed by raising the alarm that the truth is being hijacked. But I think there's a deeper issue: as a society, we've become extremely uncomfortable in thinking about and evaluating ideas.

Ryan's idea, if I can be so bold as to interpret it, is that government, held out by Democrats as an essential part of promoting innovation, creating jobs and building businesses, will in fact sap our vitality and harm our economy if it becomes too central. The anecdote he offers here resembles a small morality tale: an aspiring ruler promises a community that he can save their factory and their jobs, they enthusiastically support him, the factory closes anyway. The moral is that we should not put our faith in any leader, but rely on ourselves (and on the entrepreneurs who are held up as the people who can really create jobs.)

Now, none of this is factual, but that doesn't mean it is mere, useless opinion. It is an argument, a principle, a philosophy of governing, or (as Jonah Goldberg might say) an ideology. In a world where the facts alone cannot tell us which politician to vote for, we shouldn't look down our noses at belief systems that help us make sense of a complex world and determine a plan of action. In fact, they are absolutely essential, and choosing a belief system to follow is the proper task of this (and every) election. We used to be more comfortable talking about competing philosophies and using our values and life experience to choose between them, but now we dig, frantically, for the fool's gold of facts that aren't really facts at all.

I believe the desire to declare "facts" where none (or few) exist can be traced back to our respect for science. We see scientists answering some of the most complex questions of the natural world and want to do the same thing to the political and social worlds. While understanding that impulse, I would offer a note: we refer to the great revolutions of science with labels like, "The Theory of Evolution" or "The Theory of Relativity" because those breakthroughs are not facts. They are models that best explain the observations made by countless scientists, that are confirmed by abundant experiments. Saying that evolution is not a fact does not mean that it is on equal footing with Creationism: the vast preponderance of facts support evolution, while Creationism rests entirely on questionable religious authority. But it acknowledges that someday, a theory may come along that builds on what we currently know, and will better explain the facts than evolution does. 

There is no such preponderance of facts to support either "The Theory of Market-Driven Growth" (aka Republicanism) or "The Theory of Government-Guided Economic Stability" (aka Democratism). So place your faith not in the self-appointed fact checkers, but in your own ability to weigh the two candidates' philosophies and determine which one you trust.


  1. Very thoughtful and well-written. I think there's nothing wrong with wanting to know the truth. And I believe that following an ideology in lieu of chasing the truth is dangerous. Then again, I'm a researcher and it's in my nature to keep an open mind and to seek truth. You could say that the tropes that "all politicians lie" or "government is bad" are ways to obfuscate the truth, too.

    1. Thanks for responding. I certainly would never disagree that the search for truth is important, in fact I think it is one of the critical things people should do with their time on earth. What I think is dangerous is flattening truth to facts, and then stretching what should be a narrow and rigorous category to cover things like political argument. I think truth can come from religion, philosophy and logic as well as science. (Though that truth may not be universally recognized, of course.)

      As for ideology, if you have time, the Jonah Goldberg video I linked to makes an interesting--and I think compelling--argument. Essentially, he says that all political movements have an ideology, which he defines as an interlocking set of principles. When a group denies this, it is often the case that they don't want to have to defend or debate the principles that drive their policy ideas.

      Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comment.