Revian
2017-02-23

Why don't you like my facts?

Disclaimer: The opinions I will be expressing will be solely my own, they will in no way be related to Mozilla or the work I do there.

This is the second part of a series of post I will be doing on society's current issues, you can find my previous post here: When silence just isn't an option

So, I've heard a lot of people say we now live in a 'post-fact' society. I've found this a very interesting topic recently, since information is so important when making decisions, if 'facts' are no longer important. It seems like that might be a bit of a problem? I will attempt to divulge my thoughts here on what the deal is with facts, what they are, and how we can go (back) to being a 'factual' society.

It should be pretty simple to establish facts, right?

Let me start with a little about what makes a fact, whenever you talk about something like this anyone can come up with quasi-philosophical arguments about how there are no facts. Maybe they're right, our eyes can easily be tricked, maybe the moon isn't there when I'm not looking at it, maybe the sun does have an army of invisible tiny little midgets orbiting it and maybe gravity will suddenly disappear tomorrow. But that is not how we generally live our lives, in general in our day to day lives we take the things for which we have directly observable evidence and say they're facts. We do this for observations (the wall is white, the book is made of paper) and predictions (when I press the light-switch the light will turn on, when I heat up this chicken it will be cooked). Those types of deductions based on our senses and inductions based on past experiences are essential to being able to live our lives, and I really don't want to get into those type of 'fact or no fact' arguments.

Now next to facts we have beliefs. Often a belief is something we have been told many times during our lives, something that we would like to be true, that makes us feel justified or better about ourselves or something we were told by someone we believe in and we can experience them with various degrees of certainty. As humans we act upon our beliefs as much as we act upon facts, you might believe in a deity, you might believe everyone in the world should be kind to one another or you might be an existential nihilists that believes there's no point to life either way. The point is that we all have a large collection of beliefs, and the vast majority of us is naturally uncomfortable changing those beliefs. In order not to be in this position we subject apparent evidence in favor of those beliefs to far less scrutiny before we admit it into our lives, and we reject apparent evidence against those beliefs much more easily than we would reject evidence confirming them.

But the line between those two can become somewhat blurry, essentially we have a spectrum where anything we can say with near certainty is a fact, a large range between those things we are 'certain' are true, and things we are 'certain' not to be true we call beliefs that we do or do not ascribe to, and finally there are things we are certain not to be true. When an individual holds a belief with an extremely high degree of certainty, to them that belief is as much a fact as anything else that most of us might agree on is a fact. It would take a lot of observable evidence to dissuade them from that idea. If you've lived your life believing the universe revolves around the Earth, the notion of that not being true would be extremely hard to accept. Superficial observation does seem to confirm that that is the case, and after all that does seem to be the most likely explanation. It will take a lot of convincing for you to understand that the Earth, in fact rotates around the Sun.

Let's stick with that example for a second. In the modern world, for some of us, the Earth orbiting the sun is a fact, we have looked through a telescope, traced the motions of the sun, the stars and the planets in our sky, and we have observed directly that the universe revolving around the Earth cannot explain our observations, subsequently we have continued to make observations which show the only possible explanation (without going into absurdity) to be the Earth revolving around the Sun. Now the people who have done the observations of this fact, can now produce a set of predictions and descriptions of observations, and as experts, through the system of education, we can share these with as many people as possible. Now if we're in a position where people consider us credible, they will acknowledge our observations and predictions, they won't try to reproduce them themselves, but in the absence of a credible source to the contrary they will believe us. As such most of the western world holds a strong belief in heliocentrism, strong enough for most, to accept this belief as fact.

You end up believing in individuals or institutions to tell you what is or isn't fact. That is essentially a good thing, since none of us would have time in our lives to observe all the evidence for all the things we are told are facts and that are relevant to our modern-day lives. Therefore belief in various forms plays an extremely important and often positive role in our lives. But there is always a danger in believing in ideas, people or institutions. When rapper B.o.B. sent out a number of tweets supposedly proving the Earth was flat [1] the vast majority of people disagreed. They pointed out that although some of his own predictions were right, his observations were lacking. However there were some who saw their own beliefs confirmed in his observations, and rushed to join them, there is actually a society that collects evidence for a flat earth [2], partially grounded in geocentric religious beliefs.

So what's the point? The point is that in the case of any fact for which we do not take the time to observe the evidence ourselves (of which there will always be a lot), whether we accept it as a fact or not depends on the strength of our belief in the source that has collected the evidence for that fact.

Now how do we get to the facts?

Scientists and engineers probably have an above average ability and tendency to try to look at claims from different angles and seek unbiased evidence for those claims. But it's important to remember that even for them, it turns out to be extremely difficult to tune out beliefs and biases, and there exists a long history in science of conducting research focused on confirming views for which there really wasn't that much evidence in the first place. Often, like with normal human beliefs, that path involved taking evidence at face value that we liked, and extensive attempts to debunk evidence that we didn't like.

This continues to the present day, and we all do it! After all how many liberals have really investigated the claims about the crowd size at the inauguration of Donald Trump? Didn't most of those people see the pretty picture on the news and go 'Well see, there's all we need to know!', whereas that picture would not have been particularly hard to manipulate? (SPOILER: The news gave a reasonably realistic idea of crowd size difference, but don't take my word for it![3][4]) How many really went to look at research about crime in Sweden rather than read the article that said 'nah, it isn't true' and then went: 'Ah, I'm sure CNN did their homework!'? (SPOILER: They did [5]) So we can argue that once you've done research into this, it seems certain media outlets turn out to be more reliable than others, but most of us don't really do that. Our environment has told us certain media outlets are reliable, and we take what they say at face value. That really isn't that different from what people are doing that put their faith into media outlets that in practice really do manipulate facts on a large scale, so it would be silly to think that you can just point people at the media outlet you believe to be factual and expect them to accept that information as such.

So how do we convince people the Earth orbits the Sun?

Here is where I believe the internet is actually helping us, and should make the job of autocratic dictators and media outlets with strong political agenda's a lot harder. Unlike as recent as two decades ago, everyone with an internet connection now has direct access to a wealth of open source information. Images, tweets and many other types of data directly from their sources. A single source might be unreliable, but by combining a wide array of sources from facebook, instagram and twitter to public satellite imagery. Several parties (one of the better known being bellingcat [6]) have shown that it's possible to collect information in such a way that stories from media outlets and the government can be corroborated (or debunked!) in an independent way, citing sources that anyone can verify directly from their articles. This wealth of data has made it far easier for anyone to verify the reliability of the media outlets they consume.

In the end, the issue of how much someone can change your beliefs is all about trust. If there's one thing that is almost certainly true, it's that trust in the traditional media outlets is at a historical low point [7], however, a source of optimism is that research indicates that citations, expert opinions, etc. all those things do matter. They do increase the amount of trust people experience towards a source of information and, perhaps more importantly, once people discover a source of information gets their facts wrong, their trust in that source does decrease[8]. I believe there's a lesson in there for those of us, be it journalists or scientists, who are attempting to convene information to the masses, or even those of us simply trying to convene a 'fact' over dinner. Don't simply tell people their wrong, don't simply tell people you have facts that are better than theirs and try to get away with one questionable image to back up your story.

When you want to convince people of your views, dig deep, look for a myriad of different sources that show evidence for your point of view (the 'fact' you are trying to convene, if you will) and never forget to really look for evidence to the contrary. In the worst case you'll discover that you were wrong and you'll have to give up a belief, which although uncomfortable is worthwhile. In the best case you will be much better prepared when someone tries to confront you with their conflicting ideas. Whenever possible communicate with sources that are accessible and understandable for whomever you are trying to reach with your story. Never argue from authority, information has no authorities, only experts. But most importantly never be deceptive when trying to convince someone of your point of view. There is no way you will be able to instantly change someone's beliefs, but a consistent, steady stream of truthful information can erode it.

Nicolaus Copernicus' ideas went against everything people believed in, the government and the church tried to do everything in their power to give people 'alternative facts'. Copernicus made a wealth of observations and predictions, consistently showing the superiority of his ideas[9]. Eventually he would die under house arrest and it would take until 1758 for books describing the heliocentric model to be allowed by the Catholic church. Governments and other institutions holding beliefs which hold back the flow of facts is nothing new in this world, but in the end, no amount of misinformation can stand the test of time when confronted with real facts.

And now we have the internet.


I realize Social Media provide an interesting perspective on the spread of information, I will treat those in a separate article.

[1] http://edition.cnn.com/2016/01/26/entertainment/rapper-bob-earth-flat-theory/index.html
[2] http://theflatearthsociety.org/home/
[3] http://www.factcheck.org/2017/01/the-facts-on-crowd-size/
[4] http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/01/24/fact-check-inauguration-crowd-size/96984496/
[5] https://www.bra.se/bra/bra-in-english/home/crime-and-statistics/rape-and-sex-offences.html
[6] https://www.bellingcat.com/
[7] http://www.gallup.com/poll/185927/americans-trust-media-remains-historical-low.aspx
[8] http://bigstory.ap.org/article/35c595900e0a4ffd99fbdc48a336a6d8/poll-vast-majority-americans-dont-trust-news-media
[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialogue_Concerning_the_Two_Chief_World_Systems

2 comments

# Greg K Nicholson on 2017-02-23 at 15:35

You’ve missed a problem: conspiracy theories.

Suppose I believe that those very many sources aren’t really independent. Suppose I believe they’re all “the liberal elite” or “the conservative media” – a single homogeneous entity with one agenda.

Now, I’ve got many distinct sources that happen to agree with me, and one source disagreeing. The evidence is overwhelming: the one source (“the conservative media” or “the liberal elite”) is obviously wrong, and I’m not sure how you would convince me otherwise.

(Side note: this is why representation and identity are important. If a whole demographic of “other” people appear to be a homogeneous group, you’ll weight all of their opinions as if they were a single viewpoint.)

# [Member]   on 2017-02-23 at 16:39

@Greg:

I think conspiracy theories are certainly a valid point, although I think traditionally it was only a very small subset of the population that would ascribe to them.

Having said that social media I think play an important role in making it easy to lock yourself into a bubble with like-minded people, but as I said I want to talk about that a bit more extensively later.

But, I still think that a wealth of evidence that people can verify themselves, that doesn’t come from the group that’s involved in the conspiracy, can still help. Yes, there’s going to be the true crazies that can’t be convinced and think even facebook, twitter and all the satellite companies are ‘in league’ with their particular enemy, but I’d like to think that’s a true minority.


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