All roads do not lead to facts, Part 1

There has been much ado in the last couple of years about the the public crisis in the fallen reputation of “experts”. A number of reasons were proffered: Short term analysis of prediction outcomes are unfavorable to experts; experts are out of touch with the common man’s experiencepeople are angry and won’t listen to those who disagreethe digital world is shifting systems from a vertical to a horizontal axis, and then many variations of people are stupid and overly prone to bias. One the most common refrains, particularly across social media, was that people who agreed with the experts and voted in desired ways in democratic events were doing so because of a love of facts, and those that did not listen to experts completely disregard facts. Is any of this true?

Plenty of research has shown that US liberals and conservatives equally engage in motivated political reasoning and will readily believe false political rumors when it is in-line with their politics. So then it is not that the Brexit crowd or Trump voters are uniquely susceptible. So what or where is the problem, and how do we solve it?

Scott Alexander is a proponent of what could be labeled something like “The Baysian model of being Less Wrong”, where people can chip away at their preconceptions and wrong opinions over many years of diligent study and reflection, and also collaborate with others to do the same:

If you genuinely believe that facts and logic don’t work on at least 50% of the population, again, you shouldn’t be writing articles with potential solutions. You should be worrying whether you’re in that 50%. After all, how did you figure out you aren’t? By using facts and logic? What did we just say?

Nobody is doing either of these things, so I conclude that they accept that facts can sometimes work. Asymmetric weapons are not a pipe dream. As Gandhi used to say, “If you think the world is all bad, remember that it contains people like you.”

You are not completely immune to facts and logic. But you have been wrong about things before. You may be a bit smarter than the people on the other side. You may even be a lot smarter. But fundamentally their problems are your problems, and the same kind of logic that convinced you can convince them. It’s just going to be a long slog. You didn’t develop your opinions after a five-minute shouting match. You developed them after years of education and acculturation and engaging with hundreds of books and hundreds of people. Why should they be any different?

Scott’s approach here is understandable. It’s how both he and his readership, including myself, have understood ourselves to have changed our thought processes and beliefs over time. He and I are also trained (to different degrees) in cognitive psychology, and this is a somewhat grossly over-generalized Beckian approach. There’s a problem though, hiding in plain sight. Let us put aside the issue of “non-facts”, “Fake News”, etc. Let us imagine a pool of all ostensibly true facts in the world, available for human consumption (by ostensibly I mean that they have not yet been disproven – I don’t want to get into an epistemological argument). But what precedes these facts, and their consumption? Put another way: where do facts come from, and where do they go?

To be continued…..

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