The problem with facts

In November the Oxford English Dictionary named, “post-truth” its word of year. Post-truth is defined as, “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The term post-truth along with the phrase ‘low information voter’ have gained popularity post Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US Presidential election. This has led many in the Twitterati to quote John Maynard Keynes stating, “when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?” Out of this has come the assumption that there are two types of people, those who believe in ‘facts’ and those who are led by the their emotions (low-information voters). However, few have asked, What are facts? How reliable are they? Or even, should facts be the primary basis of political decision making?

The simplest definition of a fact is: ‘A thing that is known or proved to be true’. So the first thing one should ask is whether someone’s fact is in fact a fact. Too often opinion or evidence is passed off as fact. Having evidence of something does not necessarily make it true. It’s no surprise that many fact checker websites often get accused of bias, since, if they confined themselves to provable facts they would have little to write about.

In March 2016 the ABC Fact checker assessed the claim opposition leader Bill Shorten made that the evidence from Europe shows the minimum wage doesn’t contribute to unemployment levels. What the ABC Fact checker wrote was an persuasive essay assessing the arguments on both sides of the minimum wage debate. The minimum wage debate is one of the most controversial issues in economics and is not capable of being fact checked. The truth is that there are many studies arguing both sides and the issues are too complicated to ever be known. The minimum wage debate shows the important difference between evidence and facts. There is much evidence that increasing the minimum wage does result in a decrease in demand for labour; however, there is also significant evidence showing no or minimal effect. Most complicated public policy issues are like this: incapable of ever being determined solely by fact. Decision makers instead must assess the strength of evidence and develop an argument based on that evidence with a framework of values.

This problem of imperfect evidence becomes worse when one considers the problem of reproducibility in many disciplines. The gold standard of evidence in science is the controlled experiment, however, in economics, psychology and climate science controlled experiments are rarely possible. Too often studies are not reproducible; one study found that only half of all economics papers are reproducible. Similar studies have found a similar lack of reproducibility in other disciplines. This crisis in academia should at very least make one more sceptical of supposed facts generated by such studies.

Austrian-school economists have long be critical of the ability of mathematics and econometric models to predict human behaviour. Ludwig Von Mises wrote in his book Human Action, “The experience with which the sciences of human action have to deal is always an experience of complex phenomena. No laboratory experiments can be performed with regard to human action.” The same principle can be applied to other sciences where controlled experiments are not possible. While evidence from studies are interesting and can inform argument, it cannot be considered fact.

Even when one is in possession of verifiable facts, those facts cannot determine priorities. Which is more important – creating jobs or saving an endangered species? What do you value more – traditional culture or modern living standards? All these decisions are determined not by facts, but individual priorities. In free societies these decisions are determined democratically and that is inherently political. Such decisions are not the purview of science, but of politics. When one claims their view is scientific, they are making a flawed argument.  

If facts can’t be the sole basis for developing an opinion what should be used in its place? I would argue that philosophy should be used as a framework for assessing arguments. In my case, I assess the evidence available in context of a philosophy that holds liberty as the most important value. I ask does this increase or decrease liberty for the individual? What are the consequences for the individual? Where two person’s liberties clash, I then assess solutions based on which option best preserves liberty for both parties while resolving the conflict.

In practise facts are less common than often claimed by those claiming we live in a post-fact world. People should always assess available evidence to inform their decision, but often that evidence is imperfect. Even with facts people still need to assess information on the basis of what they prioritise. My highest priority is liberty.
Justin Campbell is General Manager of LibertyWorks Inc.

32 Comments on "The problem with facts"

  1. We ignore facts at our own peril. .the fundimental flaw in polotics is the capacity of unethical people to manipulate truth for their own desire for power.

  2. Absolutely all legitimate decisions are political in nature. But those decisions should not be made without an understanding of the facts and that is where political decisions degenerate into popularist rhetoric. Trump is a classic example of facts being ignored for political gain and don’t lose sight of the fact that he received 3 million votes less than the ”loser”

  3. Fact – we cannot live without air or water. Politics may like to deny the fact that certain human activities affect our water supplies and pollute our air to the point where it becomes toxic. Denial of these facts will not change them and if we choose to ignore the science we do so at our peril. (Also those endangered species may just hold the key to lifesaving treatment for some of our most self serving politicians – but we’ll never know will we because the species will be extinct).

    • Actually, all the point you raised demonstrate the point we made. There is a trade off between how clean we want our air and other objectives. Same with how we use our water. Or do we invest money to save an endangered species. For example, the debate about whether we should save the panda. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/sep/23/panda-extinction-chris-packham

    • LibertyWorks If I understand you correctly, you are arguing that your values outweigh facts when it comes to certain decisions, or that at least your values influence which facts you give most weighting in a decision. That may work for you as an individual, but when you say “how WE use our water” you have stepped into the realm of collective decision… and if we can’t base our collective decision-making on agreed facts then we have a recipe for conflict. Strangely enough those who seem keenest to promote the concept that facts don’t really matter are those who don’t like what science shows us.

    • Jim Richardson well said. You encapsulated what i was trying , so poorly, to say,

  4. Facts are facts but the problem is always the context of those facts and how its pushed or hidden. Something the mainstream media has mastered.

  5. What a good factual article.

  6. Give Trump a try mabe the other side are scared he might succeed

  7. So climate change for instance
    Believers say the scientific facts prove of its existence and dangers concerning it.
    But according to this it is a flawed argument!?

  8. And what of values? Opinion is nothing but vacuous music without a value framework. Lies are free of values, actions based on such lies carry no value. The ends cannot justify the means , ever. The Emperor has no Clothes.

  9. Don’t try to tell people they can’t know everything, you’ll only make them angry… as demonstrated, above. The vast majority of people who think they’re smart or well-informed don’t even understand the basics of uncertainty, risk, and the limits of knowledge.

    In short, they’re idiots.

  10. 7000 cheetas left in the world. 7,000,000,000 people. Amazing iconic species. Jobs come and go – endangered species just go….

  11. Any decision must be based on a knowledge of all relevant facts. If one chooses to ignore facts in making a decision then the decision is flawed – and so the priorities may be flawed.

  12. “My Highest Priority is Liberty.”Well my Highest priority is the common good.Rich people who call for Liberty usually mean they want to make more money, do not want to help the common good by paying more taxes,and do want to say any hurtful and mean spirited thing they like.

  13. Facts are facts, they cannot be argued against. They are concrete. They are provable. They exist. They are fundamental. They form the basis of any argument or decision.
    Truths, however, aren’t always factual, truth can be placed in the same box as belief. So one man’s truth is another man’s falsehood. Truths tend to guide our decision-making.
    What is rare in the world, and almost entirely absent in politics, is wisdom. Only through wisdom – which is attained through a complete understanding of the facts, plus a maturity of years and experience, and a knowledge of history – can correct decisions be made in regards to the philosophical and political questions posed above. Without wisdom guiding our thoughts and actions, then we fall back to truths which are never the same for any one person and can be corrupted. Until we start electing wise people as politicians and leaders, our society will continue to degrade and devolve.

    • Why don’t we just decide to be more wise and stop waiting for leaders to do it.

    • Well, Rodney, I guess we have to wait until a critical percent of the population possesses sufficient wisdom for that to happen. How many people do you know who possess sufficient facts on any subject of importance, sufficient knowledge of relevant history, and the years and the maturity to apply all in order to be wise? How many would pass that criteria in the pub you frequent, on the bus or train that you catch to go to work, is your butcher, baker, candlestick maker all wise? Is your local councillor wise?

    • Very poignant and very well said. I agree 100%. I think a good start down this road would be leaders that have real world experience and a proven track record.
      Maturity in Politics is about as common as survivors of AIDS. Subject matter experts in their field e.g. a Treasurer with a successful career in civilian life as Treasurer for a Company, might be a good start.
      What I have just said is a bit too much to ask with Government but would certainly help I am sure.

  14. Libertarianism is a political viewpoint that only the strong (rich) are deserving of a break. As far as they are concerned if a chemical company for example wants to put a chemical factory behind your child’s school they should be allowed because to not let them is an infringement of THEIR rights.

    • I think what you are more referring to mate is Corporatism. And it is rampant in every Western society in the World.
      Large Corporations influencing Politics and in collusion with ruling Governments. Pockets are lined and reasoned discussion or consideration falls by the wayside.

  15. [email protected] | 02/01/2017 at 9:52 am |

    This article is non-sensical and the nonsense starts right at the beginning with the heading “The problem with facts”.

    The first five paragraphs (about 75% of the text) argue that if a fact is defined as “a thing that is known or proved to be true”, then facts may not be a useful basis for decision-making. This is quite well argued and you would find very few professional scientists who would disagree with this, since scientific conclusions are not fixed points of “truth”, they evolve naturally as the body of evidence increases.

    In these same first five paragraphs Campbell makes the point a number of times that the assessment of available evidence is often more complex than can be captured in a single point of so-called truth (ie a “fact”) and that for public policy-making to be effective, it needs to take the complexity of this assessment of current evidence into account. Again this is quite well argued.

    What happens next in paragraphs six, seven and eight is a different story however. He does a complete backflip.

    In paragraphs one to five he has disposed of “facts” by defining them as “things that are known or proven to be true” then arguing how this is not workable given comprehensive assessments of available evidence. But does he then continue this argument by pushing further for for comprehensive assessments of available evidence to be used as the basis for public policy-making?

    No, he does not. He simply argues to replace “facts” with “philosophy” and “values”. From this point onwards he completely disregards his own prior argument about assessing available evidence that got him to this point. He simply makes a wild leap, replacing one set of “things that are known or proven to be true” (his definition of “facts”) with another set of “things that are known or proven to be true”, namely philosophy and values, regardless of any comprehensive assessments of available evidence.

    If Campbell had started off defining “facts” as “current comprehensive assessments of available evidence”, which is what the word “fact” is actually applied to in the context of “scientific fact”, then the logical parts of his agument would have strongly supported the use of “facts” as a basis for public policy-making.

    Instead, he has deliberately defined “facts” in a way that sets the scene for them to be dismissed and launch an un-supported leap to propose “philosophy’, “values” and “liberty” to replace his so-called “facts” as the basis for public policy-making, using them to replace and dismiss a comprehensive assessment of available evidence even though he actually used this to drive his arguments.

    I’m not sure if Campbell’s verbal sleight of hand in doing this is the result of genuine confusion or an act of deliberate misrepresentation, but I’d say it’s one or the other.

  16. A balanced approach is definitely the best approach. Certainly not the “balance” promoted by the left generally, and the Australian Communist Party….cough….Greens who’s agenda (yes the much-debunked Climate Change lie) originated here; and, kills 12 million people annually through shortage of heating, water purification, cold storage, salt production etc. through disallowing the establishment of cheap and easily maintained energy systems.
    I suppose the average childhood mortality rate being at 50% plus in some areas is worth preserving an endangered amoeba or two.

  17. Unfortunately the lead statement is reasonable true & serves the earths balance very poorly. Assumes that the strongest of us mob have absolute control to self serve & NGAF about others or other species. The average punter get conned by the most powerful & then screwed.

  18. Every action in politics has consequences. (Sounds like Newton).

  19. People today can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction. Most people don’t bother doing the research required to know the ‘facts’ they believe are facts are not. The basis of propaganda – repeat something often enough and it will eventually be believed as fact. It helps to have a little kernel of “accepted truth” embedded in the lie.

  20. [email protected] | 05/02/2017 at 9:22 pm |

    Fantastic piece, very well done.

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