A Slippery Slope: Dissing Facts and Science

by Christopher Meyer on 09/05/2012

2902498785_d44afc74b9_mEvery successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur I’ve met fueled their dream with rapid cycles of learning, infused with facts and feedback. Granted the Valley’s engineering heritage places a unique emphasis on data, but it is also foundational thinking for every MBA program in the world.

So riddle me this Batman, how is it that the convention speech of Paul Ryan, a so-called intellectual heavyweight in the Republican party, can be so filled with inaccuracies that even a Fox News commentator calls it “deceiving” and an “apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech”?

And while Ryan pegged the needle, I don’t like the Democrats proffering that Mitt Romney likes to fire people either.

But there’s something far more serious going on here that’s infecting our national dialogue, and our society at large.  We are relying far more on effective posturing of opinion than we are on facts and critical thinking. We see it inside our workplace when the slickest Powerpoint presenter trumps the less eloquent thinker.  We see it in social networking as people pump up their presence but not their contribution.  We see it in our society as the press morphs from investigative reporting to becoming semi-permanent theatre critics.  “How did they do?” is the standard that must be met; not what did they say.

Here’s the crazy part:  We’ve outsourced fact-checking.  There’s no longer any shame in not having the facts at your fingertips or being personally accountable for what you say.  That’s now the fact checker’s job.  And if it slips by, maybe you can score even though you totally missed the net!   One of the campaign’s political pollsters went so far as to say “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”

Essentially, that’s asking why let facts muddy the waters?  Here’s why.

The Truth Matters

Any parent knows the struggle of getting a child to understand the difference between imagination, truth and fiction.  We know this is important because people don’t trust liars and trust is a cornerstone for building character.  It’s a tough lesson we all learn.

Now it’s the adults who are drifting.  We are becoming more comfortable exposing cheats than stopping them.  For example, the books and films documenting the greed and complicit stupidity of all involved in the financial crisis easily outnumber the indictments.

The recent refusal of Lance Armstrong to confront witnesses conflates the facts about his good work for cancer with the broadly accepted premise that everyone in cycling dopes.  Therefore Armstrong’s doping behavior doesn’t matter (except to those who didn’t dope).  In a world where the power of Armstrong’s personal marketing prowess makes him “too big to fall” the facts remain hidden behind the curtain as his sponsors continue to pay him millions for endorsements.

Compensate for Facts with Volume and Repetition

When facts become secondary, repetition and volume rule the day.  Donald Trump’s opinion is sought out when there are many others who far better informed.  The Sunday news shows make the old Saturday Night Live routine where Dan Aykroyd began every response to Jane Curtin with “Jane, you ignorant slut” as real as it used to be funny.  Peel away the coarse language and there’s little difference between Aykroyd and Curtin and Fox and MSNBC.

Isn’t this just politics?  Certainly not by definition.  It is not a leap to say it reflects a growing and dangerous disdain for science.  From evolution to global warming, the avoidance of facts leads to the extreme intransigence that inhabits our society.  When facts are eliminated from debate, further discussion takes on a zombie-like character.  It looks vaguely real but it isn’t close.

Throwing out facts and inquiry repudiates any executive who’s put up a slide showing the facts behind eroding market share to support his message that we’re not cutting it.  Find me an area of our country or planet that favors fundamentalism over facts and I guarantee you’ll find disproportionately low innovation.  The scientific method offers little guidance when the Bible or Koran rule the day.

We are mistaken if we think this isn’t a business issue.  Playing by the intent of the rules soon gives way to barely staying on the inside edge of the law.  When value driven leadership and self-management erode, a firm adds rules and stricter enforcement to maintain control.  Besides being costly and fertilizing an overbearing bureaucracy, enforcement efforts always lag.

When business screws the public, congress steps in.  Each crisis brings us a new iteration of regulations (e.g. Sarbanes-Oxley or Dodd-Frank) designed to inhibit the last transgression.  Regulating business from congress is typically more ham-handed than internal rules.

And that’s precisely my point.  When values erode, we turn to outside parties and mechanisms to compensate.  But it doesn’t work very well.  No matter how many laws are passed, at some point, civilization becomes uncivil and it is every person for themselves.  It’s far more effective to invest in teaching people how we work around here than adding more rules.  That applies to companies and citizens.  (see The Citizen Leader and The New Citizenship Model Revisited)

Facts Do Not Replace Judgment or Insight

Facts are raw material and like certain minerals, sometimes they are hard to find.  Likewise, worshipping the facts is just as flawed as any fundamentalist thinking.  The tough decisions that eventually land on a CEO’s or in a serious family discussion are those where the facts are fuzzy, conflict or don’t point to a clear direction.

Tough calls rely on our character, intelligence and as every successful entrepreneur knows, pivoting when what you think is so, turns out not to be.  But let’s get back to starting with the facts.  As the quality gurus suggest, dig down with “why?” three, four or ten times until you hit a substrate of substance worthy of mining.

Correction added 9.6.12  Original posted mistakenly cited Chevy Chase instead of Dan Aykroyd in the SNL sketch.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

lburgler September 7, 2012 at 11:44 am

Why are people chosing to live by appearances and not reality, hype and not substance, success and not values, if it is clearly in their own best interest not to do so?

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Paul Geary September 7, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Mitt Romney said, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBOqLxzGTx8

Maybe you don’t like that Dems repeat what he said, but he said it. It’s simply a fact.

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Christopher Meyer September 7, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Your quote is accurate but but quoting a single sentence distances us from intent. At the extreme it’s like movie ads that say “Exciting” and you never know what sentence it’s picked from.

And it certainly doesn’t help that Romney at times comes across as tone deaf while trying to funny.

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Scott September 7, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Are you saying that it depends on what the meaning of the work “is” is.

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Jim MacDonald September 7, 2012 at 3:59 pm

I agree with everything you say, except that bit about Armstrong.

He passed nearly 700 doping tests, including the ones run on the samples that USADA have in hand. Did he dope? I don’t know – but neither do you.

One can surmise that he and Bruyneel are masters at avoiding detection, and assume he is a big time doper. Or one can assume that even the best program to avoid detection has to fail over such a long time and so many tests. But either way, these are just opinions, and I think you do yourself a disservice by conflating opinion with fact.

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Christopher Meyer September 7, 2012 at 6:06 pm

You’re accurate that I did say “Armstrong’s doping behavior” which makes your point. That said, my prime point is that by his not confronting eye-witnesses, those facts (additional to drug testing which lags usage) are hidden.

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Sandy the Swede September 8, 2012 at 7:27 am

Are you claiming that believing in God and believing in the scientific method is mutually exclusive? If I am a believer in God, at what point, in your estimation, do I become a “fundamentalist” believer in God?

“Find me an area of our country or planet that favors fundamentalism over facts and I guarantee you’ll find disproportionately low innovation. The scientific method offers little guidance when the Bible or Koran rule the day.”

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Christopher Meyer September 8, 2012 at 8:11 am

No but I am saying that where the believe in God is so strong that it regularly trumps science and reason, innovation will be hindered

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D Spaulding September 8, 2012 at 4:19 pm

We have accepted the relabeling of all things that are common sense. People misspeak instead of lie. The masses do not want to be educated with facts, they only want to passionately hate the opponent. It’s easier.

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Fred Brack September 10, 2012 at 12:11 am

Saying “even a Fox News commentator calls it ‘deceiving'” omits a fact that Mr. Meyer should have had at his fingertips: the commentator, Sally Kohn, is a liberal used by Fox to provide “balance” to its commentary, not, as Mr. Meyer clearly implies with his use of “even,” a typical Fox conservative.

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Christopher Meyer September 10, 2012 at 4:24 am

Taking out “even” would have been better…agree

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Fred Brack September 10, 2012 at 11:23 am

You’re half way there, Mr. Meyer. Better (in the sense of accurately portraying reaction to Ryan’s speech) would have been to leave out the reference to Fox. Or to have placed it in context. Thus:

* “. . . can be so filled with inaccuracies that liberal commentators gleefully shot fish in a barrel for days, with one calling it an ‘apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech’?”

* “. . . can be so filled with inaccuracies that liberal commentators gleefully shot fish in a barrel for days, with one (a Fox News house-liberal) calling it an ‘apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech’?”

Btw: While I certainly don’t disagree with the broad point in your essay (that facts, evidence, data are essential to comprehending reality), I do shake my head when I hear “(w)e are relying far more on effective posturing of opinion . . .” Far more? Things are getting worse? Not by my reading of history. Look at the history of presidential politics, for example. Campaigns built around scurrilous lies pepper that history — even recent history.

For example, Paul Krugman waged an unsuccessful effort — even writing a book about it — to alert the electorate about George W. Bush’s “fuzzy math” during W’s first presidential run. When Krugman, and others, pointed out that Bush was employing the same trillion dollars to argue for entirely different more-savings and more-spending proposals, Bush kept right on doing it. And I recall when Time Magazine’s political columnist wrote that the Reagan White House’s said it would no longer continue the practice of following up Reagan’s public remarks by correcting his factual mistakes and his habit of confusing real-life history with movie history. The Reagan Administration had calculated that most people didn’t notice or care if he was untruthful. Soon after, the press began taking a Reagan-being-Reagan attitude toward the president’s factual inaccuracies, if it noted them at all.

I’ll also take issue with your alarm that “(i)t is not a leap to say it reflects a growing and dangerous disdain for science.” Growing? I’m no historian, but I suspect historians would conclude that science is what’s growing (or the relevance of science), and the “disdain” you identify merely manifests the conflict between science and “belief” that’s been evident since the dawning of the Age of Science — an age that was, and is, made possible by developments in technology (our brain’s capacity to invent technology being what separates humankind from other animals).

I recall reading an interview with E.L. Doctorow some years ago about this conflict. His explanation went roughly like this: From prehistory, humans passed along their tribal histories and culture (including what we now separate out as “religion”) by telling stories. Oral story-telling eventually more or less gave way to written story-telling (but not completely, as some tribes still depend exclusively on oral tradition). These stories provided answers to important questions — certain answers, no deviation needed or consequently tolerated — about human origins, the cosmos, ethics, morality, and so on. The stories embodied “beliefs,” a belief being acceptance of something as being true or real despite the absence of objective evidence or even in the face of objective evidence.

Then along came science to provide alternatives to these stories. Conflict ensued, as science is based on objective, verifiable evidence, not belief. Think Galileo.

Ask yourself: Despite the power of belief (it can be absorbed with little brain energy being expended), in its conflict with science over the long run, which has more often been triumph? In my reading of history, the answer is clear. Take climate science, for example. Certainly it’s understandable that climate scientists despair at the resistance, at least in the U.S., to this science. But who is actually prevailing, the scientists or the denialists? Objectively, isn’t that answer also clear? Basically, denialists are practicing partisan politics, and those are ephemeral, aren’t they? Can there be, will there be, terrible consequences to this politically based denialism? Probably, if not certainly. But, hey, human history is replete with examples of our imperfections. Think Trofim Lysenko, among countless examples.

In short: Keep up the battle for objective evidence, never stop fact-checking. But don’t allow frustration to evolve into despair. It only curdles your life and weakens your cause. (Be a happy warrior, like Hubert Horatio Humphrey!) Always be aware of the arc of human history. It bends toward evidence, facts, truth, science (and justice?). Oh, and never become militantly atheist. Sure, all religions are based on beliefs, with no objective evidence to support them. But religion is part of human culture. They are inseparable. To rail against religion is to rail against humankind. Better to work shaping cultural norms. In my lifetime, for example, U.S. cultural norms have turned against racial and ethnic bigotry and for women’s rights. Shaping cultural norms can be a slow, never-ending process, but, man, is it exhilarating to be part of!

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