Just the facts, ma’am


I had intended to write about Microfinancing today.  However, I was instead struck by the combination of a couple of recent discussions and so, today, we’re going to take a slight detour.  This is not a new topic, and I am certainly not the first to write on it, but then, there is really nothing new under the sun, is there?

Simply put, we have reached a point where all too often we are not even willing to discuss facts, much less conclusions.

In an on-line conversation recently with one self-described Libertarian, I repeatedly asked to discuss facts.  Literally, he refused.  He response was really quite telling because it re-confirmed what, on its surface seems like a legitimate point, but in reality is just a way to avoid dealing with the actual issues and continuing to be able to hold on dearly to one’s dogma.  Essentially, his response boiled down to saying that it didn’t matter what facts either of us presented, because then he would just argue about the source of the facts.  No, really.

Okay, so on the surface this has some merit, right?  After all, if the facts that you are going to cite come from, say, The Onion, then they’re, shall we say, questionable?  (Always check your sources!)  However, when we’re talking about the Office of Management & Budget, the Congressional Budget Office, the IRS or the like, then arguing the source is, not a legitimate tactic1.  So, for example, if we want to discuss the effects of raising or lowering effective tax rates on job growth, then we need to look at the data, right? So, if we go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the job growth data and you’ll need the historical tax rates, which you might get from the Tax Policy Center.  Then, you might get a chart like this:

Tax rates v Job growth

So, while the Center for American Progress might be the group that did the work and published the chart, and while where may be some argument about their bias, the source of their data, and thus the ability to validate it yourself is also published right there for you.  If you want to discuss the facts or the conclusion, okay.  Let’s do that.  However, to attack the source and ignore either the facts or the conclusion, is simply to admit defeat without being responsible enough to make the corresponding changes in your position.

As they say, you are entitled to your own opinion.  You are not entitled to your own facts.

This problem is pervasive thorough out.  On New Year’s day, Eric Cantor (Republican House Majority leader from Virginia) appeared on 60 minutes.  He, and his off camera press secretary, denied that under that lion of the anti-tax, Tea Party right-wing Ronald Reagan, taxes were raised 11 times.  Including what is widely accepted as the largest peacetime tax increase in American history. (The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982).  Yes, he lowered taxes a few times as well, but the net effect on the budget and deficit was to raise the debt.  And, that is fact.  It is not opinion and it is not open to debate or denial.

So, what do we do?  We have to start dealing with facts.  All of us.  Remember when you were faced with a word problem in math class? The first step was to identify the facts, right?  Once we do that, then we can start working towards solutions.  If Sean Hannity presents facts and cites reliable sources while doing so, then we do not throw out the facts simply because he was the one presenting them.  If Ralph Nader presents facts, and shows us his sources while doing so, then we do not throw out the facts simply because he was the one presenting them.  Or, anyone else.

1 – That is not to say that these agencies are not to be questioned.  Certainly they must.  Oversight must be exercised, and data integrity must be maintained.  However, simply questioning the data without any basis for that distrust is akin to putting on an aluminum hat to protect yourself from the mind control rays.  In the example cited, certainly the BLS has some legitimate questions that can be asked of it.  However, we have no better source at this point.  Unless and until a better source can be provided, then it is the standard.  It is like using the standard units of measurement until we get a better system.  Just because inches and feet might not be the best possible, doesn’t mean we can just throw them out without a replacement.

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About Just Torch

Author of the SCIAMAGE column a space devoted to American political and social commentary and analysis. It is unabashedly liberal, but makes every effort to present clear, verifiable facts and sound reasoning. It also makes a commitment to clearly distinguish between facts and opinions. View all posts by Just Torch

5 responses to “Just the facts, ma’am

  • Jeff Jones

    Problems are:
    a] Not many people seem to have be able to tell the difference between fact and something someone told them once. If they believe it, then it is a fact.

    b] The Internet daily delivers thousands of “facts” and people cherry pick the ones they want, and rarely bother to verify.

    c] It does seem that the ability to discuss/debate/argue without personal animosity becoming involved has gone the way of the dodo bird.
    (An aside: Is this trend caused by our natural (and societal) competitive streak? Must we truly have to have a dog in every race?)

    d] Well-earned distrust of the agencies that author the facts we are given makes them difficult to work with. And far too often a chart can be worded to make the same facts show very different things.

    e] Never argue with a New Conservative about Reagan. Facts will never overcome the near deification that they have crowned him with.

    • Just Torch

      a] Yes, this is a problem. It is, however, a correctable problem through education. One of the issues which I haven’t even begun to address here, but which we will have to address, as a society, at some point is the stagnation of our education system and its utter failure to keep up with the development of our society.

      b] Again, valid point. I don’t really see that cherry picking facts is as big a problem though. That is a time honored debate tactic. So long as we are dealing with legitimate and verifiable facts, then it is to be expected. It isn’t a court of law where the each side is bound by the strictures placed upon the same that the prosecution would face to provide the other side with exculpatory evidence. Now, the strongest cases would, of course, provide the counter point and immediately answer it pre-emptively, but that’s another issue altogether.

      c] I don’t think it has completely gone away, but it does seem to be endangered. Even within our lifetime I recall being able to have very heated debates with debate opponents, and when it was done, laughing and moving on to the next subject, for while we were passionate about the topic, it remained impersonal. I do think though, that part of the problem is that there are some truly evil people out there who have used politics and wealth as a way to gain power over others. These are the same people who, 200 years ago, would have been the cruelest of slave owners or meanest of union busters.

      d] I am willing to entertain other fact sources. As I said, these are the best we have. We can’t simply say, “Oh, they’re no good, so we’ll stick with my beliefs”. At least, not if we’re going to have anything approaching a rational discussion.

      e] You know what’s funny about that? When I prepare these missives, I want to make sure that I have my facts straight. On my Reagan numbers, I most often refer to the Ludwig von Mises Institute analysis of Reagan’s term published in 1988. The Ludwig von Mises who forms the foundation of the Austrian school of economics which is, in theory, the basis of neo-Libertarian economic phiolosophy….

  • John Stepp

    I think there are (at least) two things going on with fact avoidance: source bias, and facts don’t matter.

    The first — source bias — is the idea that “everybody lies,” objectivity is a myth, and any reported fact is simply an interpretation (or outright fabrication) that serves a political or personal agendum. Evaluating sources is hard and time consuming, and many people don’t have the free time and energy to do so. Then discussions of “fact” boil down to “he said, she said.” Some guy on TV says people come from monkeys, while our pastor says Man was created created from nothing through Divine power. Who am I to know the difference?

    The second — facts don’t matter — is an attitude fostered by real-life experience, often by authority figures, and often with powerful motivation. Facts aren’t important; what’s important is *perception*. Sales, customer service, advertising, politics…it’s all about suckering the other guy. Or annoying him until he gives in. If a student doesn’t earn a passing grade, that *fact* doesn’t matter; he’ll just whine about how he *needs* to pass and how he paid for his class until management caves and passes him along. Our society is *teaching* people that facts don’t matter.

    Of course, this is just a looter’s philosophy. Avoiding reality can only get you so far before reality smacks you in the face. But maybe the scam will hold for another generation…and then we’ll be dead and it won’t matter, right?

    • Just Torch

      To some extent you are absolutely correct. We do live in a world where we are taught that style is more important than substance. All that glitters is not gold. But, it doesn’t have to be.

      But, the problem is worse than just fact avoidance. We are developing an actual fact denial. I find myself having to stop there on that because I don’t want to get into one of the topics I have planned for the near future. *chuckle*

      On your second point though, that is really the point. We have to deal with actual facts in order to find real solutions. We’ve been following the dogma of the supply side economics for 40 years now and we had a few good bubbles, but then reality came and, as you said, smacked us in the face to show us that we were really just running the scam. Those are, again, just the facts.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Rights AND Responsibilities « S C I A M A G E

    […] of fact checkers.  But, even that wasn’t good enough, because then, we decided to revert to the old religious standby of attacking the source. CONTINUED on PAGE 2 Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like […]

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