Saturday, July 13, 2013

Facts, Schmacts

What are the facts? Again and again and again — what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” — what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts! -- Robert Amson Heinlein, Time Enough For Love

"I reject your reality and substitute my own"--Adam Savage, Mythbusters

This article comes from Britain, but I'll bet you bollocks to bobbies it's equally applicable in Canada or the United States. The individual statistics are of course different for each country...but the point of this article is that statistics are not important. Facts are not important. Reality is unimportant. A depressingly large segment of the population lives in their own reality, unconcerned with the one you and I are sharing.

Crime is one of many divergent points. In our reality, the crime rate has been falling for decades. In many other realities that unfortunately seem to be bleeding into ours, the people act as if the crime rate is enormous and growing by the hour. You see the reality bleed-through everywhere. Spending on policing and incarceration is rising sharply, probably because of all that unreported crime. My driveway is my own for the next six weeks, but come September it will once again be turnaround central for legions of parents convinced my block is full of pedophiles.  And in Britain, where again the crime rate is falling, a majority believe the opposite. Confronted with stats proving otherwise, the vast majority of that majority will insist the stats are wrong.

I found some of the distortions so astronomical I didn't know whether to laugh, cry or scream. More than one in four Brits believes, for instance, that foreign aid is one of the top two or three expenditures of the British government; in actual reality, it was 1.1% of money spent last year. People overestimate the rate of teenage pregnancy by about twenty five HUNDRED percent. Incidentally, that's remarkably similar to the percentage by which people overestimate welfare fraud.  A substantial minority (29%) believes Britain spends more money on job seeker's allowance (what Canadians call EI) than pensions, when in actual reality Britain spends fifteen times more on pensions than on JSA.

You notice a pattern here? According to entirely too many people, the country--whatever country it is--is going to hell, and if you ask why it's going to hell, you're apt to hear something offensive. It's the tens of trillions of dollars of foreign aid (because clearly that's how much is spent) getting sucked out of the country instead of helping real people here at home. The tacit assumption, of course, is that real people look just like me and behave just like me and vote just like me. There are no poor people, just a whole bunch of able-bodied slackers living of the sweat and blood and tears of -- again -- real people. The younger generation has no morals and its girls live to pump out babies by the score, just for the added welfare benefit, you understand.

Sickening. And demonstrably untrue, all of it, with just a minute's thought, but who wants to think a minute?

I often wonder just how much racist, sexist and otherwise batshit crazy stuff I'd uncover if I had access to a 100% effective lie detector. We're proceeding apace with removing such discrimination from the law books, but I sometimes think all we're really doing is driving it underground. People are determined to believe what they believe. Take gay marriage, as a for-instance: it's gaining acceptance in the United States at what seems to be an astonishing rate. But there remains a sizeable group of people who are dead set against it, who say it harms society (yet who can never seem to explain exactly how), and who will shout down anyone trying to remind them the world has not come to an end just because Jack and Gil down the road have formalized their commitment to each other.


The problem is multifaceted and daunting. Where do you go to find statistics you can trust? You certainly can't believe private sector studies, at least not without a thorough vetting of their sponsors and a comparison of the study's results to the vested interests of those sponsors. (How many people even know how to read a study, analyze its methodology, and spot potential flaws? They don't teach this stuff in school, more's the pity.)

 But sadly, government's getting in on the act, withholding information that disputes its ideology and occasionally just plain making it up as they go along. Couple that with the echo chamber effect of modern media--people overwhelmingly read only things they already agree with--and what seems to be a stubborn persistence to hold on to beliefs, even harmful beliefs, in the face of all evidence to the contrary...and you have a predicament.

How to change hearts and minds? It's a question I have been wrestling with since I started this blog almost a decade ago...and I'm no closer to an answer now than I was back then.

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