Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story

Shout out to Tim Harford for this introduction to the study of how, in his words, ignorance can be deliberately produced. The technical term “agnatology” is I suspect unlikely to catch on but the underlying message is one worth understanding. At a minimum it is a handy addition to your Scrabble dictionary.

The article was originally published in March 2017 but I only came across it recently via this podcast interview Harford did with Cardiff Garcia on “The New Bazaar”. The context in 2017 was the successful campaign for the US presidency that Donald Trump ran during 2016 with a bit of Brexit thrown in but this is a challenge that is not going away anytime soon.

Harford notes that it is tempting to think that the answer to the challenge posed by what has come to be known as a post truth society lies in a better process to establish the facts

The instinctive reaction from those of us who still care about the truth — journalists, academics and many ordinary citizens — has been to double down on the facts.

He affirms the need to have some agreement on how we distinguish facts from opinions and assertions but he cautions that this is unlikely to solve the problem. He cites the tobacco industry response to the early evidence that smoking causes cancer to illustrate why facts alone are not enough.

A good place to start is by delving into why facts alone are not enough – a few extracts from the article hopefully capture the main lessons

Doubt is usually not hard to produce, and facts alone aren’t enough to dispel it. We should have learnt this lesson already; now we’re going to have to learn it all over again…

Tempting as it is to fight lies with facts, there are three problems with that strategy…

The first is that a simple untruth can beat off a complicated set of facts simply by being easier to understand and remember. When doubt prevails, people will often end up believing whatever sticks in the mind…

There’s a second reason why facts don’t seem to have the traction that one might hope. Facts can be boring. The world is full of things to pay attention to, from reality TV to your argumentative children, from a friend’s Instagram to a tax bill. Why bother with anything so tedious as facts?…

In the war of ideas, boredom and distraction are powerful weapons.
The endgame of these distractions is that matters of vital importance become too boring to bother reporting…

There’s a final problem with trying to persuade people by giving them facts: the truth can feel threatening, and threatening people tends to backfire. “People respond in the opposite direction,” says Jason Reifler, a political scientist at Exeter University. This “backfire effect” is now the focus of several researchers, including Reifler and his colleague Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth…

The problem here is that while we like to think of ourselves as rational beings, our rationality didn’t just evolve to solve practical problems, such as building an elephant trap, but to navigate social situations. We need to keep others on our side. Practical reasoning is often less about figuring out what’s true, and more about staying in the right tribe…

We see what we want to see — and we reject the facts that threaten our sense of who we are…

When we reach the conclusion that we want to reach, we’re engaging in “motivated reasoning”…

Even in a debate polluted by motivated reasoning, one might expect that facts will help. Not necessarily: when we hear facts that challenge us, we selectively amplify what suits us, ignore what does not, and reinterpret whatever we can. More facts mean more grist to the motivated reasoning mill. The French dramatist Molière once wrote: “A learned fool is more foolish than an ignorant one.” Modern social science agrees…

When people are seeking the truth, facts help. But when people are selectively reasoning about their political identity, the facts can backfire.

So what are we to do?

Harford cites a study that explores the value of scientific curiosity

What Kahan and his colleagues found, to their surprise, was that while politically motivated reasoning trumps scientific knowledge, “politically motivated reasoning . . . appears to be negated by science curiosity”. Scientifically literate people, remember, were more likely to be polarised in their answers to politically charged scientific questions. But scientifically curious people were not. Curiosity brought people together in a way that mere facts did not. The researchers muse that curious people have an extra reason to seek out the facts: “To experience the pleasure of contemplating surprising insights into how the world works.”

It is of course entirely possible that Tim Harford’s assessment is just calling to my own bias. I will admit that one the things that I always looked for when hiring, or working, with people was curiosity. These people are surprisingly rare but (IMHO) worth their weight in gold. An intellectually curious mind makes up for a lot of other areas where the person might not be perfect in terms of skills or experience. The general point (I think) also ties to the often cited problem that people with lots of knowledge can sometimes be prone to not being so street smart. Nassim Taleb makes this argument in nearly everything he writes.

So Tim Harford might not be offering the entire answer but I think his article is worth reading on two counts

  • Firstly as a cautionary tale against expecting that all debates and disputes can be resolved by simply establishing the “facts”
  • Secondly as a reminder of the power of a curious mind and the value of the never-ending search for “what am I missing?”

Let me know what I am missing

Tony – From the Outside

Author: From the Outside

After working in the Australian banking system for close to four decades, I am taking some time out to write and reflect on what I have learned. My primary area of expertise is bank capital management but this blog aims to offer a bank insider's outside perspective on banking, capital, economics, finance and risk.

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