Monday, February 13, 2017

Alternative facts

Vaduz, Liechtenstein

If you don’t take account of the facts; if you deny or ignore them, sooner or later reality will overtake your false views. Therefore methodologists have developed rules for investigators to get the right answers to their questions. These rules do not only concern how to collect data, but also how to ask good questions, for if your question is wrong, you’ll not get the data you need and maybe you’ll get no data at all.
Basically these rules are also useful in daily life, outside science. It would be good to be conscious of them and to apply them there, too. Nevertheless this doesn’t happen often. People may not know that such rules exist, and even if they know them intuitively or explicitly, they may not have the time to apply them. People often have to act under pressure! Or maybe you are unable to collect the data you look for, so you must act with the help of what you do know, on the basis of your intuition, consultation of other people and your prejudices. Acting on basis of your prejudices sounds negative and maybe repugnant, because prejudices are frequently used for discriminating people, for pushing them down because of the colour of their skin, their sex or their religion, but strictly speaking a prejudice is a pre-judice, so a preceding judgment, which we use when we don’t have yet the relevant facts for a well-considered judgment, as the German philosopher Gadamer has made clear to us. Often we lack the facts and we cannot collect them for some reason and nevertheless we must act. Therefore Gadamer talked of a prejudice against prejudice. But it’s true that the negative sense of “prejudice” has also good grounds.
Since we have to act and perhaps have to act quickly, the only thing we can do then is to employ the limited data and evidence we have and to follow our intuitions. Then we try to make a consistent story from the information at our disposal. That the story is good is often more important for us than that it is complete. Even more, the cynical thing is that knowing little makes it easier to make a good, coherent story, so Kahneman. And that’s what we often see: People prefer simple stories to complex ones. Also a simple story based on partial information can be useful for reasonable action.
With a simple, incomplete story the risk is higher that reality will overtake us. Therefore it’s important to stay open to new facts. It’s sensible to adjust what we erroneously thought true – our story – to new information. But alas, it frquently happens also the other way round: Not the story is fit to the facts but the facts are re-interpreted, and maybe even adapted, in the light of the story and adapted to what is considered true on the basis of prejudices or unjustified beliefs. Cognitive dissonance reduction is a case in point. It’s a psychological process in which displeasing facts are argued away. In another related psychological process, called confirmation bias, people are only open to and look for facts that confirm their views.
Such psychological mechanisms often work unconsciously. However, it also happens that the facts are consciously adapted to the truth for manipulative reasons. This can be done for gain, in order to mould people to one’s will for commercial or political reasons, and so on. This can be done by telling half-truths or half-lies. Or facts are shoved aside or even ignored. And what if others bring to light that you are doing so and confront you with the facts as they are? Oh, it’s not necessary then to acknowledge that you made a mistake and to make your excuses. Isn’t it so that everything that happens is open to different interpretations? Just ignore the facts they throw in your face and say that you have alternative facts, whatever it may mean. It’s always possible that your followers will believe you. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

- Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin Books, London, 2012
- Journal of Alternative Facts:

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