Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Selecting the right 'facts'

A lot of analysis of who voted which way, in relation to both Brexit and Trump, has highlighted the fact that level of educational attainment is a good indicator of the way people voted.  The existence of that correlation is inarguable, but correlation isn’t the same as causality, and there’s an obvious danger that trying to explore the issue can sound like a form of intellectual snobbery.  I’m not sure, however, that educational attainment is the right factor here – it looks to me more a problem of people’s willingness to believe things which are untrue.  That’s about much more than the level of paper qualifications which people gain, and whilst there may be a correlation with education levels, it’s a problem which can also afflict apparently well-educated individuals as well.  We seem to live in a world where people are increasingly behaving as though they are not just entitled to their own opinions, they’re entitled to their own facts as well.

Michael Gove’s famous statement that people have had enough of experts seemed to be an attempt to tap into this tendency to believe in an alternative reality.  What do ‘experts’ know about anything?

Take the question of creationism, or intelligent design, for example.  I was surprised to read recently that over 40% of Americans believe that the earth was created, as it currently is, less than 10,000 years ago.  Despite all the advances in science and understanding – many of them originating in the USA – there’s a huge undercurrent that simply rejects it all.  And they have apparently serious politicians whose response is to argue that evolution is merely one theory, and that alternative theories have equal validity and should therefore be taught alongside evolution in science classes.  The UK isn’t immune to this nonsense and has taken formal steps to ban it from schools, although the problem hasn’t reached US levels.  I don’t know which way creationists voted in the US elections, but I suspect that there were rather more in the Trump camp than the Clinton camp.

Or take climate change.  Trump is clearly an out-and-out rejecter of the idea that human activity is causing climate change, and of the idea that we should do anything about it.  Climate change denial is a strong thread in UKIP as well, and there are more than a few sceptical Tories.  Again, it’s an issue where the science is strong and clear, but people choose to reject it.  Alternative views which can be extracted from a quick internet trawl are obviously as valid as those of scientists who’ve spent their entire working lives in the field, aren’t they?  Obviously not, yet plenty choose to believe that they are.

And then there’s immigration.  All the facts show clearly that immigration makes a net positive contribution to the economy, and that immigrants are more likely to be net contributors to public services than to make disproportionate use of them.  But mere facts don’t fit the prejudices, so are ignored.  Worse, because electors ignore them, some politicians seem to think that they must do so too.  Supposing that a survey showed that large numbers of people believed the world to be flat – would a Labour politician say that ‘we must change our policies to accommodate people’s legitimate concerns about the shape of the world’?  How different is that, in principle, from their position on immigration?

This fact-free approach to politics is fed and nurtured by some sections of the tabloid press, who freely distort facts or even publish outright lies and then call them ‘news’.  It’s understandable that anyone who gets his or her ‘news’ from such sources will end up at the very least confused about reality.  What’s a lot less easy to understand is why politicians fall in with this instead of challenging it.  There is plenty of scope for policy disagreement based on real facts; we don’t need alternative ‘facts’ as well.


Cai Larsen said...

May I suggest that the educational level thing follows from a correlation between education & social status?

Globalisation benefited some & harmed others. Those whom it harmed were in general at the bottom of the social heap & thus less likely to have been well educated.

Leigh Richards said...

Post election analysis has revealed that 80 percent of evangelical christians voted for trump (and creationism is of course a bedrock belief among such people). Given the narrowness of his victory in some states terrifying to think it was the creationists 'wot won it' for trump.


Democritus said...

Have to distinguish in our terminology the distinction between absolute truth (the Earth is spherical - not round) which is scientifically testable and can comfortably withstand really robust challenge vis a vis believed or received truths (this is my truth - now tell me yours) which include most major religions and political ideologies and may be deeply felt - but do not rest on testable propositions and must not be immune from challenge.

I fear your correlation of the controversies around policy on evolution and immigration (possibly deliberately) mixes these up. Evolution is true in the sense it is a scientific and testable theory that has resisted innumerable attempts to disprove it. The net positive effect of immigration is more contested even among experts. Nobody seriously suggests that completely unlimited immigration could be compatible with present day welfare states for instance. It's also far harder to empirically test theories about the effects because of the difficulty of controlling for other variables. In essence our own personal perception of the Truth on immigration probably has more to do with our individual attitudes and upbringing than the hard evidence unearthed by economists and sociologists. The Climate change debate is an interesting hybrid of both sorts of Truth in that there is reasonably strong evidence to support the basic carbon dioxide influences global temperature proposition, but to partisans on either side the science is clearly ancillary to their deeply felt beliefs which for them have the status of received Truth.

Regrettably this distinction is rarely imparted in compulsory education and often acquired along the way in the course of achieving a college degree - so perhaps this IS in fact one theory as to why people with college degrees were so down on the Donald ...

Anonymous said...

The belief in flat earth is currently one of the fastest growing phenomenon on social media. Try going onto Facebook and looking for flat earth groups. Interestly they use the same sort of rhetoric as the brexiters, climate change denialists etc. Round earth believers are stupid elitist "globeheads" who believe what experts say and look down on people with different opinions.

John Dixon said...


I'd accept many of the points which you make about 'facts' being rather more complex, but the point that I was trying to make is that there is a common streak in which people not only reject facts, but seek to have their own 'facts' given the same level of credibility. I'm not exactly an avid reader of the Express, but merely seeing the headlines on the newsstands is enough - the problem is that some of those who do read this daily really do believe that they are reading factual reportage rather than fiction. I don't entirely agree with the points you make about immigration; but since this post wasn't really about that subject as such, I'm not going to expand on that here.

I really do believe that we should worry about the lack of understanding about the difference between facts supported by hard or even hard-ish evidence and those which emerge solely out of prejudice and belief. You and I could handily debate the question of degree to which 'facts' are supported by evidence, but for far too many - including some in positions of power and influence - this would be an unnecessary level of sophistry; they already 'know' the truth.

Democritus said...

I've been catching up with today's debate about whether Google & Facebook should be doing something to weed out so called "false news" from search results or timelines. Whether this filtering is done by an army of employees or a really sophisticated algorithm the suggestion that Mark Zuckerberg or Sergei Brin should just decide what 'news' is right and in my interests to learn about strikes me as positively sinister.
Thankfully it would surely be unconstitutional in the US. Not sure how seriously Trump takes the first amendment, but there's only one vacancy on SCOTUS so far.
Facebook and Google have to operate within the law across multiple jurisdictions many of which require them to take proportionate action to remove pornographic or fraudulent material. The promotion of maliciously false or defamatory allegations is also already dealt with in most jurisdictions, although unlike the first two examples it is more usually up to affected individuals and corporations to trace and prosecute. Moreover there is less inter-juristictional co-operation in the later instance as 1st Amendment type constitutional or Basic Law protections exists in some countries (USA, New Zealand) but not others (UK, Australia).
I suppose I don't really object to Google tweaking the algorithms that place adverts on sites if it is driven by advertisers understandable desires to avoid reputational damage by association, but i'd be disappointed if a consequence were to lose the daily mash ... no present day algorithm can possibly filter satire from propaganda.

John Dixon said...

Indeed. It's like asking the question that the Romans found difficult - Quis costodiet ipsos custodes? (Hope I've got the Latin just about right!) How would any algorithm, for instance decide whether me calling for a banner warning such as "Reading this will seriously distort your understanding of reality" to be inserted on the front pages of the Mail and Express was a serious suggestion or mere satire?

Anonymous said...

Apologies that is somewhat tangential to the point of the article, but I don't think it is true to say that the UK has made moves to ban the teaching of creationism in schools. The UK Government may have done so in relation to schools in England but that doesn't amount to the same thing at all. What is effectively 'English' news is often presented as UK news by the media generally and I fear that on this occasion you may have inadvertantly fallen into the same trap.

John Dixon said...

I'll accept that the wording was a bit loose here. The 'loophole' through which creationism could appear in UK schools was through free schools and academies, and they only exist in England. If I'd included the bit about free schools and academies, it would have been clearer.

Democritus said...

One could cheekily argue that creationism is an official, semi-compulsory, part of the ideology of all Roman Catholic and Church in Wales maintained schools in Wales - just features in Religious Education, not Biology / Human Sciences ... when they teach the story of Genesis I bet they don't give equal time to explaining Dawkins refutation

John Dixon said...

.... and I'd be inclined to agree. I think there's a good argument for the complete secularization of education, but that's a bit off-point here. At least, though, it is, as you say, being taught under the heading of religion, not science. The point I was making really relates more to those who argue, seriously, that it should be taught in science lessons as an equally valid view.