Much has been said this political cycle about the scant use of facts by the candidates. My own b.s. meter has always been fairly sensitive, so I know this is nothing new in politics. But this season is especially egregious. So bad, that the top contender proudly fact-shames his opponents simply by “speaking his mind” even as he contradicts himself repeatedly. For some supporters, this actually makes him more credible! “We don’t want no inconvenient facts to get in the way of promoting fear and discontent as the basis for upholding our great American values.”
The Republicans have no monopoly on fact-stretching and bilious bloviation. Both Democratic candidates are adept at tossing out “truisms” that aren’t particularly true, and solutions that aren’t likely to be feasible, except under extraordinary assumptions about the future.
As we examine the arguments and information being presented to us, it is important to dissect the rhetoric to discern which pillars of logic are being used, and which are being dynamited. I learned a very useful approach from Professor Dana Meadows in a policy studies class in college. Professor Meadows had us read through various news stories, op-ed columns, or academic articles carefully, with different color highlighters at the ready.
Our assignment was to mark statements using different colors to show which were:
Facts- which statements are based on truly objective, verifiable information from independent and/or credible sources that few people can dispute? [We highlighted facts in a cool blue color.]
Assumptions- which statements are presumed to be true as a basis for further argument, or that are possibly true but unsubstantiated or in dispute? [We marked assumptions in green.]
Values- what statements are based primarily on social, religious or political preferences or beliefs, or are only true if one shares a common set of life choices or shared upbringing (e.g. religious or political values). [We indicated value-laden statements in pink.]
To Professor Meadows’ three types of information, I have since added a fourth type of statement to this exercise. Perceptions are statements that depend on how a person perceives the problem (or the world) based on the limited information available to them, by preconceptions, prejudices, or filters that might cause them to ignore or emphasize certain observations? [If you are now trying this at home, highlight perception-driven statements in yellow.]
By marking various sentences with each color, it is possible to see the building blocks an author uses to construct an argument. This is a good first step before evaluating a proposal or trying to resolve a dispute before us. Often parties to a debate go to great lengths to disguise one type of information as another, such as assumptions masquerading as facts, or values dressed as assumptions.
A fact might be the dollars spent in last year’s budget, or the percentage of female voters who live in a district. Of course, these numbers can, and sometimes are disputed, based on how they are collected or defined. Many of us have heard of the classic book “How to Lie with Statistics (Huff 1954).” But most facts can, in fact, be demonstrated to be objective, verifiable, and reasonably accurate. (A side note: just because someone says “in fact” doesn’t make it a fact!)
An assumption is often used as a jumping off point for an argument. “OK, let’s assume that Ben is right, and the deficit really is increasing…” Then another point is made based on that premise. But other times assumptions are hidden or masquerade as fact: “Well, we all know that the Governor will never sign that bill.” Or: “Voter turnout is always higher in a presidential election year.” Maybe it always has been higher, but that doesn’t mean it will be this cycle. We can only assume so. These assumptions disguised as fact are nefarious.
A value statement also can be veiled as fact: “Americans just won’t stand for that type of invasion of privacy.” Or, “of course, cutting taxes will be best in the long run.” These are values statements that sound like factual statements. While there may be evidence to support the statements, there are reasonable counterarguments, also based on evidence.
Perception has been the subject of philosophers, including Kant and Neitzsche, for hundreds of years, and studied by neuroscience researchers for decades. Kurt Vonnegut called our perception of the world our “peephole.” And noted author Robertson Davies summarized it thus: “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” We also know, through numerous controlled experiments, the eye and brain sometimes see only what they want to see (e.g. placebo effect and Rashomon effect).
Witness a black man driving a BMW, and some people immediately conclude he is a drug dealer, a car thief, or, if they are charitable, a pro athlete. Others would conclude he is a successful entrepreneur, a lawyer or a surgeon. See a white man driving a BMW and, well, most of us don’t even notice the driver at all.
Recently, I was reminded of the power of perception when a friend suggested we meet for lunch at Seadog Brewpub. Thinking he would choose a restaurant near his office, my mind instantly locked onto the Sebago Brewpub, just down the road from him, even though he had actually written Seadog Brewpub in his email. Now, Seadog and Sebago are easy to confuse, but my preconception, based on a geographical bias, caused me to go to the wrong restaurant, because my perception was skewed by my own filter.
All this is to say that we not only need to be diligent fact-checkers and astute listeners, but we also need to be aware of how our own perceptions, values and biases affect how we process information. If not careful, most of us will resort to the same tricks and disguises when we craft our own arguments in a debate.
Once we have dissected the information being presented to us, and fully understand what is concrete and what is flimsy, we can then evaluate the argument, weigh our options, and make better choices. And by understanding how to properly use facts, assumptions and values, we can all make our own propositions stronger and more persuasive.
After all, none of the toughest issues is ever black & white.