Thoughts (and Tips) for Living in A Post-Factual Society #skpoli

Largely because of the Donald Trump campaign but in various other ways as well, more and more people are talking about how we’ve come to be living in a “post-factual” society where many people no longer even attempt to use logic, reason and critical thinking to form (and change!) their opinions.

It can seem as if we are living in a world where fact, truth, and evidence no longer exert the rational pull they once did. Our landscape of fake news sites, junk science, politicians blithely dismissive of fact-checks, and Google searches that appear to make us dumber, renders truth redundant. We are rudderless on a dark sea where, as Nietzsche said, there are no facts, only interpretations. – Mark Kingwell, Globe & Mail

Instead, people seem to increasingly make decisions based on everything from what forwarded e-mail shows up in their inbox to what they hear on coffee row to basing their opinions on extremely small sample sizes (“Well, there was a lot of snow last winter so climate change can’t be real.”) to even just what “feels” right.

When corrected with actual facts, these people will rarely admit they could be wrong but instead, often even become more extreme in their positions.

What’s significant is that rational push-back on this dangerous nonsense has so little traction. Correction used to cause shame and confusion; now it just prompts a rhetorical double-down. A lot of people are saying this! Actually important things – climate change, foreign policy – get dragged along for the moronic ride. – Kingwell

In the past year, I have seen numerous examples of this first-hand:

  • A person with a grade twelve education who has a great job with amazing benefits in a union but also hates his union and says he is “100%” on the side of his employer because “the union asks for the moon”.  But he also can’t explain what he means by that.
  • A vocal supporter of oil & gas development as the driver of the Canadian economy refuses to believe that jobs in renewable energy already outnumber jobs in the non-renewable sector and non-renewables are shaping up to the equivalent of being a “horse & buggy maker” just as the car was revolutionizing the world and leaving the old technology behind.  (PS – I need a better analogy because this one confuses people – “But you’re saying oil & gas are good because cars took over from buggies!”  Er, no.  No I’m not!) 😉
  • (Numerous) people who feel their taxes are too high/they don’t want their taxes to support “those” people/they’d be better off without any government services at all without acknowledging all that taxes do for them – from roads to schools to hospitals and more.  And especially that we all benefit as a society from what taxes give us – even if we don’t realise it.  Think of a business owner who doesn’t have kids but benefits from having educated employees who went through a good school system.  Or I’ll even concede that, although I’m not a huge fan of the military, how those tax dollars help ensure I live in an extremely safe, peaceful country.
  • I’ve heard a similar anti-tax argument that everyone should be taxed at the same rate if we’re all “equal” without recognition that someone who makes $50,000 a year or even $75,000/year is a lot closer in life to someone making half that ($25,000 which is just above what someone working full-time at minimum wage makes) than the CEO of a company who makes $500,000 or a million bucks or even more and also how much difference that can make in terms of disposable income, even if the richer people pay a higher marginal rate.  (Hell, or trying to get people to understand what a marginal tax rate *is*!)
  • A middle-aged woman, who long ago participated in a social program to help young unwed mothers integrate into the workforce and now works at the highest levels of government isn’t a fan of spending on social programs.
  • Someone convinced that marijuana is a major gateway drug leading to heroin addiction even though there is little to no reputable research showing this link.
  • Numerous people who think that selling off profitable public liquor stores which put their profits back into government services and create good paying, middle-class jobs for people in the community are worth giving up so we have a liquor store on every corner, a bunch of poverty-level $10/hr minimum wage jobs and profits now being shipped to Toronto, New York and Seattle Washington instead of staying within our province, all in the hopes that a 2-4 of Molson Canadian will cost a couple bucks less.
  • Same thing with those who think selling off a hugely profitable Crown Corporation like SaskTel *won’t* end up meaning they’ll pay hundreds of dollars more per month in fees when *all existing evidence* says otherwise.  You can literally go to Bell.ca right now and say you’re in Saskatchewan and then say you’re in Alberta and see two vastly different rates for the same phone plan!
  • That the Oilers are a better team than the Flames.  This was a tougher argument to counter in the 1980’s when the Oilers had Gretzky and won a bunch of Stanley Cups. But lately?  No contest.

This isn’t just about politics and general issues of society though – it could have a very real tangible effect on institutions (and careers) that are focused on providing accurate, timely, well-researched information. 🙁

So what’s the solution?  Research has, unfortunately, shown that facts alone do *not* change people’s minds.  But there are some techniques that do work:

  • People will abandon a false belief *if* they have a compelling alternate explanation/theory.
  • They are more likely to change their minds if presented with factual information unemotionally in a chart/graph form (which apparently makes it look more “official” than just hearing it.)
  • This last technique will be even more effective if the person is also encouraged to discuss something that they feel good about or that makes them feel good about themselves.
  • The SPICE method has been show to work – Simplicity, Perceived Self-Interest, Incongruity, Confidence, Empathy.

Someone even analysed the “Change My View” sub-Reddit to see what appeared to influence people, at least in written debates.  They found:

  • Facts work
  • More people chiming in on the other side of the issue can help sway an opinion
  • Hedging rather than taking a hard line softens your stance but also makes it easier for the other person to shift.
  • The language a person uses can show if they’re even open to change (if they say “I”, they are; if they say “We”, not so much.)

Fascinating stuff.

One final thought about the impact of the Internet on all of this.  Some people say the Internet will save us since all claims are instantly fact-checkable whereas other people say there’s too much noise out there to find the good info.

I read an insightful comment from a professor online somewhere who was asked if the Internet made his students smarter or dumber?

He replied that the answer was “both” – the Internet makes the smart students even smarter by giving them an unlimited world of knowledge, arguments and facts…if they are smart enough to recognize which sites and sources are reliable.  On the other hand, dumb students have more ways to confirm their already incorrect assumptions and biases via the numerous channels that are equally unreliable, inaccurate and even fantastical.

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  1. From Head Tale - The Need to Read: Books Remain One of the Best Ways of Engaging With the World, Becoming A Better Person and Understanding Life’s Questions on 27 Nov 2016 at 10:25 pm

    […] is a great article from the Wall Street Journal which is extra relevant in the post-factual world of Donald Trump (who, just today, is now claiming he not only won the electoral college but also won the popular […]

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